UPDATE 4-Court hears of 'torches and pitchforks' message in Oath Keepers Jan. 6 riot trial
"They concocted a plan for an armed rebellion to shatter a bedrock of American democracy," prosecutor Jeff Nestler said on Monday in an opening statement at their trial in federal court in Washington. Rhodes and his co-defendants Kelly Meggs, Thomas Caldwell, Jessica Watkins and Kenneth Harrelson are accused of plotting to forcefully prevent Congress from certifying Democratic President Joe Biden's 2020 election victory in a failed bid to keep then-President Donald Trump, a Republican, in power.
Prosecutors urged a jury to convict Oath Keepers founder Stewart Rhodes and four others for their roles in storming the U.S. Capitol on Jan. 6, 2021, saying some came clad in paramilitary gear as part of an alleged plot to forcefully disrupt the peaceful transfer of power. "They concocted a plan for an armed rebellion to shatter a bedrock of American democracy," prosecutor Jeff Nestler said on Monday in an opening statement at their trial in federal court in Washington.
Rhodes and his co-defendants Kelly Meggs, Thomas Caldwell, Jessica Watkins and Kenneth Harrelson are accused of plotting to forcefully prevent Congress from certifying Democratic President Joe Biden's 2020 election victory in a failed bid to keep then-President Donald Trump, a Republican, in power. Rhodes told his followers during the planning stage that "it will be torches and pitchforks time if they (Congress) don't do the right thing," according to an encrypted Signal message he sent to his followers that was shown to the jury by prosecutors.
Trump supporters stormed the U.S. Capitol last January after Trump falsely claimed the election had been stolen from him through widespread fraud. Five people died during and shortly after the riot, and about 140 police were injured. The five on trial face numerous felony charges, including seditious conspiracy - a Civil War-era statute that is rarely prosecuted and carries a statutory maximum sentence of 20 years in prison.
Prosecutors have said the defendants trained and planned for Jan. 6 and stockpiled weapons at a northern Virginia hotel outside the capital for a so-called "quick reaction force" that would be ready if called upon to transport arms into Washington. As lawmakers met on Jan. 6 to certify Biden's election victory, some Oath Keepers charged into the Capitol building, clad in paramilitary gear.
The government has characterized the Oath Keepers as a far-right anti-government group, some of whose members have ties to militias. Some of the members include current and former military and law enforcement personnel. Rhodes, a Yale-educated attorney and former U.S. Army paratrooper, has disputed that government's characterization.
Philip Linder, one of Rhodes' attorneys, promised the jury his client, whom he described as "extremely patriotic," would take the stand to explain his side of the story. He said the "real evidence" in the trial will show that the defendants were in Washington on Jan. 5 and 6 to provide security to a variety of speakers at political rallies.
DOWNPLAYING ROLES Watkins' attorney, Jonathan Crisp, said as a transgender woman his client "never felt like she fit in and a lot of things she did that day were to try to fit in, good and bad."
Crisp said Watkins, an Army veteran and a former firefighter who now runs a bar, regretted entering the Capitol building but denied her intention had been to stop the transfer of power. Caldwell’s attorney, David Fischer, stressed that his client had never attacked police, had not gone inside the Capitol building and had fully cooperated with the FBI.
Caldwell is accused of coordinating the “quick reaction force” (QRF) for Jan. 6. But “a QRF by definition would not be used to attack anything including the U.S. Capitol” and was only readied for emergency use, Fischer said. In opening statements on Monday, however, federal prosecutors painted a different picture. They showed videos, texts and other posts by defendants from before, during and after the Capitol attack.
Watkins told members of her local Ohio chapter that "I need you fighting fit by (inauguration)," while Meggs told followers from the Florida Oath Keepers that "the time for talk is over. The real question is who's willing to DIE?” according to text messages shown by the prosecution. On the day of the assault, Nestler said Watkins led a group of seven Oath Keepers toward the Senate side of the Capitol. As she stormed down the hallway with the "power of the mob with her," Nestler said she yelled "Push, push, push!"
He said that Watkins added: "They can't hold us."
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