WASHINGTON, D.C. - Jury selection began Tuesday for the seditious conspiracy trial of several members of the far-right militia group the Oath Keepers, including founder Stewart Rhodes of Granbury.
More than 870 people have been charged in connection to the attack on the U.S. Capitol on Jan. 6, 2021, but only 17 face seditious conspiracy charges — the most serious charge that any of the riot defendants have faced.
Rhodes and four other top members of the Oath Keepers, Kelly Meggs and Kenneth Harrelson, of Fla.; Jessica Watkins, of Ohio; and Thomas Caldwell of Va., have pleaded not guilty to the charges.
On Tuesday, 150 people filled out the jury questionnaire, and some two dozen were dismissed or already excused.
But not all who have heard something negative about the Oath Keepers are being released from service, including a woman who told the court she heard they were a right-wing anti-government group, adding she could check her biases.
The Oath Keepers have been consistently brought up by the U.S. House Select Committee on the Jan. 6th Attack. They are accused of plotting to obstruct the certification of the 2020 presidential election results.
Defense attorneys for the Oath Keepers have repeatedly tried to move the trial, arguing the amount of publicity in Washington prevents the dependents from being able to have an unbiased jury. They have also asked for delays saying they need more time to go through the large amount of evidence in the case but have not been successful.
Former U.S. Attorney Paul Coggins says there’s nowhere to go for the trial because the publicity has been everywhere for more than a year
"I think the court will take a good amount of time to select a jury where members will convince the court at least — even if they can't convince both sides — that they'll be able to listen to the evidence and make a decision based upon the evidence that they hear and the instruction that they get from the court," he said.
The indictment against Rhodes alleges Oath Keepers formed two teams, or "stacks," that entered the Capitol. The first "stack" split up inside the building to separately go after the House and Senate. The second "stack" confronted officers inside the Capitol Rotunda, the indictment said.
Outside Washington, the indictment alleges, the Oath Keepers had stationed two "quick reaction forces" that had guns "in support of their plot to stop the lawful transfer of power."
Authorities say Rhodes held a GoToMeeting call days after the election, telling his followers to go to Washington and let Trump know "that the people are behind him." Rhodes told members they should be prepared to fight antifa and that some Oath Keepers should "stay on the outside" and be "prepared to go in armed" if necessary.
"We're going to defend the president, the duly elected president, and we call on him to do what needs to be done to save our country. Because if you don't guys, you're going to be in a bloody, bloody civil war, and a bloody -- you can call it an insurrection or you can call it a war or fight," Rhodes said, according to court documents.
Rhodes himself is not accused of entering the Capitol building. He was arrested in Jan. 2021 at his home in Granbury.
"That's a challenge in a conspiracy type case about this it's easy to show a bunch of people were doing the same thing," said constitutional law attorney David Coale. "Proving somebody's specific role in this specifically when you are saying they are somewhat of a ring leader, you've got to take every step. And all it takes is for one not to work for you to get a judgment of acquittal."
More than 900 people have been charged in the Capitol riot. About 400 plus have pleaded guilty or have been convicted.
Rhodes and his co-defendants are the first to face the serious sedition charge that can carry a 20-year federal prison sentence if jurors believe the government.
"It's a high stakes trial the government. Obviously, what happened on Jan. 6 is a really big deal, and so we've had prosecutions with sort of the minor players so far and plea agreements and that sort of thing," Coale said. "But the government believes there was leadership. It was organized. And this is the trial where they are going to put all that on the table. They can either prove it or they can't."
There are other defendants waiting to face the same sedition charge. Based on outcomes here, others will decide to go to trial or try to cut a deal.
Five people are being tried together, but verdicts can be mixed and don't have to be unanimous for the group.
The last time the government won a sedition case was in the mid-nineties.
This trial could run as long as six or seven weeks.
What is seditious conspiracy?
Seditious conspiracy is a serious federal offense, with a 20-year maximum prison sentence. Here is the definition straight from 18 U.S.C. § 2384:
"If two or more persons in any State or Territory, or in any place subject to the jurisdiction of the United States, conspire to overthrow, put down, or to destroy by force the Government of the United States, or to levy war against them, or to oppose by force the authority thereof, or by force to prevent, hinder, or delay the execution of any law of the United States, or by force to seize, take, or possess any property of the United States contrary to the authority thereof, they shall each be fined under this title or imprisoned not more than twenty years, or both."
The last time U.S. prosecutors brought such a seditious conspiracy case was in 2010 in an alleged Michigan plot by members of the Hutaree militia to incite an uprising against the government. But a judge ordered acquittals on the sedition conspiracy charges at a 2012 trial, saying prosecutors relied too much on hateful diatribes protected by the First Amendment and didn't, as required, prove the accused ever had detailed plans for a rebellion.
Among the last successful convictions for seditious conspiracy stemmed from another, now largely forgotten storming of the Capitol in 1954, when four Puerto Rican nationalists opened fire on the House floor, wounding five representatives.
Who are the Oath Keepers?
The Oath Keepers, founded in 2009, is a loosely organized conspiracy theory-fueled group that recruits current and former military, police and first responders. It asks its members to vow to defend the Constitution "against all enemies, foreign and domestic," promotes the belief that the federal government is out to strip citizens of their civil liberties and paints its followers as defenders against tyranny.
More than two dozen people associated with the Oath Keepers — including Rhodes — have been charged in connection with the Jan. 6 attack.
The Associated Press contributed to this story.