By Sarah N. Lynch
WASHINGTON (Reuters) -Stewart Rhodes, the former Army paratrooper turned Yale-educated lawyer who founded the far-right Oath Keepers militia, appeared in federal court on Thursday to be sentenced for seditious conspiracy and other crimes related to the U.S. Capitol attack, with prosecutors asking for 25 years in prison.
U.S. Judge Amit Mehta will determine the sentence for Rhodes, who was convicted in November by a federal court jury in Washington.
Mehta is also due to sentence co-defendant Kelly Meggs, a former Florida Chapter leader also convicted of seditious conspiracy, at 1:30 p.m. EDT (1730 GMT).
“Mr. Rhodes led a conspiracy to use force and violence to intimidate and coerce members of our government into stopping the lawful transfer of power following a presidential election,” federal prosecutor Kathryn Rakoczy said. “As the court has just found – that is terrorism.”
If Mehta follows the prosecution’s recommendation, it would represent the longest sentence for any of the 1,000-plus people charged in connection with the Jan. 6, 2021, Capitol attack by supporters of Republican then-President Donald Trump in a failed bid to block Congress from certifying Democratic rival Joe Biden’s November 2020 election victory.
The longest sentence to date was 14 years in prison given to a Pennsylvania man who attacked police during the rampage.
In addition to seditious conspiracy – a felony charge involving attempting “to overthrow, put down or to destroy by force the government of the United States” – Rhodes was convicted of obstructing an official proceeding and tampering with documents. Rhodes was acquitted of two other charges.
As part of their sentencing request, prosecutors asked the judge to enhance Rhodes’ sentence based on several factors, including his “terroristic conduct.”
Mehta agreed that all of those proposed sentencing enhancements could be applied, saying the evidence showed that Rhodes “was at the top of the chain” and he was culpable for the actions of the entire group.
“He clearly had no regret about what happened that day,” Mehta said.
His attorneys are asking the judge to give Rhodes no more time behind bars beyond that he already has served since his January 2022 arrest.
Rhodes, who wears an eye patch after accidentally shooting himself in the face with his own gun, founded the Oath Keepers in 2009. The militia group’s members include current and retired U.S. military personnel, law enforcement officers and first responders. They have appeared, often heavily armed, at protests and political events including racial justice demonstrations that followed the 2020 murder in Minneapolis of a Black man named George Floyd by a white police officer.
Prosecutors are asking Mehta to sentence Meggs, the group’s former Florida chapter leader, to 21 years in prison.
Some of the Oath Keepers breached the Capitol clad in paramilitary gear. Others staged at a suburban hotel a “quick reaction force” prosecutors said was equipped with firearms that could be quickly transported into Washington. Rhodes was on Capitol grounds that day but did not enter the building.
Two others associated with the Oath Keepers, Jessica Watkins and Kenneth Harrelson, are due to be sentenced on Friday. They were acquitted of seditious conspiracy but convicted on other felony charges. Four Oath Keepers members convicted of seditious conspiracy in a second trial are due to be sentenced next week.
The judge postponed a sentencing hearing that had been scheduled for Wednesday for Thomas Caldwell, another co-defendant acquitted of seditious conspiracy but convicted of other charges.
Ahead of the sentencing hearings, five law enforcement officers who defended the Capitol and congressional employees who fled to safety during the violence addressed the court on Wednesday.
“We were spit on. We were punched,” said Metropolitan Police Department officer Christopher Owens, who choked back tears as he recalled how rioters attacked police officers and called them “traitors.”
Officer Harry Dunn of the U.S. Capitol Police told the court he now lives in fear for his family’s safety, calling the attack a nightmare “that plays on a constant loop and never stops.”
(Reporting by Sarah N. Lynch; Editing by Will Dunham and Mark Porter)
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