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Justice Department wins a conviction in a rarely used seditious conspiracy charge

A MARTÍNEZ, HOST:

Members of the Oath Keepers took a vow to uphold the Constitution. And that is exactly what a jury says the group founder tried to overturn.

STEVE INSKEEP, HOST:

Stewart Rhodes is the first person to be found guilty of seditious conspiracy, plotting to overthrow the government on Jan. 6 of last year. Members of his group took part in the assault on the U.S. Capitol. Their trial came in a courthouse just steps away.

MARTÍNEZ: NPR's justice correspondent Carrie Johnson covered the case.

Carrie, getting a conviction on a seditious conspiracy charge is rare. How was the Justice Department able to do it this time?

CARRIE JOHNSON, BYLINE: Yeah. Prosecutors have faltered over the years because that sedition charge requires them to meet such a high burden of proof. But the jury in this case felt that bar had been cleared, in part because of all the things Stewart Rhodes wrote in said before, during and after Jan. 6, like the need to be prepared for a bloody civil war. One of the most damaging pieces of evidence in the trial was a recording of Stewart Rhodes four days after the Capitol assault. Here's Rhodes on that tape from January 10, 2021, where he's talking about whether storming the Capitol was the right thing to do.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

STEWART RHODES: Maybe. But it also showed the people that we got a spirit of resistance. My only regret is they should have brought rifles.

MARTÍNEZ: Now, Stewart Rhodes was not alone, Carrie. What happened to the other defendants in this case?

JOHNSON: For all the talk from the defense teams about D.C. juries being unfavorable to people tied to Jan. 6, the jury in this case found each of the defendants not guilty on at least one charge. This was a sophisticated set of verdicts. Here are some of the takeaways. The jury also convicted Florida Oath Keeper Kelly Meggs of seditious conspiracy. But it found three other defendants not guilty on that important charge. All of the defendants were convicted of obstructing an official proceeding. And most of them were convicted of tampering with documents after the fact. That charge can carry a long prison sentence, too.

MARTÍNEZ: The trial took two months. Fifty witnesses were heard.

Carrie, you were in there when the verdict came down. I mean, what did it - what was it like in there?

JOHNSON: Yeah. As the foreperson read the verdict, Stewart Rhodes kind of jerked his head downward and scribbled a note. His lawyer, Lee Bright, later told us that Rhodes, who was a graduate of Yale Law School, sent several handwritten notes with other things he wants done next, like setting up a likely appeal. The lawyer says he's disappointed, but he thanked the jury and the judge for their service. He says he hoped Rhodes' decision to testify in this case helped humanize him. But it's not clear that helped with the jury.

A, one more thing I saw in the courtroom - Capitol police officer Harry Dunn, who seemed to be moved to tears by the verdict - as the jury left the room, he let out a big sigh. You know, this has been a hard road for the law enforcement officers who reported for duty on Jan. 6.

MARTÍNEZ: What's going to happen next in this?

JOHNSON: Yeah. Sentencing for these defendants won't happen until next year. Most of them have already been in federal custody for a while now. That's where they will stay. As for the Justice Department, it has two more seditious conspiracy trials coming up, including one next month for the leader of the far-right Proud Boys group. Attorney General Merrick Garland said the Justice Department is committed to holding people responsible for crimes related to Jan. 6. One of the key questions moving forward is just how high up on the ladder the new special counsel will get in that investigation.

MARTÍNEZ: NPR's Carrie Johnson.

Carrie, thanks.

JOHNSON: My pleasure. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

A Martínez is one of the hosts of Morning Edition and Up First. He came to NPR in 2021 and is based out of NPR West.
Carrie Johnson is a justice correspondent for the Washington Desk.