After three days and roughly 120 often-painstaking, in-person interviews with a wide cross-section of Washington, D.C., residents, a jury has been selected in the first seditious conspiracy trial of Oath Keepers leaders and members. The militant Donald Trump supporters stand accused of plotting to block the transition of presidential power to Joe Biden.
The trial of Stewart Rhodes and four co-defendants is arguably the most high-profile Jan. 6 case to date: Rhodes and 10 co-defendants are charged with preparing a so-called “Quick Reaction Force” and a cache of weapons just outside the city limits of the capital. Members of the Oath Keepers group, whose membership is largely made up of people who were once in the military or worked as law enforcement officers, were allegedly seen forcing their way through the crowd outside the Capitol on Jan. 6 using a “stack formation” to approach the building. Watchdog organizations have described the group as “anti-government extremists who are part of the militia movement” and “militaristic.”
The trial of Rhodes and co-defendants Kelly Meggs, Kenneth Harrelson, Thomas Caldwell, and Jessica Watkins, is currently underway before U.S. District Judge Amit Mehta, a Barack Obama appointee. They are charged with seditious conspiracy, obstruction of an official proceeding of Congress — both of which carry a sentence of up to 20 years in prison — and a variety of other felonies in connection with the Jan. 6 Capitol siege. Opening statements in the case start Monday.
“None of This Happens Without You.”
The jury selection process began with a 15-page, 68-question survey of 150 potential jurors that aimed to determine whether they could be sufficiently fair and impartial to sit in judgment of the high-profile defendants. Mehta agreed to dismiss 29 respondents based on their answers to the written questions alone, leaving 121 jurors to be questioned in-person by the judge, the prosecutors, and the defense attorneys.
Starting Tuesday, that’s exactly what happened: jurors were brought into the courtroom, one by one. They faced questions from Mehta, who often delved deeper into whether the juror had heard of the Oath Keepers, what they thought of the group, and whether they could put any impressions aside for purposes of considering whatever evidence was presented at trial. Jurors were asked on the questionnaire if they had attended any political rallies in the past five years, and those that answered in the affirmative were asked if they felt they could fairly judge defendants who had opposing political views.
They answered these questions in full view of the defendants, who sat quietly each day along one side of a table that faced the witness stand where the potential jurors were interviewed. Rhodes sat closest to the front of the courtroom, with Watkins to his left. Meggs sat next to her, then Harrelson. Caldwell, the only defendant not in custody pending trial, sat at one end of the table in an office chair that included a headrest; he was seen throughout the week walking to and from the courtroom with a cane.
The pool of 121 was ultimately whittled down to 47 qualified jurors on Thursday afternoon. They were called back into the courtroom, where they were arranged and rearranged in various orders until ultimately only 16 people — 12 jurors and four alternates — were ultimately selected.
After the dismissed jurors left the room, Mehta took a moment to express his gratitude to the sixteen people who were selected.
“Thanks is not enough,” the judge said, after wryly musing that they probably didn’t start the week expecting to have a role in such a high-profile case. “We really appreciate your candor [in answering questions], and your willingness to carry out your duties.”
“None of this happens without you,” Mehta added.
The jurors then retreated to a different courtroom to wait for further instructions from the judge. At that point, Caldwell attorney David Fischer told Mehta that the defendants would be renewing — again — their motion to move the case to a different jurisdiction, a request that Mehta has already twice denied.
“I Worry About How Anonymous I would Actually Be.”
The day began with Mehta aiming to qualify at least 10 jurors in addition to the 35 who had been qualified the previous two days. In the morning, however, it appeared that this might not actually happen, as the judge dismissed five consecutive jurors for cause. Each of them, Mehta said, held opinions or views that he said were too deeply ingrained for them to be impartial.
One juror, for example, appeared to have read extensively about the Oath Keepers group, calling it a “paramilitary organization” that appeared “intent on seeing that Trump continues his presidency.”
Although the man said that he believed he could be fair in judging the case, he also expressed concerns for his own safety and the safety of his family in connection with serving on the jury — the first potential juror to do so.
“It’s a very high-profile case so I worry about how anonymous I would actually be,” the juror said.
Mehta dismissed the man from the jury pool.
Another man said that he was bothered by what he called “two different displays of police intervention,” citing a “level of enforcement” against Black Lives Matter protests that he says didn’t occur at the Capitol on Jan. 6.
The rioters, the man said, “ran through [the Capitol] like it was nothing … to see so little resistance or self-defense of the Capitol was shocking and upsetting.”
“It bothers me tremendously,” the man added. Mehta dismissed him from the jury pool as well.
By the late morning, however, the pace had appeared to pick up, with the majority of some 10 additional jurors being kept in the pool of those deemed qualified to serve.
‘We’re Late to the Party, But We Realize What’s Going On.’
Also at the start of the day, Mehta announced that he was striking a juror from the pool who the day before he had deemed qualified.
That juror, a woman who lived in D.C. and had apparently been interviewed by the FBI in connection with what she had witnessed, had said that she felt a personal connection to the events of the day. On Wednesday, Mehta kept her in the jury pool, over the objections of defense counsel and to the apparent dismay of Nicole Reffitt, wife of Guy Reffitt, the first Jan. 6 defendant to be convicted in a jury trial.
When Mehta overruled objections from attorneys David Fischer, who represents Caldwell, and Stanley Woodward, who represents Harrelson, Reffitt appeared to react with dismay, shaking her head in apparent incredulity. Micki Witthoeft, the mother of Ashli Babbitt, who was shot to death while allegedly trying to break through a window outside the Speaker’s Lobby, was sitting with Reffitt at the time, and appeared to react the same way.
“Out of an abundance of caution, I’m going to strike [the juror],” Mehta said Thursday morning, saying that he had had “time to reflect” on his decision and reconsidered his conclusion.
After being told of Mehta’s change of heart, Reffitt said that she appreciated the judge’s decision.
“I’m glad he’s reflecting on some of [his decisions],” Reffitt told Law&Crime. “I appreciate that he thought about it.”
Reffitt added that she is sympathetic to the idea that residents of Washington would feel directly affected by what happened at the Capitol on Jan. 6 and would have strong opinions about it.
Reffitt, who lives in Dallas, told Law&Crime she has been in Washington for about a month. She said that while she is surprised to find herself in this position, she feels it is important to support the families of Jan. 6 defendants, and added that she is starting to lean in to her role as an advocate for jail and prison reform.
Detained defendants in Jan. 6 cases have raised concerns multiple times about the conditions of the jails in which they are held, prompting one judge to hold jail officials in contempt and call for an investigation into possible civil rights violations.
“We’re late to the party, but we realize what’s going on,” Reffitt said, nodding to the fact that other voices have been advocating for reform for decades.
Opening statements in the trial of Rhodes and his four co-defendants are set to start on Monday.
[Image of Rhodes via Collin County (Tex.) Jail. Images of Watkins, Caldwell, Harrelson, and Meggs via FBI court filing.]
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