Militia leader gets 18 years in prison over US Capitol attack
The founder of the far-right Oath Keepers militia was handed an 18-year prison sentence Thursday for sedition in the 2021 attack on the US Capitol, the toughest penalty given yet over the January 6 assault.
Out of the more than 1,000 people charged over the attack, Stewart Rhodes was singled out for directing his heavily armed group to descend on Washington and use violence if necessary to prevent Joe Biden from becoming president.
"Seditious conspiracy is among the most serious crimes an American can commit," said Judge Amit Mehta in pronouncing the sentence.
"You present an ongoing threat and a peril to this country," Mehta told Rhodes, who organized the Oath Keepers January 6 participation in the attack on the Capitol by supporters of then-president Donald Trump.
"You are smart, charismatic and compelling and that is frankly what makes you dangerous," Mehta said -- rejecting 57-year-old Rhodes' claim that he was a "political prisoner."
The sentence fell short of the 25 years the government had sought, although Mehta accepted the argument that the Oath Keepers' plan to violently block Biden's presidency amounted to terrorism.
Just ahead of the sentence, Rhodes, wearing an eye patch and dressed in his orange prison jumpsuit, defiantly defended his group and their actions in support of Trump.
"My only crime is opposing those destroying our country," he declared, comparing himself to the famed Soviet dissident Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn.
- Blame Trump -
Mehta focused on the Oath Keepers' stockpiling of weapons just outside the city and wearing combat-style gear in an organized push into the Capitol that day, sending lawmakers and vice president Mike Pence fleeing to safety.
For several hours, they successfully blocked Congress from certifying Biden's victory over Trump in the November 202 presidential election.
For prosecutors, that showed a level of planning and preparation for violence not present with many of the others in the crowd.
In an echo of Rhodes' punishment, hours later Mehta gave Kelly Meggs, 54, the chief of the Florida branch of the Oath Keepers, 12 years in prison, also for sedition -- plotting to overthrow the government or unlawfully opposing its authority.
Rhodes, Meggs and three other Oath Keepers were convicted by a Washington jury in November in the first trial to apply the charge of sedition to the actions of some of those involved in January 6.
Since then, other Oath Keepers and members of another militia, the Proud Boys, have also been convicted of the charge, potentially raising the stakes for Trump and many in his circle who have come under investigation for their possible roles in encouraging and instigating the violence.
During the Oath Keepers trial, prosecutors said the group "concocted a plan for an armed rebellion... plotting to oppose by force the government of the United States."
Rhodes' attorneys argued that he himself never entered the Capitol building and that he did not support others doing so.
But Mehta rejected that as anything mitigating the sentence.
Rhodes was unequivocally the leader of the group and summoned them to Washington with a cache of arms for the violent assault, Mehta said.
"Stewart Rhodes is a Yale Law grad and a pretty smart guy," the judge said. "He was the one giving the orders... They were there because of him."
Rhodes' attorney Phillip Linder however said he should not be held responsible for the Capitol attack and pointed his finger at Trump.
"I think what happened on January 6 was deplorable," Linder told the court.
But Rhodes did not plan the uprising, he insisted.
"We need to look at what caused this... Who got the Million Maga rally started?... Who got January 6 started?" Linder said.
"He's not the one that started that rhetoric that got the people ginned up."