After nearly seven weeks of testimony featuring dozens of witnesses and three defendants facing accusations of trying to use force to overthrow the government on Jan. 6, the case of five members of the right-wing Oath Keepers is now in the hands of the jury.
The transition from the courtroom to jury deliberations came at the end of the day Monday, after closing arguments for attorneys from Kenneth Harrelson, Jessica Watkins, and Thomas Caldwell, all charged alongside Oath Keepers founder Stewart Rhodes and Florida chapter head Kelly Meggs with seditious conspiracy, obstruction of an official proceeding of Congress, and a raft of other felonies in connection with the Jan. 6 attack on the U.S. Capitol.
Jurors heard closing arguments on behalf of Rhodes and Meggs last week. As Law&Crime reported, Meggs’ attorney focused on the alleged “security” that group members have provided for Donald Trump-aligned VIPs in the past, while Rhodes’ lawyers characterized their client’s statements as nothing more than “venting” that has been spun into “misconceptions” about the group by the “media.”
After a lengthy morning summation by Harrelson attorney Brad Geyer — who invoked perhaps one of the most famous lines from any criminal trial ever — and Watkins’ lawyer Jonathan Crisp, who said his client should be convicted of civil disorder only, the afternoon kicked off with closing arguments on behalf of Caldwell.
David Fischer, Caldwell’s lawyer, has long insisted that his client is a frail old man, a military vet who is “100% disabled” due to his service in the Philippines, and the victim of a “bait and switch” on the part of the federal government.
In Monday’s closing, he did not back down from that position. He repeatedly depicted his client as aging and fragile, a once-strong man who now needs his wife to help him get out of bed, tie his shoes, and sometimes clean up after him after he uses the bathroom.
Fischer said that Caldwell is “in bed by 8:00, taking his Geritol.”
“Give me a break, ladies and gentlemen,” he said to the jury of accusations that his client was a “conspirator.”
If anybody has the right to exercise their First Amendment in private messages to people who “get the joke,” Fischer said, even if those messages are sometimes “over the top,” Caldwell “has earned that right.”
In recalling Caldwell breaking down in tears on the witness stand, Fischer asked the jury if they know how “embarrassing” it was for Caldwell to have done that. He asked the jury to consider how “embarrassing” it must have been for Caldwell to “admit” that he wears Depends, or adult incontinence underwear.
“How did the government respond?” Fischer asked.
“Objection,” he replied, answering his own question and appearing to adopt a tone that suggested “the government” lawyers are not very smart.
Fischer also said that Caldwell knows nothing about the Insurrection Act and that he never said anything to the extent of “let’s go do an insurrection.” Stewart Rhodes had repeatedly called on Trump to invoke the Insurrection Act, apparently thinking that doing so would give him and the Oath Keepers free rein to carry out a military-style operation to keep the 45th president in office.
While the government had painted Caldwell as playing a key role in setting up the Quick Reaction Force, or QRF — and specifically taking steps to procure a boat to possibly ferry a cache of weapons stored at a hotel in Virginia to the Capitol — Fischer tried to shift the spotlight to North Carolina Oath Keepers leader Paul Stamey.
As support, Fischer cited a message from Stamey in which he referenced his “sources” in DC who were working on getting a boat.
Caldwell’s response to that message — that he’s “on the case” — could reasonably be inferred to mean that Caldwell is simply trying to carry out Stamey’s plan, Fischer said.
Fischer, not entirely rhetorically, also asked if someone guilty of obstruction justice would give an hours-long interview to the FBI, without an attorney, having waived his Miranda rights, and handed over his social media password as well.
Regarding the evidence tampering charge, Fischer said that Caldwell did not destroy evidence when he deleted some 180 messages from his records, but rather that he was simply looking to leave Facebook and had deleted many messages unrelated to Jan. 6.
“The Evidence of These Defendants’ Guilt Is Overwhelming. It Is Right in Front of Your Eyes.”
Assistant U.S. Attorney Jeffrey Nestler provided the government’s rebuttal to the defendants’ closing arguments, confidently and unequivocally repeating that the defendants are guilty.
“The evidence of these defendants’ guilt is overwhelming,” Nestler began. “It is right in front of your eyes.”
Nestler said that the defendants “said what they wanted to do” and travelled from all corners of the country to do it, and successfully halted the Jan. 6 joint session of Congress to certify the Electoral College vote. He argued that despite the defense attorneys’ insistence that their clients’ statements were mere hyperbole, they in fact showed that the defendants did enter into a conspiracy, and showed their motive, intent, and knowledge in doing so.
“The defendants’ statements are the evidence,” Nestler said, adding that their own statements prove the government’s case.
Nestler emphasized that the accused did not have to enter an explicit agreement, or even agree on the details of a plan, noting that “conspirators don’t always spell out every aspect” of their plot, but that “they all know what they want to try to accomplish together.”
According to Nestler, the government had only to prove that the defendants had a “mutual understanding” to try to keep Trump in power.
“These defendants agreed to oppose by force the lawful transfer of power after the 2020 presidential election,” Nestler said.
