The founder of the Oath Keepers extremist group was sentenced on Thursday to 18 years in prison for orchestrating a weeks-long plot that culminated in his followers attacking the US Capitol in a bid to keep President Joe Biden out of the White House after the 2020 election.
Stewart Rhodes is the first person charged in the January 6 2021, attack to be sentenced for seditious conspiracy, and his sentence is the longest that has been handed down so far in the hundreds of Capitol riot cases.
It is another milestone for the Justice Department’s sprawling January 6 investigation, which has led to seditious conspiracy convictions against the leaders of two far-right extremist groups that authorities say came to Washington prepared to fight to keep president Donald Trump in power at all costs.
Before handing down the sentence, the judge told a defiant Rhodes that he is a continued threat to the US, saying it is clear Rhodes “wants democracy in this country to devolve into violence”.
“The moment you are released, whenever that may be, you will be ready to take up arms against your government,” US District Judge Amit Mehta said.
It was one of the most consequential cases brought by the Justice Department, which has sought to prove that the riot by right-wing extremists like the Oath Keepers was not a spur-of-the-moment protest but the culmination of weeks of plotting to overturn Mr Biden’s election victory.
Prosecutors had sought 25 years for Rhodes, who they say was the architect of a plot to forcibly disrupt the transfer of presidential power that included “quick reaction force” teams at a Virginia hotel to ferry weapons into Washington if they were needed. The weapons were never deployed.
In remarks shortly before the judge handed down the sentence, Rhodes slammed the prosecution as politically motivated, noted that he never went inside the Capitol and insisted he never told anyone else to do so.
“I’m a political prisoner and, like president Trump, my only crime is opposing those who are destroying our country,” Rhodes said.
In a first for a January 6 case, Judge Amit Mehta agreed with prosecutors to apply enhanced penalties for “terrorism”, under the argument that the Oath Keepers sought to influence the government through “intimidation or coercion”.
Judges in previous sentencings had shot down the Justice Department’s request for the so-called “terrorism enhancement” – which can lead to a longer prison term – but Mehta said it fits in Rhodes’ case.
Another Oath Keeper convicted alongside Rhodes in November: Florida chapter leader Kelly Meggs; was expected to receive his sentence later Thursday.
Two other Oath Keepers, acquitted of the sedition charge but convicted of other offenses, will be sentenced on Friday. And four other members found guilty of seditious conspiracy at a second trial in January are scheduled to be sentenced next week.