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The Capitol Riot Trial of the Oathkeepers, Explained


WASHINGTON (AP) — A trial beginning this week in Washington, DC, is the biggest test yet in the Justice Department’s efforts to hold accountable those responsible for the attack on the Capitol on January 6, 2021, a violent aggression that challenged the foundations of American democracy.

Extremist leader Stewart Rhodes, founder of extremist group Oath Keepers, and four associates are on trial. Prosecutors and defense attorneys will make their opening statements on Monday and the trial will last several weeks. Here’s a preview of what’s to come:

WHO ARE THE OATHHOLDERS?

The anti-government group was founded in 2009 by Rhodes, who attended Yale Law School and briefly served as a US Army paratrooper before a training accident injured his back.

The group was named after its stated goal of bringing former and current members of the military, first responders, and police officers to fulfill the promise they made to defend the Constitution against enemies. They issued a list of orders its members would not obey, such as disarming citizens, conducting warrantless searches, and detaining Americans as enemy combatants in violation of their right to jury trials.

This relatively benign framing and use of social media helped the group become one of the largest anti-government militia groups in US history, but the internal dialogue was often darker, experts said. Oath Keepers took part in the federal government’s clash with officials at Nevada’s Bundy Ranch in 2014, then on the rooftops of Ferguson, Mo., after a grand jury declined to indict a police officer in the shooting death of 18-year-old Michael Brown.

The group would eventually adopt the rhetoric of then-candidate Donald Trump and his false claims that the 2020 election was stolen.

WHY ARE THEY ON TRIAL?

On trial with Rhodes, Kelly Meggs, head of the Florida chapter of the Oath Keepers; Kenneth Harrelson, another Florida Oath Keeper; Thomas Caldwell, a retired US Navy intelligence officer from Virginia; and Jessica Watkins, who led a militia group in Ohio.

They have been charged with seditious conspiracy in one of the most high-profile cases following the Jan. 6 riot at the United States Capitol.

Prosecutors say they spent several weeks amassing weapons, organizing paramilitary training and preparing armed teams outside Washington to prevent Joe Biden from becoming president. The plot came to a head on January 6, 2021, when oath keepers wearing helmets and other combat gear were filmed pushing their way through crowds of angry Trump supporters and storming the Capitol in a military-style stack formation.

Prosecutors will say the insurrection, for the Guardians of the Oath, was not an impulsive protest, but part of a week-long serious plot to stop the transfer of power.

Oath keepers, for their part, say prosecutors misrepresented their words and insist there was never a plan to attack the Capitol. They say they were in Washington to provide security and preparations, training, equipment and weapons to protect against potential violence from leftist antifa activists or to be ready if Trump invoked the Insurrection Act to call a militia.

WHAT IS THE SEDITIOUS PLOT?

The Seditious Conspiracy Act was enacted after the Civil War to stop Southerners who might continue to fight the U.S. government. The charge has rarely been brought in recent history – with mixed results.

In this case, prosecutors will seek to prove that Rhodes and his associates conspired to forcibly oppose the authority of the federal government and forcibly block the execution of laws governing the transfer of presidential power.

This can be difficult to prove because prosecutors must show that the defendants did more than talk about the use of force, that they conspired to actually use it.

The last seditious conspiracy cases were filed in 2010, and these resulted in an acquittal. The last successful trial for seditious conspiracy was in 1995, when Egyptian cleric Sheikh Omar Abdel-Rahman and nine supporters were convicted of a plot to blow up several monuments in New York and New Jersey.

It is punishable by 20 years in prison.

FILE – Oath Keepers founder Stewart Rhodes, center, speaks during a rally outside the White House in Washington, June 25, 2017. Federal prosecutors are preparing to lay out their case against the founder of the extremist Oath group Keepers and four associates. They are charged in the most serious case to come to trial to date in the attack on the US Capitol on January 6, 2021. Opening statements are expected Monday in federal court in Washington in the trial of Stewart Rhodes and others accused of seditious conspiracy. (AP Photo/Susan Walsh, File)

The Capitol Riot Trial of the Oathkeepers, Explained

FILE – Stewart Rhodes, founder of the Oath Keepers, speaks during a rally outside the White House in Washington, June 25, 2017. Federal prosecutors are preparing to lay out their case against the founder of the extremist group the Oath Keepers and four associates. They are charged in the most serious case to come to trial to date in the attack on the US Capitol on January 6, 2021. Opening statements are expected Monday in federal court in Washington in the trial of Stewart Rhodes and others accused of seditious conspiracy. (AP Photo/Susan Walsh, File)

The Capitol Riot Trial of the Oathkeepers, Explained

FILE – Thomas Caldwell of Berryville, Virginia, a defendant charged with seditious conspiracy in one of the most serious cases to emerge from the January 6, 2021 attack on the U.S. Capitol, arrives at the federal courthouse, September 28, 2022 , in Washington. Federal prosecutors are preparing to lay out their case against the founder of the extremist group Oath Keepers and four associates. They are charged in the most serious case to come to trial to date in the Jan. 6, 2021 attack on the U.S. Capitol. Opening statements are expected on Monday. (AP Photo/Manuel Balce Ceneta, File)



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