Stewart Rhodes, founder of the right-wing militia group Oath Keepers, was sentenced to 18 years in prison and 3 years of supervised release Thursday after being convicted of seditious conspiracy in connection with the Jan. 6, 2021 Capitol attack. It's the first sentence passed down to a person found guilty of the rare, Civil War-era charge linked to the riot.
Sporting an orange jumpsuit and his signature eyepatch under wire frame glasses, Rhodes brazenly addressed the court before the sentence was handed down, calling himself a "political prisoner" with "preordained guilt from Day One."
"However long I spend in prison, my goal will be to be an American Solzhenitsyn to expose the criminality of this regime," Rhodes said, comparing himself to prominent Soviet dissident Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn and referencing the Biden administration.
Judge Amit Mehta, who is overseeing the case, strongly rebuked Rhodes' characterization of his conviction.
"We can have disagreement about who is the better leader ... but what we cannot have – what we absolutely cannot have – is a group of citizens who because they did not like the outcome of the election ... were then prepared to take up arms in order to foment a revolution," Mehta said. "That's what you did.
"You are not a political prisoner, Mr. Rhodes," he added. "You are here for that conduct."
In tear-filled victim impact statements made Wednesday, law enforcement officers and congressional staffers conveyed palpable trauma they said would stay with them forever.
"This day changed everything," said David Lazarus, the U.S. Capitol Police special agent assigned to then-House Speaker Nancy Pelosi's protection detail.
DOJ sought 25 years jailed, defense asked for 'time served'
The Justice Department sought a 25-year prison sentence for Rhodes, suggesting in court filings earlier this month he should face "swift and severe punishment" for his conduct, which "created a grave risk to our democratic system of government."
In remarks Thursday, Assistant U.S. Attorney Kathryn Rakoczy said Rhodes "doggedly drilled" President Donald Trump's false claims of election fraud into his followers' minds and advocated for the former president to invoke the Insurrection Act, which would give him the authority to call on the military and National Guard forces to suppress an insurrection.
"It is necessary for this court, through its sentence, to say that no American citizen can impose by force their version of the law," she said.
During the trial, prosecutors described Rhodes as the "orchestrator of this conspiracy and the architect of the plan." They emphasized evidence that Rhodes coordinated Oath Keepers in several states to converge on the Capitol on Jan. 6, 2021. That day, he was a "general overlooking a battlefield while his troops stormed inside," prosecutors argued.
Rhodes' attorneys requested a sentence of "time served," citing Rhodes' military service and Yale Law School education. They also argued in court filings that the Oath Keepers group has been dedicated to "philanthropy" from its inception and has been "misconstrued and mischaracterized" by others.
"Had Rhodes not shown up in D.C., Jan. 6 still would have happened just as it did," said Rhodes attorney Phillip Linder. "If you want to put a face on J6, you put it on Trump, right-wing media, politicians – all the people who spun that narrative for months."
Rhodes took the stand in his own defense during the trial and claimed that the Oath Keepers who entered the Capitol on Jan. 6 went "off-mission."
"It was not part of our mission for that day to enter the Capitol for any reason," Rhodes testified during the trial.
After the November verdict, Rhodes attorney James Bright told reporters he thought his client received a fair trial but might have had a different outcome in another jurisdiction. Defense attorneys sought to move the trial out of D.C. several times before it began.
MPD officer: 'I cannot forgive'
Eleven defense attorneys and five prosecutors wrapped around the front of the wood and marble ceremonial courtroom in D.C. federal court Wednesday. The oil painted portraits of past judges and four marble figures, all historically significant lawgivers, loomed overhead, mounted on the walls of the courtroom.
Four of the first five Oath Keepers tried for sedition – two convicted of the rare charge, though all found guilty of serious felonies – sat in the courtroom in orange jumpsuits with white undershirts. Defendant Jessica Watkins wore a green scrunchie in her hair. The other five Oath Keepers attended remotely.
Five witnesses representing law enforcement and Congress read victim impact statements to the court on the prosecution's behalf: D.C. Metropolitan Police officer Christopher Owens, Lazarus, USCP officer Harry Dunn, college student and former chamber assistant Virginia Brown and Pelosi chief of staff Terri McCullough. Also present in court were Capitol Police Sgt. Aquilino Gonell and USCP support dog Lila, a black Labrador retriever.
Owens, an MPD officer who held back Watkins and other rioters in the Senate hallway on Jan. 6, said the physical, emotional and mental trauma caused by the Capitol attack stays with him to this day.
When he returned home early Jan. 7, after the Capitol was cleared, his wife of 19 years and teen daughter anxiously awaited in the kitchen, he said; the look of worry, fear and relief on their faces is "forever etched" into his brain. Later that night, his wife burst into tears and cried on the floor upon seeing his bruised, battered and bloodied body.
"(The defendants') decisions traumatized my wife and daughter, and that I cannot forgive," Owens said through tears. The officer asked Mehta to consider the maximum allowable sentence for each defendant.
Harry Dunn: Riot made him a 'depressed shell' of who he once was
Dunn told the court he suffers from PTSD and anxiety from the riot, describing himself as a "depressed shell" of who he once was. When he sees people wearing cargo pants or apparel akin to tactical gear, he reactively clinches his teeth and his heart rate spikes, he said. And at the Capitol where he works, there's "no place to retreat."
"Every day at work evokes the feeling of a never ending crime scene rather than the citadel of American democracy," he said. "I used to enjoy coming to work; now I dread it."
Pelosi chief of staff: 'Democracy remained in tact'
McCullough, Pelosi's chief of staff, said she and other Pelosi staffers hid quietly in a conference room as rioters "hunted" Pelosi, unsure if they'd make it out. When they finally emerged, a Confederate flag and zip ties were left on a nearby desk.
Despite the "crime scene" at the Capitol, one thing was clear, she said: "It was critical to return (to certify the votes) to show the American people and the world that democracy remained in tact."
But the events of that day linger for those who were there.
Brown, now 21, was a college sophomore working as a chamber assistant on Jan. 6. She helped carry a ballot box between the Senate and House chambers that day. But later in the day, she found herself kicking off her shoes to run faster through Congress' underground chambers, "praying to God" she would not encounter an "insurrectionist." In the years since, she said she's lost hours of sleep over those who died or took their lives so "she could be safe."
Lazarus, the USCP special agent assigned to Pelosi's protective detail, said through tears that lives and careers were ruined over the Capitol attack.
"The violence that the rioters brought to the Hill never ends for many of us," he said.
More Oath Keepers sentences to come
Kelly Meggs, a Florida Oath Keepers leader convicted of seditious conspiracy alongside Rhodes, was sentenced to 12 years in prison later Thursday afternoon. The Justice Department recommended a sentence of 21 years in prison for Meggs.
The other seven Oath Keepers tried for sedition – four of whom were convicted of the charge – will receive sentences in coming days.
This article originally appeared on USA TODAY: Oath Keepers founder Stewart Rhodes gets 18 years in prison for Jan. 6