WASHINGTON (AP) - Oath Keepers extremist group founder Stewart Rhodes was sentenced Thursday to 18 years in prison for orchestrating a weekslong plot that culminated in his followers attacking the U.S. Capitol in a bid to keep President Joe Biden out of the White House after winning the 2020 election.
Rhodes, 58, is the first person convicted of seditious conspiracy in the Jan. 6, 2021, attack to receive his punishment, and his sentence is the longest handed down so far in the hundreds of Capitol riot cases.
It's another milestone for the Justice Department's sprawling Jan. 6 investigation, which has led to seditious conspiracy convictions against the top leaders of two far-right extremist groups authorities say came to Washington prepared to fight to keep President Donald Trump in power at all costs.
“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,” Attorney General Merrick Garland said in a statement.
In a first for a Jan. 6 case, the judge agreed with the Justice Department that Rhodes' actions should be punished as “terrorism,” which increases the recommended sentence under federal guidelines. That decision could foreshadow lengthy sentences down the road for other far-right extremists, including former Proud Boys leader Enrique Tarrio, who have also been convicted of the rarely used charge.
Before announcing Rhodes' sentence, U.S. District Judge Amit Mehta described a defiant Rhodes as a continued threat to the United States and democracy. The judge expressed fear that what happened on Jan. 6 could be repeated, saying Americans will “now hold our collective breaths every time an election is approaching.”
“You are smart, you are charismatic and compelling and frankly that's what makes you dangerous,” the judge told Rhodes. “The moment you are released, whenever that may be, you will be ready to take up arms against your government.”
Rhodes did not use his chance to address the judge to express remorse or appeal for leniency, but instead claimed to be a “political prisoner,” criticized prosecutors and the Biden administration and tried to play down his actions on Jan. 6.
“I'm a political prisoner and like President Trump my only crime is opposing those who are destroying our country,” said Rhodes, who appeared in Washington's federal court wearing orange jail clothes.
Mehta fired back that Rhodes was not prosecuted for his political beliefs but for actions the judge described as an “offense against the people of the country.”
“You are not a political prisoner, Mr. Rhodes,” the judge said.
Another Oath Keeper convicted of seditious conspiracy alongside Rhodes - Florida chapter leader Kelly Meggs - was sentenced later Thursday to 12 years behind bars.
Meggs said he was sorry he was involved in the riot that left a “black eye on the country,” but maintained that he never planned to go into the Capitol.
The judge found Meggs doesn't present an ongoing threat to the country the way Rhodes does, but told him “violence cannot be resorted to just because you disagree with who got elected.”
Other Oath Keepers are expected to be sentenced Friday and next week.
A Washington, D.C., jury found Rhodes guilty of leading a plot to forcibly disrupt the transfer of presidential power. Prosecutors alleged Rhodes and his followers recruited members, amassed weapons and set up “quick reaction force” teams at a Virginia hotel that could ferry guns into the nation's capital if they were needed to support their plot. The weapons were never deployed.
It was one of the most consequential Capitol riot cases brought by the government, which has sought to prove that the attack by right-wing extremists such as the Oath Keepers was not a spur-of-the-moment protest but the culmination of weeks of plotting to overturn Biden's victory.
Rhodes' January 2022 arrest was the culmination of a decades-long path of extremism that included armed standoffs with federal authorities at Nevada's Bundy Ranch. After founding the Oath Keepers in 2009, the Yale Law School graduate built it into one of the largest far-right antigovernment militia groups in the U.S., though it appears to have weakened in the wake of the Oath Keepers' arrests.
The judge agreed to prosecutors' request for a so-called “terrorism enhancement” - which can lead to a longer prison term - under the argument that the Oath Keepers sought to influence the government through “intimidation or coercion.” Judges in less serious Jan. 6 cases had previously rejected such requests.
Prosecutors had sought 25 years for Rhodes, arguing that a lengthy sentence was necessary to deter future political violence.
Assistant U.S. Attorney Kathryn Rakoczy pointed to interviews and speeches Rhodes has given from jail repeating the lie that the 2020 election was stolen and saying it would be again in 2024. In remarks just days ago, Rhodes called for “regime change,” the prosecutor said.
Rhodes, of Granbury, Texas, plans to appeal his conviction.
Defense lawyer Phillip Linder told the judge that prosecutors were unfairly trying to make Rhodes “the face” of Jan. 6, adding that Rhodes could have had many more Oath Keepers come to the Capitol “if he really wanted to” disrupt Congress' certification of the Electoral College vote.
“If you want to put a face on J6 (Jan. 6), you put it on Trump, right-wing media, politicians, all the people who spun that narrative,” Linder said.
Rhodes' sentence may signal the punishment prosecutors will seek for Tarrio and other Proud Boys leaders convicted of seditious conspiracy. They will be sentenced in August and September.
The Oath Keepers said there was never any plan to attack the Capitol or stop Congress from certifying Biden's victory. The defense tried to seize on the fact that none of the Oath Keepers' messages laid out an explicit plan to storm the Capitol. But prosecutors said the Oath Keepers saw an opportunity to further their goal to stop the transfer of power and sprang into action when the mob began storming the building.
Messages, recordings and other evidence presented at trial show Rhodes and his followers growing increasingly enraged after the 2020 election at the prospect of a Biden presidency, which they viewed as a threat to the country and their way of life. In an encrypted chat two days after the election, Rhodes told his followers to prepare their “mind, body, spirit” for “civil war.”
Before Thursday, the longest sentence in the more than 1,000 Capitol riot cases was 14 years for a man with a long criminal record who attacked police officers with pepper spray and a chair as he stormed the Capitol. Just over 500 of the defendants have been sentenced, with more than half receiving prison time and the remainder getting sentences such as probation or home detention.
Richer reported from Boston.