As for why the defendants chose Jan. 6 to carry out their plan, Nestler said that they had grown “desperate” after seeing their chosen candidate lose dozens of court cases challenging the election results and they were “ready to act.”
“They saw their opportunity, and they seized it,” Nestler said. “It’s that simple.”
Nestler repeatedly told the jury that the defendants who took the stand — Rhodes, Watkins, and Caldwell — lied in their testimony, and that they did so because the truth was so “damning” to them.
“[Stewart Rhodes] thinks he’s smarter than everybody else,” Nestler said of the group’s leader, who is a Yale-educated lawyer. “But he’s not.”
Nestler said that Rhodes, who was seen at the West Terrace of the Capitol building as the riot was under way, had specifically lied about the timing of sending a message because he wanted to cover up the fact that he was, in fact, present for the violent initial breach of the building at around 2:15 p.m.
Nestler called attention to the testimony of Watkins, who said on the stand that after she had gotten inside the Capitol, she immediately regretted it and fell into a “somber” mood. However, video showed Watkins appearing to be “gleeful,” Nestler said, of having pushed past police into the building.
“Why did she lie?” Nestler asked the jury. “She wants you to think that she feels so bad about what she did that she couldn’t have done the other things she’s accused of doing.”
Nestler said Watkins’ remorse is nothing more than “classic remorse of someone who got caught.”
Nestler also took direct aim at Fischer’s assertion that Caldwell’s deleting of messages was nothing more than someone looking unload excess digital data.
The prosecutor said that deleting additional evidence would be a “clever” way for someone to hide evidence that they did indeed want to delete, calling it a “crafty” way to get rid of evidence.
“You have literally boatloads of evidence — including about boats — that show Caldwell destroyed evidence,” Nestler said, adding that Caldwell started “surgically” unsending 180 messages the evening of Jan. 18, just hours after reading a media report that identified Watkins and Donovan Crowl, an Oath Keepers member charged in a separate Jan. 6 case.
Regarding the defense argument that the Oath Keepers members met no resistance from police when they entered the building, Nestler called such assertions “disgusting,” particularly citing Watkins’ testimony that the mood inside the Capitol was akin to a post-Thanksgiving “Black Friday” shopping frenzy.
“Look at what was actually happening,” Nestler said as he showed video of law enforcement officers literally pushing back against Oath Keepers members, some of whom were screaming at them. “It literally was a life and death scenario for many of these police officers.”
At the end of his closing, Nestler reminded the jury the long history of the peaceful transition of power in the U.S., and said that the defendants ignored that history because they feel that they are above the law.
“[The defendants] ignored the laws, and they ignored the will of the people, because they hated the outcome of the 2020 presidential election,” Nestler said. “So they took matters out of the hands of the American people and put rifles into their own hands. They drove across the country and took aim at Washington D.C.
“While doing so, they claimed to be oath keepers. They did not live up to that creed,” Nestler continued. “They claimed to be saving the republic, but they fractured it instead.”
Telling the D.C. jury that they had an “awesome power” bestowed by the Constitution, Nestler said that it is their “solemn responsibility to sit in judgment and hold [the defendants] accountable for agreeing to commit sedition against the government of the United States of America.”
“They are not above the law,” Nestler continued. “We ask you to uphold the constitution that they tried to subvert.”
“I Have Been Honored to Preside Over This Trial.”
After Nestler finished his closing, U.S. District Judge Amit Mehta, a Barack Obama appointee, turned to the jury, noting first that the time had come to dismiss the remaining two alternate jurors that remained.
He acknowledged that it’s “difficult” to dismiss jurors right before deliberations on a trial that’s been as arduous as this one, but reminded them to follow the usual rules about staying away from media coverage and discussing the case with people in case they needed to be called back to deliberate.
Once the alternate jurors were excused, Mehta then addressed the deliberating jurors.
“And then there were 12,” he said, before reminding them of the upcoming holiday schedule — with Thanksgiving on Thursday, the court will be closed on Wednesday and Friday as well — and, perhaps anticipating that jurors would not reach a unanimous verdict on all charges Tuesday, wished them a good rest of the week.
Once the jurors had filed out, the judge took some time to share what can only be described as very high praise for both the prosecutors and defense attorneys in this case.
“I’ll leave it to history to put this case in historical context, but if the American people were looking for an example of how our institutions are supposed to work, about how our democracy functions, about how our justice system operates, they have no better example than this case,” Mehta told the legal teams.
“The lawyers on both sides of this case, notwithstanding the high stakes … for months have shown nothing but the highest degree of professionalism,” the judge continued. “Our profession as lawyers should not only be proud of what [these attorneys] have done, but all of the people in this country should be proud of what you’ve done.”
Mehta noted that the lawyers spent “considerable time” away from their families” as part of their “commitment to justice.”
“The reflection on the people in this room and what you have accomplished over the last seven to eight weeks — longer than that — is a testament of your ability and skill,” Mehta said. “I have been honored to preside over this trial. You’ve done more to demonstrate to the American people how our government operates and how our government is supposed to run in ways that you cannot appreciate.”
[Images via FBI court filing.]
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