Prosecutors are seeking the most severe sentence yet in connection with the Jan. 6 attack on the Capitol — a 25-year prison term — for the founder and leader of the far-right Oath Keepers militia, characterizing it as a necessary punishment to deter future attacks against democracy.
The Justice Department says Stewart Rhodes and his allies were among the most significant drivers of the violence that unfolded at the Capitol, amassing a stockpile of weapons nearby in Virginia and dressing in military-style gear in a way that exacerbated the sense among the Jan. 6 mob that a revolution was underway.
In seeking the stiff sentence for Rhodes — on a rare seditious conspiracy conviction — prosecutors said that lengthy sentences are necessary for the survival of American democracy.
“As this Court is well aware, the justice system’s reaction to January 6 bears the weighty responsibility of impacting whether January 6 becomes an outlier or a watershed moment,” Assistant U.S. Attorney Jeffrey Nestler wrote in the 183-page sentencing memo. “Left unchecked, this impulse threatens our democracy.”
Prosecutors cited polling from earlier this year showing that one in five Americans believe political violence is sometimes justified and that one in 10 “believes it would be justified if it meant the return of President Trump.”
Rhodes was charged with seditious conspiracy last year alongside nearly a dozen Oath Keepers for their roles in the Jan. 6 attack. Prosecutors alleged that Rhodes embraced Donald Trump’s false claims that the 2020 presidential election was stolen and used it to mobilize Oath Keepers across the country to resist the results of the election.
“These defendants were prepared to fight. Not for their country, but against it,” prosecutors wrote in their sentencing memo. “In their own words, they were ‘willing to die’ in a ‘guerilla war’ to achieve their goal of halting the transfer of power after the 2020 Presidential Election. … These defendants played a central and damning role in opposing by force the government of the United States, breaking the solemn oath many of them swore as members of the United States Armed Forces.”
In an eight-week trial last year, prosecutors presented evidence that the group planned to descend on Washington, D.C., on Jan. 6 in response to Trump’s call about two weeks earlier for supporters to “be there, will be wild.” They stockpiled weapons, which prosecutors contend were meant to be available if the mob’s clash with police turned even more violent than it did, at a Comfort Inn in Arlington, Va.
Rhodes, an Army veteran, Yale Law School graduate and disbarred attorney, was one of a pair of Oath Keepers convicted by a jury last November on rare seditious conspiracy charges for planning an assault on the Capitol as Congress was tallying the electoral votes as part of the process transitioning power from Trump to President Joe Biden.
The other person convicted on the marquee charge was Kelly Meggs, a leader of the Florida Oath Keepers. Three Oath Keepers members tried with Rhodes and Meggs were acquitted of seditious conspiracy, but convicted on other felony charges.
Four other Oath Keepers were convicted of seditious conspiracy at a second trial in January. And three more pleaded guilty to seditious conspiracy over the past year.
In addition to the nine Oath Keepers who have been convicted of seditious conspiracy, five members of the far-right Proud Boys have also been convicted of or pleaded guilty to the charge. Four of them, including the group’s national leader Enrique Tarrio, were found guilty by a jury on Thursday. The sentencing recommendation for Rhodes is a window into the likely sentence that prosecutors will seek for Tarrio and his allies.
The recommendation for the stiff prison term for Rhodes was sent Friday night to U.S. District Court Judge Amit Mehta, who has presided over three jury trials for Oath Keepers members. A fourth is slated to take place later this year.
Mehta, an appointee of former President Barack Obama, has scheduled sentencing for Rhodes, Meggs and several other convicted Oath Keepers over a series of dates in late May and early June.
Prosecutors also announced in their Friday night submission that they are seeking similarly lengthy sentences for others convicted in the Oath Keepers trials to date, including: 21 years for Meggs, 18 years for Jessica Watkins, 17 years for Roberto Minuta, 17 years for Ed Vallejo, 15 years for Kenneth Harrelson and 14 years for Thomas Caldwell. Each of them would equal or exceed the lengthiest sentences given to Jan. 6 defendants so far.
Prosecutors arrived at those steep sentencing recommendations in part by labeling the actions of Rhodes and his co-conspirators “terrorism,” defined in the criminal code as “acts that were intended to influence the government through intimidation or coercion.” The Justice Department has sought this enhancement in relatively few Jan. 6 cases and with limited success.
Judges declined to adopt it in several cases against high-profile Jan. 6 defendants — but none had been convicted of seditious conspiracy and none were alleged to have played as large a role in the Jan. 6 attack as Rhodes and his allies.
Prosecutors also dinged Rhodes and several allies for participating in post-trial interviews in which they defended their actions on Jan. 6. Rhodes, in particular, they said “continues to invoke the words and deeds of the Founding Fathers in not-so-veiled calls for violent opposition to the government.”
About 1,000 people have been charged criminally in connection with the Jan. 6, 2021 riot at the Capitol, but prosecutors said Rhodes and other members of the fiercely anti-government Oath Keepers deserve lengthy prison sentences because they were instigators of the unrest and violence that broke out that day.
While the vast majority of those charged entered the Capitol building, Rhodes and Tarrio were convicted on the serious seditious conspiracy charge despite never setting foot in the building that day. Rhodes was in Washington and marched with Oath Keepers members, but remained in a parking lot as rioters entered the building and clashed with police. Tarrio had been arrested by police a couple of days before and was in Baltimore when the violence unfolded on Jan. 6 after being ordered to leave Washington.
While the 25-year recommendation for Rhodes is the lengthiest yet in Jan. 6 cases, it is only slightly longer than the 24-year, six-month sentence prosecutors sought for a man sentenced Friday for repeatedly assaulting police officers during the riot.
A jury convicted Peter Schwartz, 49, last December on assault and civil disorder charges for throwing a chair at police and spraying them with pepper spray, all while armed with a wooden tire knocker. According to prosecutors, unlike many Jan. 6 defendants, Schwartz had “a substantial violent criminal history.”
Mehta, the same judge handling the Oath Keeper’s cases, sentenced Schwartz to 14 years in prison. While that was more than a decade short of what prosecutors asked for, it was the longest sentence yet for a Jan. 6 offender. The next longest was also handed out by Mehta: 10 years for Thomas Webster, a retired New York City police officer who assaulted a D.C. cop on the front lines of the Capitol riot. Prosecutors had sought a 17-and-a-half year term in that case.