The founder of the far-right Oath Keepers group has been sentenced to 18 years in prison for his role in a seditious conspiracy to disrupt the electoral count, the stiffest punishment to date to stem from the violent assault on the Capitol on Jan. 6, 2021.
A jury in Washington, D.C., convicted Stewart Rhodes last November of the politically charged sedition charge and multiple other felonies. Given the rare nature of the charge, his prison term could influence any sentence Enrique Tarrio, the former chairman of the far-right Proud Boys group will face on the same charge later this summer.
"You, sir, present an ongoing threat and peril to this country ... and to the very fabric of our democracy," said U.S. District Judge Amit Mehta.
For the first time in a case related to the Jan. 6 attack, Judge Mehta found Rhodes' conduct amounted to terrorism, and factored that into his calculations under the advisory sentencing guidelines.
"Today's sentences reflect the grave threat the actions of these defendants posed to our democratic institutions," said Attorney General Merrick Garland. "The Justice Department will continue to do everything in our power to hold accountable those criminally responsible for the January 6th attack on our democracy."
Rhodes, a graduate of Yale Law School, pledged to appeal his conviction and sentence. His decision to testify in his own defense last year backfired after prosecutor Kathryn Rakoczy drew him out on inconsistencies in his account of his actions leading up to the Capitol siege and his penchant for conspiracy theories.
During the trial, the Justice Department presented the jury with thousands of messages from Rhodes and other Oath Keepers before, during and after the events of Jan. 6, including Rhodes' comments that "we aren't getting through this without a civil war" and "the final defense is us and our rifles."
Unlike several of his followers and co-defendants, Rhodes never entered the Capitol building, instead presiding over the action like a general on the battlefield, prosecutor Jeffrey Nestler told jurors last year.
Even after the violence that day, and after his arrest, Rhodes repeatedly invoked the prospect of political violence, the judge said. Citing Rhodes' smarts and charisma, Judge Mehta said those same qualities inspired dozens of people to travel to Washington for the electoral count — and what made Rhodes "dangerous."
In more than 20 minutes of remarks, Rhodes cast himself as a political prisoner and said the experience had been "surreal," likening himself to the protagonist in a Franz Kafka novel. "I believe this country is incredibly divided and this prosecution...is going to make things worse. I consider every J 6er to be a political prisoner because all of them are grossly overcharged."
Rhodes, who was interrupted by the judge and asked to wrap up, said his goal in prison is to become "an American Solzhenitsyn," referring to a Soviet dissident who spent time in a labor camp, and "to expose the criminality of this regime."
Judge Mehta rejected Rhodes' bid for leniency and his claims that he had been targeted for political reasons.
"A seditious conspiracy ... is among the most serious crimes an individual American can commit," Mehta said. "It is an offense against the people of this country."
Kelly Meggs, a co-defendant also convicted of seditious conspiracy and a former leader of Oath Keepers' Florida chapter, was sentenced to 12 years in prison. Meggs, in tears, described the separation from his family members, as his attorney Stanley Woodward asked the judge for mercy.
On Wednesday, the judge heard emotional accounts from police and congressional staffers who continue to suffer from aftershocks of the assault on their workplace.
"I used to enjoy coming to work each day proud to be a police officer but the defendants took all that away from me," said U.S. Capitol Police Officer Harry Dunn.
D.C. Metropolitan Police Officer Christopher Owens said his wife burst into tears after seeing his bruised and battered body when he finally returned home on Jan. 7, 2021. "My physical traumas and bruises have healed but the emotional trauma stays with me to this day," Owens said.
Terri McCullough, who served as chief of staff to former House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, D-Calif., said the Capitol became a crime scene. "The defendants violated our work place, our government and our democracy, but they did not succeed, democracy succeeded."
The Justice Department had asked for Rhodes to serve 25 years in prison. Rhodes' legal team, led by Phillip Linder and Lee Bright, requested time served, about a year and a half.
