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Stewart Rhodes, Oath Keepers founder, sentenced to 18 years for seditious conspiracy

Stewart Rhodes, founder of the citizen militia group known as the Oath Keepers, speaks during a rally outside the White House on June 25, 2017.
Susan Walsh
/
AP
Stewart Rhodes, founder of the citizen militia group known as the Oath Keepers, speaks during a rally outside the White House on June 25, 2017.

Updated May 25, 2023 at 6:47 PM ET

The founder of the far-right Oath Keepers group has been sentenced to 18 years in prison for his role in a seditious conspiracy to disrupt the electoral count, the stiffest punishment to date to stem from the violent assault on the Capitol on Jan. 6, 2021.

A jury in Washington, D.C., convicted Stewart Rhodes last November of the politically charged sedition charge and multiple other felonies. Given the rare nature of the charge, his prison term could influence any sentence Enrique Tarrio, the former chairman of the far-right Proud Boys group will face on the same charge later this summer.

"You, sir, present an ongoing threat and peril to this country ... and to the very fabric of our democracy," said U.S. District Judge Amit Mehta.

For the first time in a case related to the Jan. 6 attack, Judge Mehta found Rhodes' conduct amounted to terrorism, and factored that into his calculations under the advisory sentencing guidelines.

"Today's sentences reflect the grave threat the actions of these defendants posed to our democratic institutions," said Attorney General Merrick Garland. "The Justice Department will continue to do everything in our power to hold accountable those criminally responsible for the January 6th attack on our democracy."

Rhodes, a graduate of Yale Law School, pledged to appeal his conviction and sentence. His decision to testify in his own defense last year backfired after prosecutor Kathryn Rakoczy drew him out on inconsistencies in his account of his actions leading up to the Capitol siege and his penchant for conspiracy theories.

During the trial, the Justice Department presented the jury with thousands of messages from Rhodes and other Oath Keepers before, during and after the events of Jan. 6, including Rhodes' comments that "we aren't getting through this without a civil war" and "the final defense is us and our rifles."

Unlike several of his followers and co-defendants, Rhodes never entered the Capitol building, instead presiding over the action like a general on the battlefield, prosecutor Jeffrey Nestler told jurors last year.

Even after the violence that day, and after his arrest, Rhodes repeatedly invoked the prospect of political violence, the judge said. Citing Rhodes' smarts and charisma, Judge Mehta said those same qualities inspired dozens of people to travel to Washington for the electoral count — and what made Rhodes "dangerous."

In more than 20 minutes of remarks, Rhodes cast himself as a political prisoner and said the experience had been "surreal," likening himself to the protagonist in a Franz Kafka novel. "I believe this country is incredibly divided and this prosecution...is going to make things worse. I consider every J 6er to be a political prisoner because all of them are grossly overcharged."

Rhodes, who was interrupted by the judge and asked to wrap up, said his goal in prison is to become "an American Solzhenitsyn," referring to a Soviet dissident who spent time in a labor camp, and "to expose the criminality of this regime."

Judge Mehta rejected Rhodes' bid for leniency and his claims that he had been targeted for political reasons.

"A seditious conspiracy ... is among the most serious crimes an individual American can commit," Mehta said. "It is an offense against the people of this country."

Kelly Meggs, a co-defendant also convicted of seditious conspiracy and a former leader of Oath Keepers' Florida chapter, was sentenced to 12 years in prison. Meggs, in tears, described the separation from his family members, as his attorney Stanley Woodward asked the judge for mercy.

On Wednesday, the judge heard emotional accounts from police and congressional staffers who continue to suffer from aftershocks of the assault on their workplace.

"I used to enjoy coming to work each day proud to be a police officer but the defendants took all that away from me," said U.S. Capitol Police Officer Harry Dunn.

D.C. Metropolitan Police Officer Christopher Owens said his wife burst into tears after seeing his bruised and battered body when he finally returned home on Jan. 7, 2021. "My physical traumas and bruises have healed but the emotional trauma stays with me to this day," Owens said.

Terri McCullough, who served as chief of staff to former House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, D-Calif., said the Capitol became a crime scene. "The defendants violated our work place, our government and our democracy, but they did not succeed, democracy succeeded."

The Justice Department had asked for Rhodes to serve 25 years in prison. Rhodes' legal team, led by Phillip Linder and Lee Bright, requested time served, about a year and a half.

Copyright 2023 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

Carrie Johnson is a justice correspondent for the Washington Desk.