The founder and leader of the right-wing Oath Keepers militia group and his 10 co-defendants have pleaded not guilty to charges of seditious conspiracy in connection with the Jan. 6 attack on the U.S. Capitol.
Stewart Rhodes, 56, was indicted earlier this month along with 10 other people. According to prosecutors, the co-defendants “planned to stop the lawful transfer of presidential power by January 20, 2021, which included multiple ways to deploy force.”
The charges against Rhodes and his co-defendants are the most serious yet in the federal prosecution that has charged more than 700 people accused of participating in the Capitol riot.
The Rhodes case is one of three cases against alleged Oath Keepers in connection with the Jan. 6 siege, in which hundreds of Donald Trump supporters overran police to breach the Capitol building in an attempt to stop Congress from certifying Joe Biden‘s win in the 2020 presidential election.
A total of 19 defendants were arraigned before U.S. District Judge Amit Mehta on Tuesday.
Nine of them joined Rhodes in pleading not guilty: Thomas Caldwell, Joseph Hackett, Kenneth Harrelson, Joshua James, Kelly Meggs, Roberto Minuta, David Moerschel, Brian Ulrich, and Jessica Watkins.
An additional defendant, Edward Vallejo, was not present at the hearing.
Nine of those defendants—all except Rhodes and Vallejo—had previously been named in an indictment from last year. At Tuesday’s hearing, they were officially dropped from that case, although the charges originally filed against them remain, according to the FBI.
Seven defendants remain in the original case: Donovan Crowl, William Isaacs, Connie Meggs, Sandra Parker, Bernie Parker, Laura Steele, and James Beeks.
All the defendants in the Crowl case pleaded not guilty Tuesday except for Beeks.
Joshua Uller, Beeks’ lawyer, said that he would “stay silent as to a plea in this matter” on behalf of his client.
The third of the Oath Keepers cases is against Jonathan Walden, who also entered a plea of not guilty. Walden was previously named in the 2021 Oath Keepers indictment, but as of Tuesday he was removed from that case.
In addition to the arraignments, Mehta addressed the issue of the upcoming trial dates in the two multi-defendant cases. Noting that the Crowl case—previously known as the Caldwell case—has been pending since the beginning of 2021, Mehta indicated he was eager to get that case to trial sooner rather than later.
“We’ve got to be mindful about getting these cases to trial,” Mehta said, adding that if the Crowl trial doesn’t start in April, it will be “increasingly difficult” to find time later in the year.
The defense attorneys strongly disagreed. Each of them asked to push the trial date further into the year, raising issues ranging from discovery to schedule conflicts.
“Just because the case has gotten smaller doesn’t mean the scope of evidence has narrowed,” said defense attorney Carmen Hernandez, who is representing Crowl.
“I don’t see how my client can get a fair trial,” said Stephen Brenwald, Parker’s attorney.
Mehta, a Barack Obama appointee, was sympathetic, but told the attorneys he was keeping the April trial date.
“This is not going to come as welcome news to anyone,” Mehta said. “This trial date is going to have to hold.”
Mehta said that the attorneys already had most of the “core discovery” in the case, and it isn’t fair to the defendants, especially those currently in detention, to push the cases back any further.
“At some point these cases have to go trial,” Mehta said. “I’m prepared to try in April and I think everybody else needs to get up to speed.” Mehta also noted that he is mindful of the public interest in having the cases go to trial.
Similarly, Mehta told the attorneys in the Rhodes case that they “should be on notice” that July 11 is their trial date.
However, Mehta agreed with Edward MacMahon, the attorney for Walden, that it was too soon to set a trial date in his case, and set another status conference for mid-February.
[Images via FBI/Collin County (Tex.) Jail.]
Editor’s note: this story originally identified Edward Vallejo as one of the co-defendants who entered a plea of not guilty at this hearing. Vallejo was not present at this hearing, and was arraigned in a separate hearing at a later date.
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