Stewart Rhodes, the founder of the Oath Keepers group, was sentenced to 18 years for his involvement in the Jan. 6 Capitol breach. Rhodes made history by becoming the first individual charged in the events of January 6, 2021, to be sentenced for seditious conspiracy.
Rhodes is a former U.S. Army paratrooper and a graduate of Yale Law School. He founded the Oath Keepers in 2009, attracting members largely from the military and law enforcement communities. The Oath Keepers claim to defend the Constitution against all enemies, foreign and domestic.
The sentencing marks yet another significant development in the extensive investigation by the Justice Department into the events of Jan. 6. The investigation has resulted in convictions for seditious conspiracy against leading figures of two groups, who authorities assert arrived in Washington ready to ensure the continued presidency of Donald Trump.
Just before his sentencing, Rhodes made a statement criticizing the legal proceedings as being driven by political bias. He emphasized that he had not entered the Capitol himself and had never instructed others to do so.
“I’m a political prisoner and like President Trump, my only crime is opposing those who are destroying our country,” claimed Rhodes.
U.S. District Judge Amit Mehta, prior to issuing his sentence, addressed Rhodes, whose demeanor was marked by defiance, stating unequivocally that it appears Rhodes “wants democracy in this country to devolve into violence.” The judge further emphasized his concern about the potential for future conflict, saying, “The moment you are released, whenever that may be, you will be ready to take up arms against your government.”
Mehta concurred with the prosecution’s proposal for the implementation of augmented penalties on the basis of “terrorism.” This was justified on the grounds that the Oath Keepers were allegedly attempting to sway the government via “intimidation or coercion.”
Prior to this, judges had consistently dismissed the Justice Department’s appeals for the invocation of the so-called “terrorism enhancement” — a provision that can potentially result in an extended incarceration period. However, in the case of Rhodes, Mehta affirmed that it was applicable.
The evidence presented at his trial included encrypted chat messages, recorded meetings, and social media posts showing detailed plans made by the defendants to head to Washington ahead of January 6. These plans included amassing weapons at a nearby Virginia hotel and coordinating a so-called Quick Reaction Force unit.
As the alleged leader of this conspiracy, prosecutors identified Rhodes as the “architect” of the plan, with him openly urging then-President Trump to hold onto power using an old law known as the Insurrection Act. Rhodes reportedly wrote a message to other Oath Keepers leaders saying, “It will be 1776 all over again. Force on force is the way to go.”
At the trial, Rhodes’ defense team made the argument that the government could not establish the existence of a real conspiracy to invade the Capitol building. They maintained that their client’s communications, though exaggerated, fell under the protection of the Constitution and did not constitute criminal behavior.
His defense team argued, “None of his protected speech incited or encouraged imminent violent or unlawful acts. Mr. Rhodes was focused at the time on getting President Trump to use his power and authority while still in office.”
In their appeal to Judge Mehta, Rhodes’ lawyers highlighted his past as a military veteran and portrayed the Oath Keepers as nothing more than a “volunteer organization” designed to aid in disaster relief and the safeguarding of communities.
Drawing a parallel between the character of the group and its founder, the defense attorneys wrote, “The character of the Oath Keepers reflects the character of the man who created it. Mr. Rhodes gave his life to the Oath Keepers,” in an effort to secure a more forgiving sentence for him.