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Jury seated in Oath Keepers Jan. 6 seditious conspiracy trial

A panel composed mostly of U.S. government employees and lawyers will judge Oath Keepers leader Stewart Rhodes.

Members of the Oath Keepers stand on the East Front of the U.S. Capitol on Jan. 6, 2021, in Washington. (Manuel Balce Ceneta/AP)

A jury of 12 members and four alternates was selected Thursday in the trial of Oath Keepers leader Stewart Rhodes and other members of the extremist group who face seditious conspiracy and other charges in the Jan. 6, 2021, attack on the U.S. Capitol. Opening statements are set for Monday.

Painstaking vetting over three days revealed a political and cultural clash that posed tests both for the Justice Department — led by prosecutors with the U.S. attorney’s office in Washington — and defense attorneys for the leaders of the right-wing anti-government Oath Keepers, whose movement recruits members willing to prepare themselves for eventual battle to prevent federal tyranny.

Rhodes and four co-defendants — Kelly Meggs, Kenneth Harrelson, Jessica Watkins and Thomas Caldwell — have pleaded not guilty to felony charges including conspiring for weeks after the 2020 presidential election to unleash political violence to prevent President Biden’s swearing-in, culminating in the riot as Congress met to confirm the results.

The defendants came from Texas, Florida, Ohio and Virginia and allegedly led a group that traveled to Washington, staged firearms nearby, and forced entry through the Capitol Rotunda doors after marching single file up the steps wearing combat and tactical gear and Oath Keepers insignia.

Rhodes and his co-defendants have said their actions were defensive, taken in anticipation of what they believed would be a lawful order from President Donald Trump deputizing armed groups under the Insurrection Act to stop Biden from becoming president.

In the end, more than half of the nine men and seven women selected to serve on the panel that will judge Rhodes are lawyers or employees and contractors of the federal government whose authority defendants are accused of conspiring by force to oppose.

The makeup of the jury presents a watershed confrontation with reality for Rhodes’s radical, “insurrectionist doctrine,” which holds that the Constitution’s right to bear arms extends not just to “militia” or the National Guard but to private citizens, and further that individuals have the right to violently oppose the government for personal or subjective reasons, extremism expert Brian Levin said.

Such anti-government conspiracy theorists lived “in their own echo-chamber” in the past, such as in confrontations over federal land regulations out West, Levin said. But their movement grew and morphed under Trump from simply defending gun ownership, to opposing coronavirus restrictions, the country’s changing racial demographics, and finally, refusing to accept Biden’s electoral victory.

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What to know about the Oath Keepers sedition trial

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“We have this cauldron of grievance and — with Jan. 6 — paramilitary groups that answer to no one of legal authority. That is an inflection point we really stumbled into almost in a fog,” said Levin, director of the Center for the Study of Hate and Extremism at California State University at San Bernardino. “The violent, premeditated and organized parts of this attack on our Capitol is one of the most toxic byproducts of the conspiratorial and violent politics that we are in today.”

Jurors include many everyday Americans familiar with the law, politics and government, including employees of the State Department’s Bureau of Consular Affairs, U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services, Transportation Security Administration and Government Accountability Office, as well as of defense contractor Northrop Grumman and consulting giant Deloitte. Jurors include a risk analyst, patent and administrative lawyers, and a litigation consultant for large banks.

“Is there a tax credit or something for lawyers who live here or something?” the Baltimore defense lawyer for Caldwell, David W. Fischer Sr., joked at a lighthearted moment Thursday. “Is it mandatory for every person to attend a protest?”

The remark was in response to the 150-member jury pool’s answers to one of many questions aimed at vetting out political bias in the trial. It turns out that many Washingtonians have recently attended demonstrations, particularly the 2017 Women’s March and recent rallies after the Supreme Court’s landmark abortion rights decision over turning Roe v. Wade, judging from answers in court. None said they attended Trump’s post-election rallies falsely claiming the massive election fraud.

About one quarter of prospective jurors questioned were excused, including some who said they understood the Oath Keepers to be racist, to be “doomsday preppers” or to have engaged in violence in the Capitol. Some expressed beliefs hostile to Trump supporters, such as one man who “liked” a book reviewer comparing aspects of the Make America Great Again movement to Nazi Germany.

“Would the fact that one or more defendants was a supporter of President Trump affect your ability to be fair and impartial?” U.S. District Judge Amit P. Mehta repeatedly asked jurors in various ways. “Would you have any problems setting aside what you may have heard if there is not evidence in this trial that defendants were violent?”

Oath Keepers sedition trial could reveal new info about Jan. 6 plotting

The judge also asked if potential panelists would have problems being fair knowing that some defendants legally brought and stashed firearms in their Northern Virginia hotels, or that one or several may have had contact with longtime Trump political confidant Roger Stone.

“Could you promise both sides you will be fair and impartial?” Fischer asked for the defendants.

The trial is the first of three seditious conspiracy trials set this fall accusing members of the Oath Keepers and a second far-right group, the Proud Boys, of plotting to use force to oppose the lawful transition of power by attacking Congress.

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