Militia leader who shot himself in face found guilty over US Capitol riots

Oath Keepers militia founder Stewart Rhodes - REUTERS/Jim Urquhart
Oath Keepers militia founder Stewart Rhodes - REUTERS/Jim Urquhart

A former Yale graduate and right-wing leader who shot his own eye out was found guilty on Tuesday of seditious conspiracy for the attack on the US Capitol by Donald Trump supporters, an important win for the Justice Department.

The verdicts against Oath Keepers founder Stewart Rhodes and four co-defendants, after three days of deliberations by the 12-member jury, came in the highest-profile trial so far to emerge from the deadly Jan 6, 2021, assault on the US Capitol, a failed bid to overturn then-President Trump's 2020 election defeat.

Rhodes, a Yale Law School-educated former Army paratrooper and disbarred attorney, was accused by prosecutors during an eight-week trial of plotting to use force to try to block Congress from certifying Democratic President Joe Biden's election victory over Republican Trump. Rhodes was convicted on three counts and acquitted on two.

One of his co-defendants, Kelly Meggs, was also found guilty of seditious conspiracy while the three others - Kenneth Harrelson, Jessica Watkins and Thomas Caldwell - were acquitted of that charge.

All five defendants were convicted of obstruction of an official proceeding - the congressional certification of the election results - with mixed verdicts on a handful of other charges.

The charges of seditious conspiracy and obstruction of an official proceeding each carry a sentence of up to 20 years in prison.

Oath Keepers leader Stewart Rhodes and four others charged with seditious conspiracy in the Jan. 6, 2021, Capitol attack - Dana Verkouteren via AP
Oath Keepers leader Stewart Rhodes and four others charged with seditious conspiracy in the Jan. 6, 2021, Capitol attack - Dana Verkouteren via AP

Two more high-profile trials related to the attack are due to begin next month. Four other Oath Keepers members face seditious conspiracy charges, as do members of the right-wing Proud Boys group, including its former chairman Enrique Tarrio.

James Lee Bright, an attorney for Rhodes, said he thinks the verdict will inform how the Justice Department proceeds on the other seditious conspiracy prosecutions.

"The return in this, even though we're not pleased with it, probably speaks to the fact that the DOJ is going to go full steam ahead in like fashion on all the others," Bright told reporters outside court.

On his way to Washington DC before the riot, Rhodes spent thousands of dollars on equipment including an AR-platform rifle, magazines, mounts and sights.

The court was shown footage of Oath Keepers stashing weapons at a hotel in Virginia for a "quick reaction force", but they were not used.

On the day of the riot, Rhodes remained outside like a "general surveying his troops on the battlefield" while Oath Keepers wearing combat gear were seen among the crowd, according to prosecutors.

Rhodes, who wears an eye patch after accidentally shooting himself in the face with his own gun, is one of the most prominent defendants of the roughly 900 charged over the attack. Meggs, who heads the Oath Keepers' Florida chapter, was the only defendant besides Rhodes in this trial who played a leadership role in the organization.

Rhodes in 2009 founded the Oath Keepers, a militia group whose members include current and retired U.S. military personnel, law enforcement officers and first responders.

Its members have showed up, often heavily armed, at protests and political events around the United States including the racial justice demonstrations following the murder of a Black man named George Floyd by a white Minneapolis police officer.

"The Justice Department is committed to holding accountable those criminally responsible for the assault on our democracy on Jan. 6, 2021," Attorney General Merrick Garland said in a statement.