ARI SHAPIRO, HOST:
It's the longest punishment yet in a criminal case stemming from the Capitol riot. A judge has sentenced Stewart Rhodes, founder of the far-right group the Oath Keepers, to spend 18 years in prison for seditious conspiracy, a rare charge that has roots in the Civil War. Rhodes used his moment in the spotlight to cast himself as a political prisoner and vowed to appeal. NPR justice correspondent Carrie Johnson is at the federal courthouse here in Washington. Hi, Carrie.
CARRIE JOHNSON, BYLINE: Hi, Ari.
SHAPIRO: Big day in court. How did the judge arrive at this punishment for Stewart Rhodes?
JOHNSON: Judge Amit Mehta says in all the years he's been doing this, he's never seen a defendant like Stewart Rhodes. The judge looked right at Rhodes in the courtroom and said, "you, sir, present an ongoing threat and peril to the country and to the very fabric of democracy." The judge talked about how Stewart Rhodes is a lawyer, that he's smart and charismatic and that he prompted dozens of people, rather, to come to the U.S. Capitol on January 6. And that's what makes Rhodes dangerous, the judge said. Now, even before January 6, Rhodes was promoting political violence, and after the violence at the Capitol that day, Rhodes suggested hanging the then-House speaker by a lamppost. And even since then, since he's been behind bars and been convicted of seditious conspiracy, the judge says Stewart Rhodes has alluded to violence - political violence - even as recently as a few days ago.
SHAPIRO: Rhodes is known to be talkative, and he had a say today, too. Tell us about it.
JOHNSON: Yeah. Stewart Rhodes stood up. He was wearing an orange prison jumpsuit, and he cast himself as a political prisoner. He says he felt like a character in a Franz Kafka novel. He compared himself to a Soviet-era dissident who spent years in a forced labor camp. Rhodes basically said, from prison, however long it would be, he would work to, quote, "expose the criminality of the government," meaning, I guess, the Biden administration. And Stewart Rhodes is going to be in prison for a long time, Ari. He's in his late 50s, and if his appeal is not successful, he's not going to get out for well over a decade.
SHAPIRO: As we said, it's the longest sentence of anyone convicted in the siege on the U.S. Capitol. Should others who have been charged in the investigation look at this judge's decision and worry?
JOHNSON: You know, this is very serious business. We've seen sentences of 10 years and 14 years already for some rioters who were convicted of attacking police, but this judge said sedition is perhaps the most serious offense an American can commit against their own government. And this 18-year sentence for Stewart Rhodes could have some implications for Enrique Tarrio. He's the former leader of the far-right Proud Boys also convicted of sedition this year. Tarrio is going to be sentenced in late August. But where all this goes from here is hard to say right now. Remember that former President Donald Trump, who's running again for the White House, says he's going to consider pardons for, quote, "a large portion of the January 6 defendants," and he's used them as rhetorical devices in his political campaign. Whether Stewart Rhodes and Enrique Tarrio are in that category - hard to say right now.
SHAPIRO: Just briefly, some of the people who lived through the insurrection described their experience. Can you give us a snapshot of what they said?
JOHNSON: Very emotional testimony - police officers saying their bruises have healed, but the emotional trauma lingers, other officers saying they used to love to go to work - not anymore. And a woman who was the chief of staff to then-House Speaker Nancy Pelosi talked about how her staff cowered in fear for hours on January 6. She said, the defendants violated our workplace, our government and our democracy, but they did not succeed. Democracy succeeded. And Judge Mehta said today the law enforcement officers and those Hill staffers who did their jobs at the Capitol on January 6 are the true oath-keepers, not Stewart Rhodes.
SHAPIRO: That is NPR's Carrie Johnson. Thank you so much.
JOHNSON: Thank you.
(SOUNDBITE OF KANYE WEST AND JAY-Z SONG, "NO CHURCH IN THE WILD (FEAT. FRANK OCEAN)") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.