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Trial for five Oath Keepers accused of seditious conspiracy underway

Militia founder Stewart Rhodes and four co-defendants are expected to argue they were preparing for former President Trump to invoke the Insurrection Act on Jan. 6.

WASHINGTON — A jury of nine men and seven women was empaneled Thursday to hear the government’s case against five members of the Oath Keepers militia accused of conspiring to stop the transfer of presidential power on Jan. 6.

The five defendants include Oath Keepers founder Stewart Rhodes and four militia members prosecutors have described as being among his top lieutenants on Jan. 6. They include Jessica Watkins, the leader of a subgroup of the militia called the Ohio State Regular Militia, Kelly Meggs, the alleged leader of the Oath Keepers’ Florida chapter, a second Florida Oath Keepers, Kenneth Harrelson, and Thomas Caldwell, a former U.S. Navy officer and alleged Oath Keeper from Virginia.

The trial, set to begin in earnest Monday morning with opening arguments, will test the government’s decision to bring a rarely used seditious conspiracy charge against 11 Oath Keepers and, in a separate case, five members of the Proud Boys. The seditious conspiracy statute was enacted in the wake of the Civil War and will require prosecutors to convince the jury the Oath Keepers conspired to use force to block the execution of the Electoral Count Act and the Twelfth Amendment.

At least some of the Oath Keepers were expected to rely on another 19th Century law, the Insurrection Act, for their defense. In prior pretrial hearings, Rhodes’ attorneys indicated they planned to tell a jury all of the preparations the militia took leading up to Jan. 6 – including allegedly stashing weapons and other supplies just outside of D.C. for quick reaction forces – were done in the expectation former President Donald Trump would invoke the 1807 law and deploy the militia to stop what was, in their mind, the certification of a corrupt election.

To counter that defense, prosecutors were expected to call fellow members of the militia who have pleaded guilty, including Joshua James, of Alabama, who served as part of an Oath Keeper detail providing security for long-time Trump ally Roger Stone on Jan. 6 and who became the first Capitol riot defendant to plead guilty to the seditious conspiracy charge in March. Another Oath Keeper who took a plea deal in May, William Todd Wilson, of North Carolina, said in a statement of facts he was in direct contact with Rhodes and other Oath Keepers leaders on Jan. 6 and heard Rhodes proclaim as they were heading to the Capitol that they were in the midst of a “civil war.”

In previous court filings, prosecutors have said they obtained communications showing Florida chapter leader Meggs bragged about forming an “alliance” with Proud Boys and Three Percenters militia groups – including one message in which he urged recipients to, “Wait for the 6th when we are all in DC to insurrection.” Last week, U.S. District Judge Amit P. Mehta, who is presiding over the case, also ruled prosecutors can show jurors large portions of a Zello chat Oath Keepers member Watkins was participating in on Jan. 6. Prosecutors argued successfully that the chat showed Watkins’ and other Oath Keepers’ state of mind during the riot. At one point during the chat, in response to another user telling Watkins the riot was the time to “alter and abolish this f***ing tyrannical, treasonous government,” Watkins responded: “Trump’s being trying to drain the swamp with a straw. We just brought a shop vac.”

Opening arguments were scheduled to begin Monday morning at 9:30 a.m. The trial was expected to last five to six weeks and involve more than 40 witnesses from the government. Several of the Oath Keeper defendants, Rhodes in particular, indicated during pretrial conferences they were interested in taking the stand as well in their own defense.

WUSA9 reporter Jordan Fischer will be in court throughout the trial providing daily coverage. Follow him on Twitter at @JordanOnRecord and subscribe to our weekly newsletter “Capitol Breach” for all the latest Jan. 6 coverage.

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