Court Battles

Oath Keepers leader verdict: What is seditious conspiracy?

Members of the Oath Keepers on the East Front of the U.S. Capitol on Jan. 6, 2021, in Washington.
Manuel Balce Ceneta/Associated Press
Members of the Oath Keepers on the East Front of the U.S. Capitol on Jan. 6, 2021, in Washington.

Oath Keepers founder Stewart Rhodes and one of the group’s state leaders were convicted Wednesday of seditious conspiracy and other charges related to their role in the Jan. 6, 2021, insurrection. 

Jurors announced their verdict in one of the most high-profile cases stemming from the insurrection after a nearly two-month trial and three days of deliberations. Three other members of the group facing charges in the trial — Kenneth Harrelson, Jessica Watson and Thomas Caldwell — were found not guilty of seditious conspiracy but were convicted on multiple other felonies. 

Rhodes and Kelly Meggs, who led the Florida chapter of the organization, could face up to 20 years in prison for their seditious conspiracy convictions. 

The charge of seditious conspiracy is defined as two or more persons conspiring to “overthrow, put down, or to destroy by force” the federal government, to levy war against the United States or to oppose the federal government’s authority by force. 

It also covers conspiring to delay the execution of any federal law and to “seize, take, or possess any property of the United States” against its legal authority. 

Rhodes never entered the Capitol during the insurrection but communicated with other Oath Keepers while they stormed the building. 

During the trial, prosecutors pointed to the use of the word “we” in text and Facebook messages to demonstrate the coordination that is required to meet the definition of seditious conspiracy. 

The Justice Department argued that Rhodes and other Oath Keepers planned to travel and bring weapons to Washington, D.C., on Jan. 6 to stop Congress’s certification of the Electoral College results of the 2020 presidential election. 

The original indictment for seditious conspiracy against the five Oath Keepers stated that they organized into teams ready to use force, recruited members into the conspiracy and organized trainings to teach paramilitary combat tactics. 

Lawmakers initially enacted the federal statute against seditious conspiracy in the aftermath of the Civil War in the 1860s to have an additional tool to prosecute ex-Confederates, who were largely granted amnesty after the war. 

The law has been rarely invoked throughout U.S. history, and convictions under the law can be difficult to prove. The last guilty verdict for a seditious conspiracy charge was almost 30 years ago. 

The Justice Department said in the trial that the defendants teamed up to do “whatever was necessary” to prevent the peaceful transfer of power from former President Trump to President Biden. It argued Rhodes specifically used rhetoric to call on supporters to get involved and cited lessons he learned from studying civil wars. 

Four other Oath Keepers will go on trial on charges of seditious conspiracy next month. Members of the right-wing group the Proud Boys, including the leader Enrique Tarrio, are also due in court to face seditious conspiracy charges next month related to their organizing ahead of the insurrection.

Tags Jan. 6 insurrection Kelly Maggs Oath Keepers seditious conspiracy Stewart Rhodes Stewart Rhodes
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