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JACQUES BILLEAUD and MICHAEL KUNZELMAN
The seditious conspiracy case against members and associates of the far-right Oath Keepers militia group marks the boldest attempt so far by the government to prosecute those who attacked the U.S. Capitol, but invoking the rarely used charge carries considerable risks.
Still, legal experts who have reviewed the indictment unsealed this past week against Oath Keepers founder Stewart Rhodes and 10 others said prosecutors stand a good chance of winning convictions on allegations that the defendants were working together to use force to stop the peaceful transfer of presidential power.
The Civil War-era charge is hard to prove, and scholars say overzealousness in applying it, going back centuries, also discredited its use.
The experts who examined the indictment against the 11 Oath Keepers members and associates said the government’s case is supported by detailed allegations that participants in the plot discussed their plans in encrypted chats, traveled to the nation’s capital from across the country, organized into teams, used military tactics, stashed weapons outside Washington in case they felt they were needed and communicated with each other during the riot on Jan. 6, 2021.
“This is as a good a case as you could bring,” said Carlton Larson, a law professor at the University of California at Davis who is an expert in treason law.
In the weeks leading up to the insurrection, the indictment alleged, Oath Keepers discussed trying to overturn the results of the 2020 White House election, preparing for a siege by purchasing weapons and setting up battle plans.
“We aren’t getting through this without a civil war. Too late for that. Prepare your mind, body, spirit,” the indictment quoted Rhodes as writing in a November 2020 chat after President Donald Trump was projected to have been defeated by Democrat Joe Biden.
Authorities say several members of the Oath Keepers shouldered their way through the crowd on Jan. 6 and into the Capitol in a military-style stack formation. Group members are accused of setting up “quick reaction force” teams that stationed weapons outside of Washington and were prepared to deliver arms to group members and associates if they believed the need arose.
In late December 2020, Rhodes wrote in a chat that the only chance Trump had to succeed in overturning the election outcome was if he and the Oath Keepers frightened members of Congress and “convince them it will be torches and pitchforks time is (sic) they don’t do the right thing. But I don’t think they will listen,” according to the indictment.
Rhodes did not enter the Capitol building on Jan. 6, but authorities say he was communicating with Oath Keepers outside on the Capitol grounds. Phillip Linder, one of the lawyers representing Rhodes, said his client intends to fight the charges. Rhodes remains jailed in Texas and has a detention hearing this coming Thursday.
If convicted of seditious conspiracy, the defendants could face a maximum prison sentence of 20 years, compared with five for the other conspiracy charges.
In all, more than 700 people have been arrested and charged with federal crimes in the Jan. 6 riot. More than 70 defendants remain detained on riot charges. At least 186 defendants have pleaded guilty to riot-related charges as of Thursday.