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 January 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.
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's 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 codefendants, Rhodes never entered the Capitol building, instead presiding over the action like a general on the battlefield, prosecutor Jeffrey Nestler told jurors last year.
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."
U.S. District Judge Amit Mehta rejected Rhode's 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."
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-California, 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's legal team, led by Phillip Linder and Lee Bright, requested time served, about a year and a half.
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