Prosecutors seek 25 years for group’s leader Stewart Rhodes in hearings expected to set standard for punishments to follow
Prosecutors will urge the judge on Thursday to put Rhodes behind bars for 25 years, which would be the harshest sentence by far handed down over the US Capitol attack.
Describing the Oath Keepers’ actions as “terrorism”, the justice department says stiff punishments are crucial.
“The justice system’s reaction to January 6 bears the weighty responsibility of impacting whether January 6 becomes an outlier or a watershed moment,” prosecutors wrote this month.
The hearings will begin on Wednesday with lawyers expected to argue over legal issues and the start of victim impact statements being read.
Rhodes, from Granbury, Texas, and the Florida chapter leader Kelly Meggs – who were convicted of seditious conspiracy in November – will receive their sentences on Thursday. Six more Oath Keepers will be sentenced this week and next.
Rhodes and Meggs were the first people in nearly three decades to be found guilty at trial of seditious conspiracy for what prosecutors described as a plot to stop the transfer of power from Donald Trump to Joe Biden. Three co-defendants were acquitted of sedition but convicted of obstructing certification of Biden’s victory. Another four Oath Keepers were convicted of sedition in January.
Prosecutors are seeking sentences ranging from 10 to 21 years for the Oath Keepers besides Rhodes. The judge canceled sentencing scheduled this week for one defendant, Thomas Caldwell of Berryville, Virginia, as he weighs whether to overturn a guilty verdict on two charges.
Prosecutors are urging the judge to apply enhanced penalties for terrorism, arguing the Oath Keepers sought to influence the government through “intimidation or coercion”. Judges have so far rejected a request to apply the so-called “terrorism enhancement” in a handful of January 6 cases but the Oath Keepers case is unlike any others that have reached sentencing.
“The defendants were not mere trespassers or rioters, and they are not comparable to any other defendant who has been convicted for a role in the attack on the Capitol,” prosecutors wrote.
More than 1,000 people have been charged with crimes stemming from the riot. Just over 500 have been sentenced, more than half receiving terms of imprisonment ranging from a week to more than 14 years. The longest sentence came earlier this month, for a man with a long criminal record who attacked police with pepper spray and a chair.
The sentences for the Oath Keepers may signal how much time prosecutors will seek for leaders of the Proud Boys convicted of seditious conspiracy this month. They include the former national chairman Enrique Tarrio, perhaps the most high-profile person charged. The Proud Boys are scheduled to be sentenced in August and September.
Prosecutors made the case that Rhodes and his followers prepared an armed rebellion to keep Biden out of the White House. Over seven weeks, jurors heard how Rhodes rallied followers to fight to defend Trump, discussed the prospect of a “bloody” civil war and warned the Oath Keepers may have to “rise up in insurrection”.
Jurors watched video of Rhodes’s followers wearing combat gear and shouldering through the crowd in military-style stack formation before forcing their way into the Capitol. They saw surveillance video at a Virginia hotel where prosecutors said Oath Keepers stashed weapons for “quick reaction force” teams which never deployed.
Rhodes, who did not go inside the Capitol, told jurors there was never any plan to attack the Capitol and his followers who did went rogue. His lawyers urged the judge to sentence him to roughly 16 months already served. Attorneys argued that Rhodes’s writings and statements are “protected political speech”.