Judge presses ahead with April trial for several Oath Keepers

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A federal judge insisted on Tuesday that the first criminal trial for Oath Keepers who entered the Capitol on Jan. 6 open in Washington this April, a timeline he said he was committed to despite vocal objections from some defense attorneys who worry they wouldn’t have enough time to wade through a massive — and growing — trove of digital evidence.

Judge Amit Mehta set the April 19 date for a subset of the 22 Oath Keepers charged with a sweeping conspiracy to obstruct the transfer of presidential power from Donald Trump to President Joe Biden. Mehta said he expected the first trial to include defendants who haven’t been detained and are facing obstruction charges, rather than those who were recently charged with seditious conspiracy and might take more time to build their defenses.

“This trial date is going to have to hold. … This case has got to go forward,” Mehta said during a hearing held by video conference with prosecutors and defense lawyers. “There’s ample time to get ready.”

Although defense lawyers said they were facing a mountain of videos, smartphone downloads and other evidence that is challenging to review, Mehta said he believed that most of the evidence directly relevant to most of the Oath Keeper defendants had been turned over some time ago and that the bulk of the remainder was evidence about the Capitol riot generally that probably won’t be germane to anyone’s defense.

Mehta’s timeline means that the government faces the likelihood of having its first conspiracy trial open without the marquee defendant they charged for the first time earlier this month: Oath Keepers’ founder Stewart Rhodes.

The sequence also means the highly anticipated charge the government dusted off to level at Rhodes and 10 other members of his group a couple of weeks ago — seditious conspiracy — won’t go in front of a jury until July at the earliest, after the first Oath Keepers group. Mehta also set a tentative date in September for a third trial, since it could be difficult to try so many defendants at once, especially with coronavirus restrictions in place.

Mehta said he expected that Rhodes’ case, since it was only recently charged, would take longer to prepare. Rhodes’ lawyer Phillip Linder said he anticipated being ready for the July date.

Linder noted that Rhodes was awaiting a ruling from a magistrate judge in Texas on whether he should be released pending trial. Both the Justice Department and Rhodes’ attorneys say they’ll appeal the ruling if they lose, sending the matter to Mehta.

Exactly how many defendants will actually go on trial in each batch is unclear, because negotiations about possible guilty pleas continue, Assistant U.S. Attorney Kathryn Rakoczy said.

“There are some ongoing discussions about possible resolutions short of trial,” she told Mehta.

In addition, the attorneys for many of the Oath Keepers are juggling a massive trial backlog, driven in part by Covid-related delays, that has led to numerous scheduling conflicts.

What’s more, Mehta is contending with an increasingly complicated set of potential conflicts among Oath Keeper defense attorneys, some of whom are representing other clients before the Jan. 6 committee in Congress or in a slew of civil lawsuits brought by members of Congress and the Capitol Police.

For example, the criminal attorney for Oath Keeper Kelly Meggs — Jonathan Moseley — recently agreed to represent Rhodes before the Jan. 6 committee. Moseley is also representing Proud Boy Zachary Rehl in a civil lawsuit related to Jan. 6 and Stop the Steal founder Ali Alexander in a lawsuit against the Jan. 6 panel’s subpoena seeking his phone records.

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