Here’s Why This Seditious Conspiracy Verdict Matters
A jury in Federal District Court in Washington delivered a reassuring—but somewhat puzzling—split decision on Tuesday convicting Oath Keepers founder Stewart Rhodes and one of his codefendants of seditious conspiracy to oppose by force the authority of the government of the United States while, at the same time, acquitting Rhodes on charges that he attempted to disrupt the election certification in advance of January 6th, and that he planned to stop members of Congress from discharging their duties on that day.
While it is unclear exactly how the jury squared what might appear, at least at first blush, to be inconsistent verdicts on Rhodes’s guilt—more on that later—what is beyond doubt is that the verdict was an absolutely stunning victory for the government.
The government’s victory lies more in not losing the case than in winning it. The potential consequences of a blanket acquittal—or even of a conviction only on the lesser counts—would have been disastrous, far more consequential than the conviction.
The proper reaction to the verdict is thus more of a sigh of relief than a celebration.
It is impossible to overstate the degree of risk implicit in the government’s decision to bring this indictment in the first place, and then to take the case to trial. Prosecutors presented a mountain of evidence—encrypted chat messages, recorded meetings, social media posts, testimony by former members of the Oath Keepers, federal investigators and law enforcement officers—that Rhodes and his associates plotted to oppose the lawful transfer of presidential power and took concrete actions in furtherance of the plot, including traveling to Washington in the runup to January 6th with combat gear, bringing with them and acquiring along the way a massive trove of weapons, and positioning their arsenal in a Virginia hotel room in order to have it at hand.
What were they planning to do with this arsenal? Arguably, they were plotting nothing less than providing the spark for a second American civil war. In Rhodes’s own words, the plotters were “not getting through this without a civil war.” Evidence included open discussion of taking up arms against the government, hunting down ANTIFA, burning down Congress, and executing “traitors” (apparently meaning those government officials who were unwilling to undermine election results certified by all 50 of the states).
Try to imagine for a moment the consequences, faced with this evidence, of an acquittal. Think of the signal it would have sent not just to the Oath Keepers, but to all the other crazies out there playing soldier and advocating the use of force and violence as legitimate and necessary to vindicate their political grievances.
Bringing this case to vindicate the rule of law was a courageous and admirable act, but it was also one of extremely high risk because the downside of losing greatly exceeded the upside of winning. Had they been acquitted, it would have sent a signal to militia types everywhere that the public condones their views and actions.
Despite the strength of the evidence against Rhodes and his four codefendants, it was never a sure-thing that the jury would convict. Rhodes himself did not set foot in the Capitol on January 6th (although three of his codefendants did). There was no direct evidence that the conspirators had a specific plan to storm the Capitol, or even to physically stop the certification of the electoral vote. The defense lawyers argued, not without at least some testimonial support, that the arsenal stored in nearby Virginia was merely part of a contingency plan to have a “quick reaction force” in place in the event that Donald Trump, then still the president of the United States, invoked the Insurrection Act. He never did, and the defendants never deployed the weapons.
There were serious flaws in all of the arguments advanced by Rhodes and his codefendants, and the government did an admirable job in exposing them. But juries can be unpredictable.
The government’s gamble paid off. The jury found all five of the defendants guilty of serious felonies, and two of them, Rhodes and Kelly Meggs, were convicted on the most serious charge, seditious conspiracy.
While the overall impact of the verdict is an unambiguous win for the government (and the rule of law and our democratic republic), it’s a bit of a challenge to wrap one’s head around how the jury parsed the specific charges against Rhodes.
Rhodes was convicted of seditious conspiracy to oppose by force the authority of the government of the United States. The evidence presented by the prosecution focused on Rhodes’s plotting to prevent the lawful transition of presidential power and to obstruct Congress in its confirmation of the 2020 election results. However, at the same time, he was acquitted on the charge that he conspired to disrupt the election certification prior to January 6th as well as the charge that he conspired to stop members of Congress from discharging their duties on that day.
Normally, when a jury makes fine distinctions between specific defendants and specific charges, it is taken as a sign that the jury was thoughtful and took great care in parsing the evidence and applying the carefully worded instructions of the judge. The care taken by jurors in such cases is often presented by prosecutors as evidence that a conviction should not be reversed on appeal.
Sometimes, however, verdicts provide grounds for appeal if there are blatant internal inconsistencies.
How, one might ask, did Rhodes engage in a seditious conspiracy to prevent the lawful transfer of presidential power if he didn’t conspire either to disrupt the election certification prior to January 6th or to obstruct an official proceeding on January 6th? How can Rhodes be guilty of obstructing an official proceeding and not guilty of conspiring to obstruct an official proceeding?
Posing those questions, of course, doesn’t mean that they can’t be answered. They can. But it does mean that armies of lawyers on both sides will begin the process of reviewing the evidence presented at trial in minute detail to support (the government) or challenge (Rhodes) the verdicts on appeal.
So this isn’t quite over yet.
But for now, let’s not overthink it. Let’s just go ahead and heave that sigh of relief.