The leader of the far-right anti-government militia group the Oath Keepers was sentenced to 18 years in prison, after federal prosecutors argued that Stewart Rhodes committed an act of terrorism by conspiring to commit treason in what became a violent attempt to overturn the results of an American election.
Last year, a jury found Rhodes guilty of seditious conspiracy in connection with the attack on the US Capitol on 6 January 2021. He wore a prison-issued orange jumpsuit to his sentencing hearing in US District Court in Washington DC on 25 May.
His sentencing is the first among January 6 defendants convicted of seditious conspiracy, and the first among hundreds of cases stemming from the attack that includes additional terrorism-related penalties.
Federal prosecutors sought a sentence of 25 years, with an enhanced sentence for crimes they compared to terrorism, arguing in court filings that “the need to deter others is especially strong” because Rhodes “engaged in acts that were intended to influence the government through intimidation or coercion.”
“In other words, terrorism,” prosecutors wrote.
Rhodes, speaking in his defense for more than 20 minutes at his sentencing hearing, called himself a “political prisoner.”
His only crime, he said, was “opposing those who are destroying our country,” comparing himself to Donald Trump, whose baseless narrative that the 2020 presidential election was stolen from him fuelled the siege in the halls of Congress.
“Under my oath, I cannot ignore the text of the Constitution,” said Rhodes, who was convicted of plotting an attempt to oppose the constitutionally mandated transfer of presidential power.
US District Judge Amit Mehta told the court on 25 May that seditious conspiracy “is among the most serious crimes an individual American can commit” and an “offense against the people of the country.”
“What we cannot have, we absolutely cannot have, is a group of citizens who because they didn’t like the outcome … were then prepared to take up arms in order to foment a revolution. That’s what you did,” he told Rhodes. “You are not a political prisoner, Mr Rhodes.”
For decades, Rhodes wanted American democracy to “devolve into violence,” Judge Mehta said.
“You, sir, present an ongoing threat and a peril to this country and its democracy and the very fabric of this country,” he added. “You are smart, you are compelling, and you are charismatic. Frankly, that is what makes you dangerous.”
Rhodes, expressing no remorse for his actions, sought leniency for his sentence after his November conviction alongside several other Oath Keepers members who faced a range of federal charges for their roles in the riots.
After a nearly two-month trial, Rhodes and Oath Keepers member Kelly Meggs were found guilty of seditious conspiracy after jurors deliberated for three full days. Three other Oath Keepers associates were charged in the case but were found not guilty.
Jurors were asked to consider whether the Oath Keepers were not only motivated by Mr Trump’s baseless narrative but also had planned to forcibly disrupt the peaceful transfer of power during a joint session of Congress.
Rhodes and his allies spent weeks discussing a violent response to the 2020 election on encrypted messaging apps, then organised a weapons and supply cache at a nearby hotel before joining the mob that broke through the Capitol’s doors and windows to storm the halls of Congress and block the certification of Joe Biden’s presidency, according to federal prosecutors.
Rhodes and Meggs – who were also charged alongside Jessica Watkins, Kenneth Harrelson and Thomas Caldwell – were among the first Americans to be convicted of treason-related charges in decades, representing the largest case with the most serious charges to grow out of the sprawling criminal investigation from the US Department of Justice.
All five defendants were found guilty of obstruction of an official proceeding of Congress.
Meggs and Watkins were also found guilty of conspiracy to obstruct.
Federal prosecutors did not allege that the group had a plan to break into the Capitol but had conspired to commit an act of treason against the federal government.
“They took matters out of the hands of the people, and put rifles into their own hands,” assistant US attorney Jeffrey Nestler told jurors during his closing remarks in the trial last year. “They claimed to wrap themselves in the constitution. They trampled it instead. They claimed to be saving the Republic, but they fractured it.”
Fourteen others connected to the January 6 attack, including the leader of the neo-fascist gang the Proud Boys and three of his lieutenants, have either been convicted by a jury or pleaded guilty on charges of seditious conspiracy in the aftermath of the riots – major victories for the Justice Department. More than 1,000 people have been arrested in connection with the attack.
Rhodes and Meggs “not only contributed to the attack on the Capitol but helped to organize it” and their sentences “will be noted by those who would foment such political violence in the future,” prosecutors wrote in court filings.
In those documents, federal prosecutors outlined – for the first time – what the Justice Department believes is an appropriate prison sentence for a defendant convicted of sedition in connection with the attack.
“These defendants attempted to silence millions of Americans who had placed their vote for a different candidate, to ignore the variety of legal and judicial mechanisms that lawfully scrutinized the electoral process leading up to and on January 6, and to shatter the democratic system of governance enshrined in our laws and in our Constitution,” prosecutors wrote in the filing. “And when they did not get what they wanted, they acted by together attacking the very people and place at the very time when those laws were in action.”
“These defendants are in part responsible for that national tragedy” and played “significant roles in spreading doubt about the presidential election and turning others against the government, and they are incomparable to the actions of single actors on January 6,” according to prosecutors.