MICHAEL KUNZELMAN and ALANNA DURKIN RICHER
Jury selection began Tuesday in the trial of the founder of the Oath Keepers extremist group and four associates charged with seditious conspiracy, one of the most serious cases to emerge from the Jan. 6, 2021, attack on the U.S. Capitol.
Amid complaints by attorneys for Stewart Rhodes and the others that they can’t get a fair jury in Washington, the judge began winnowing the pool of potential jurors who will decide the fate of the first Jan. 6 defendants to stand trial on the rare Civil War-era charge.
The case against Rhodes and his Oath Keeper associates is the biggest test yet for the Justice Department in its massive Jan. 6 prosecution and is being heard in federal court not far from the Capitol. Seditious conspiracy can be difficult to prove, and the last guilty trial verdict was nearly 30 years ago.
Prosecutors have accused Rhodes of leading a weekslong plot to violently stop the transfer of presidential power from election-denier Donald Trump to Joe Biden that culminated with Oath Keepers dressed in battle gear storming the Capitol on Jan. 6.
Jury selection could take several days and the trial is expected to last at least five weeks.
U.S. District Judge Amit Mehta on Tuesday denied defense attorney’s latest bid to move the trial out of Washington. The judge acknowledged that no juries have acquitted Jan. 6 defendants so far, but said that doesn’t tell him about “bias or inherent bias of jurors in the District of Columbia.”
The court already had dismissed more than two dozen potential jurors before Tuesday, including a journalist who had covered the events of Jan. 6. and someone else who described that day “one of the single most treasonous acts in the history of this country.”
The judge disqualified several other people Tuesday based on concerns about their impartiality. One man recalled the fear and “trauma” that he experienced on Jan. 6. Mehta also disqualified a woman who said she used to work as a House staffer on Capitol Hill and still has many friends who work there.
“I was really afraid for their lives that day,” she said.
Others excused from the jury pool include an attorney who questioned why hundreds of people have been charged with Capitol riot offenses when some of them appeared to him to be “just standing around.” Another was a man who said he raised money for Biden’s 2020 presidential campaign and expressed negative impressions of the Oath Keepers
Phillip Linder, an attorney for Rhodes, urged the judge to disqualify another man who said he has a close family friend who works for a House member and recalled watching livestreamed video of the Capitol attack. The judge called it a “close call” but declined to disqualify the man who said he could set aside what he has heard about the Oath Keepers.
Hundreds of people have already been convicted of joining the mob that overran police barriers, beat officers and smashed windows, sending lawmakers fleeing and halting the certification of Biden’s electoral victory.
In a different court on Tuesday, a judge handed down one of the longest sentences so far in the riot. Kyle Young of Redfield, Iowa, was ordered to serve seven years in prison after he admitted to assaulting then-Metropolitan Police Officer Michael Fanone.
Prosecutors will try to show that an Oath Keepers’ plot to stop Biden from becoming president started well before that, in fact before all the votes in the 2020 race had even been counted.
On trial with Rhodes, of Granbury Texas, are Thomas Caldwell, of Berryville, Virginia; Kenneth Harrelson, of Titusville, Florida; Jessica Watkins of Woodstock, Ohio, and Kelly Meggs of Dunnellon, Florida.
Caldwell, a retired U.S. Navy intelligence officer and the only defendant released from jail ahead of trial, walked with a cane as he slowly entered the courthouse wearing a dark suit.
Authorities say Rhodes, a former U.S. Army paratrooper and a Yale Law School graduate, spent weeks mobilizing his followers to prepare to take up arms to defend Trump. The Oath Keepers repeatedly wrote in chats about the prospect of violence, stockpiled guns and put “quick reaction force” teams on standby outside Washington to get weapons into the city quickly if needed, authorities say.
On Jan. 6, Oath Keepers were captured on camera storming the Capitol in military-style “stack” formation. Rhodes isn’t accused of going inside the Capitol, but phone records show he was communicating with Oath Keepers who did enter around the time of the riot and he was seen with members outside afterward.
Conviction for seditious conspiracy calls for up to 20 years behind bars. The last time prosecutors secured a seditious conspiracy conviction at trial was in 1995 in the case against Islamic militants who plotted to bomb New York City landmarks.
Three of Rhodes’ Oath Keepers followers have pleaded guilty to the charge and are likely to testify against him at trial. Rhodes’ lawyers have claimed those Oath Keepers were pressured into pleading guilty and are lying to get a better sentencing deal from the government.
On Tuesday, Rhodes’ lawyers asked the judge to bar prosecutors and witnesses from using words such as “antigovernment” or “extremists” in describing the Oath Keepers to jurors, saying in court documents that it would “add nothing but prejudice into what already promises to be an emotionally charged trial.”
Rhodes’ attorneys have suggested that his defense will focus on his belief that Trump would invoke the Insurrection Act and call up a militia to support his bid to stay in power. Defense attorneys say Rhodes’ actions in the weeks leading up to Jan. 6 were in preparation for what he believed would have been lawful orders from Trump under the Insurrection Act, but never came.
The defense has said that Oath Keepers were dressed in helmets and goggles to protect themselves from possible attacks from left-wing antifa activists and that the “quick reaction force” outside Washington was meant for defensive purposes if Trump invoked the Insurrection Act.
Nearly 900 people have been charged so far in the Jan. 6 riot and more than 400 have pleaded guilty or been convicted at trial.
Sentences for the rioters so far have ranged from probation for low-level misdemeanor offenses to 10 years in prison for a retired New York City police officer who used a metal flagpole to assault an officer at the Capitol.
Associated Press journalist Mike Pesoli contributed to this report from Washington.