US Capitol riot: Four Oath Keepers guilty of seditious conspiracy

The verdict marks a major victory for the US Department of Justice in its push to prosecute those involved in the January 6, 2021 riot.

Oath Keepers during the January 6 2021 riots.
Prosecutors accused members of the far-right Oath Keepers of taking part in a conspiracy to violently halt the peaceful transfer of United States presidential power on January 6, 2021 [File: Jim Bourg/Reuters]

A jury in the United States has convicted four members of the far-right Oath Keepers of seditious conspiracy over their roles in the US Capitol riot, as authorities continue to prosecute individuals accused of plotting to keep former President Donald Trump in power.

The 12-member jury found Oath Keepers David Moerschel, Joseph Hackett, Roberto Minuta and Edward Vallejo guilty of seditious conspiracy on Monday. All four members also were found guilty of various obstruction and felony charges.

The verdict marked the end of the second major sedition trial against members of the extremist group, who were among the hundreds who attacked the Capitol on January 6, 2021, in an unsuccessful attempt to prevent Congress from certifying Joe Biden’s 2020 election victory over Trump.

“The defendants could not let the election stand,” federal prosecutor Louis Manzo said in closing arguments last week. “They could not let Biden come to power.”

The judge in the case did not immediately set a date for sentencing on Monday. A rarely prosecuted, Civil War-era law that prohibits plotting to overthrow or destroy the government, seditious conspiracy carries up to 20 years in prison.

The convictions represent a major victory for the US Department of Justice, which has charged more than 950 people with crimes in relation to the Capitol attack. At least 192 people have been sentenced to time behind bars, according to the department.

The leader of the Oath Keepers, Stewart Rhodes, and Florida chapter leader Kelly Meggs were convicted of seditious conspiracy in November. Three other Oath Keepers were cleared of the charge in that case but were found guilty of other serious crimes.

During his trial, Rhodes denied that there was a deliberate plan to enter the US Capitol on January 6. “There was no plan to enter the building for any purpose,” he told jurors, calling the decision of some Oath Keepers to go into the Capitol “stupid”.

However, US prosecutors told jurors that Rhodes and other members of the far-right group began shortly after the 2020 elections to prepare an armed rebellion to keep Trump in power.

Messages show Rhodes and the Oath Keepers discussing the prospect of a “bloody” civil war and the need to keep Biden out of the White House.

“Our democracy was under attack, but for the defendants, it was everything they trained for and a moment to celebrate,” Manzo, the prosecutor, told jurors in his closing arguments.

Prosecutors also alleged that the Oath Keepers amassed weapons and stashed them at a Virginia hotel for so-called “quick reaction force” teams that could quickly shuttle guns into Washington, DC, to support their plot if they were needed. The weapons were never used.

Defence attorneys sought to downplay the violent messages as mere bluster and said the Oath Keepers came to Washington to provide security at events before the riot.

They seized on prosecutors’ lack of evidence that the Oath Keepers had an explicit plan to storm the US Capitol before January 6 and told jurors that the extremists who attacked the Capitol acted spontaneously like thousands of other rioters.

“They left evidence out and they picked and chose what they wanted,” said William Lee Shipley, a lawyer for Minuta.

Prosecutors argued that while there is not evidence specifically spelling out a plan to attack the US Capitol, the Oath Keepers saw the riot as a means to an end and sprung into action at an apparent opportunity to help keep Trump in power.

Hackett, Moerschel and other Oath Keepers approached the Capitol in a military-style stack formation before they entered the building, according to prosecutors. Minuta and his colleagues from a second group of Oath Keepers clashed with police after heeding Rhodes’s call to race to the Capitol, according to court documents.

Prosecutors said that Vallejo, a US Army veteran and Rhodes ally, drove from Arizona to prepare with the “QRF” — the quick reaction force — at the hotel outside Washington, DC. Jurors also heard an audio recording of Vallejo talking about a “declaration of a guerilla war” on the morning of January 6.

US Attorney General Merrick Garland has promised to ensure accountability for the Capitol attack, pledging last year that the ongoing investigations into what happened would go on “as long as it takes and whatever it takes for justice to be done”.

Another sedition trial is currently under way for five members of the far-right Proud Boys group, including the organisation’s former leader, Henry “Enrique” Tarrio.

Source: Al Jazeera and news agencies