WASHINGTON — The Justice Department dropped a bombshell a week and a half ago with the first seditious conspiracy indictment in connection with the Jan. 6 insurrection. On Tuesday, a judge spent more than two hours trying to untangle the logistics of what happens next.
Nineteen people with alleged ties to the Oath Keepers extremist group are charged across three separate cases with playing some role in the attack on the Capitol. US District Judge Amit Mehta announced on Tuesday that one set of defendants — those charged with conspiring to obstruct Congress, but not sedition — will go to trial starting April 19 over objections from their lawyers that it’s too soon.
As for the 11 seditious conspiracy defendants — a group that includes Oath Keepers leader Stewart Rhodes — Mehta set a trial date for July 11. He scheduled a second trial for Sept. 26 if it proved too unwieldy to keep that group together. In another notable moment during the marathon hearing, Assistant US Attorney Kathryn Rakoczy said that in advance of trial the government was open to plea negotiations and had already broached the subject with defense lawyers; it was possible the new indictment might change some defendants’ “perspective” on what they wanted to do, she told the judge.
The seditious conspiracy indictment marked a major milestone in the Jan. 6 investigation, but Mehta signaled he was wary of that development stretching out the timeline of the trials. The original Oath Keepers case was filed just a few weeks after the insurrection. In the months that followed, prosecutors added new defendants and filled in more details about their alleged role in the conspiracy and events before, during, and after the insurrection. Mehta said he didn’t think the latest indictment changed much in terms of the scope of what the government had already put forward in that earlier case.
Three defendants charged in the original Oath Keepers case who were included in the seditious conspiracy indictment — Jessica Watkins, Kelly Meggs, and Kenneth Harrelson — have been in jail since they were arrested in the early months of 2021, which adds to the pressure to get them to trial.
Defense lawyers offered a preview of some potential legal fights to come. Rhodes and prosecutors are waiting for a federal magistrate judge in Texas to rule on whether he’ll have to stay in jail pending trial. Rhodes’ lawyer Phillip Linder told Mehta that whichever side lost in the Texas court planned to appeal to Mehta; the judge told the attorneys to contact his chambers as soon as there was a ruling so he could quickly set a schedule.
A lawyer for Thomas Caldwell, another defendant named in the seditious conspiracy case, asked Mehta to set a schedule for challenges to some of the new charges featured in the latest indictment. Sedition is a rarely brought offense; federal prosecutors last tried to pursue it in a 2010 indictment, and a judge acquitted defendants of that count two years later. Mehta has rejected legal challenges so far to charges in the previous Oath Keepers conspiracy indictment, and he said on Tuesday that those rulings would carry over to the new case.
All 19 defendants charged in the three Oath Keepers cases are accused of trying to obstruct Congress’s certification of the Electoral College results. Two of the cases allege conspiracies. The seditious conspiracy indictment accuses Rhodes and his 10 codefendants of being part of a plot to use force to stop the transfer of power from former president Donald Trump to President Joe Biden. Seditious conspiracy sweeps more broadly than the original conspiracy count; the former delves into the alleged anti-government motivations of defendants, while the latter focuses more on the practicalities of alleged planning by the Oath Keepers to attack the Capitol on Jan. 6.
Nine of the 17 people named in the original Oath Keepers case were indicted in the new seditious conspiracy case along with Rhodes and Edward Vallejo. Seven of the original defendants were charged in an updated indictment. The last defendant, Jonathan Walden, was reindicted separate from the rest of the group. He’s no longer charged with conspiracy, and the government hasn’t publicly explained why. Mehta didn’t set a trial date for Walden, and he instead scheduled a hearing next month for an update.
Tuesday’s hearing began with arraignments on the three latest indictments. Seventeen of the 19 defendants entered initial pleas of “not guilty” to the charges. Vallejo was not present. A federal magistrate judge in Arizona ruled last week that he must stay in jail while the case is pending; he hasn’t pursued an appeal with Mehta yet.
A lawyer for James Beeks, one of the defendants left in the original conspiracy case, told the judge on Tuesday that they would “stand silent” instead of entering a plea; Beeks’s lawyer, Wisconsin federal public defender Joshua Uller, didn’t elaborate on that during the hearing and did not immediately return a request for comment. Beeks was only added to the Oath Keepers case in November, and Mehta said he wouldn’t need to worry about the April trial date.
The April and July trial dates had been on the calendar before, but the latest round of indictments prompted Mehta to change the order. The judge had planned for the jailed defendants — Watkins, Meggs, and Harrelson — to go first but decided that was no longer workable now that they were facing new charges and new codefendants in the seditious conspiracy case.
Defense lawyers with clients in the original conspiracy case argued to Mehta that the April date wasn’t doable for them either. They told the judge that the government was still turning over evidence and that they needed time to understand how the seditious conspiracy case affected their clients since they involved overlapping characters and events. Mehta said he was “sympathetic” to their concerns but stuck with the April date; they already had the “core” of the government’s evidence, the judge explained.
Rakoczy told the judge that her office expected to turn over more materials to defendants and their lawyers in the next four to six weeks, including witness interview reports and information that investigators pulled from electronic devices and online accounts that belonged to defendants, “subjects” of the investigation who hadn’t been charged, and witnesses.