USA TODAY US Edition
What is seditious conspiracy?
Oath Keepers leader Stewart Rhodes and another member of the right-wing militia group were found guilty of seditious conspiracy Tuesday in connection to their actions during the Jan. 6, 2021, attack on the U.S. Capitol.
⬤ It’s rare for the government to charge someone with seditious conspiracy, let alone to win a conviction. The two-month trial raised the stakes for the Justice Department, which condemned the Capitol attack as an assault on democracy.
⬤ Three other Oath Keepers associates on trial were acquitted of the charge. Here’s what you need to know about seditious conspiracy.
What is seditious conspiracy?
Legally, seditious conspiracy occurs when two or more people conspire to “overthrow, put down or to destroy by force” the U.S. government or bring war against it, or plot to use force to oppose the authority of the government or to block the execution of a law.
Prosecutors in the Oath Keepers trial charged that the militia members conspired to forcibly oppose the authority of the federal government and forcibly block the execution of laws governing the transfer of presidential power. Rhodes and one other Oath Keeper, Floridian Kelly Meggs, were found guilty of the former.
What is its history?
Seditious conspiracy became a federal crime in 1861, the year the Civil War began. The government sought to punish rebel Southerners who resisted the authority of the Constitution and existing Union. The charge is a less serious sister to treason.
What is the punishment for seditious conspiracy?
Seditious conspiracy is one of 57 federal crimes under the terrorism enhancement statute and can carry a 20-year prison sentence along with a maximum fine of $20,000.
But David Weinstein, a former federal prosecutor, has told USA TODAY that the maximum term could be increased by four to five years because the victims of the Oath Keepers’ actions were federal government officials.
A sentencing date has not been set.
What do the two Oath Keepers’ convictions mean?
Following the verdict, Attorney General Merrick Garland said the outcome evidenced the DOJ’s commitment to “holding accountable those criminally responsible for the assault on our democracy” on Jan. 6.
FBI Director Christopher Wray said the case shows “breaking the law in an attempt to undermine the functioning of American democracy will not be tolerated,” and U.S. Attorney Matthew M. Graves for the District of Columbia said it “reaffirms the strength of our democracy and the institutions that protect and preserve it.”
The two Oath Keepers found guilty of seditious conspiracy bolster the government’s narrative that the Capitol attack threatened American democracy, serving as a warning to government dissenters that violent acts against the U.S. will be punished.
But the acquittal handed down to the three other defendants could undermine that narrative and embolden the militia movement.
When was it last charged?
Seditious conspiracy was last charged in 2010, when members of the Hutaree militia, a right-wing Christian paramilitary group founded in Michigan, were accused of plotting to kill a police officer and then attack those in attendance at the funeral.
Its members were acquitted in 2012 after a federal judge found the government did not prove beyond a reasonable doubt the defendants had explicit plans for a rebellion, despite their hateful rhetoric.
“While this evidence could certainly lead a rational fact-finder to conclude that ‘something fishy’ was going on, it does not prove beyond a reasonable doubt that defendants reached a concrete agreement to forcibly oppose the United States government,” Judge Victoria A. Roberts of Federal District Court wrote in her ruling, according to The New York Times.
When did the government last win a conviction?
The last time the government won a guilty verdict on the charge was during the 1995 prosecution of Islamic militants who plotted to bomb New York City landmarks, just four months after the 1993 bombing of the World Trade Center.
Then-FBI Director Louis Freeh called the verdicts “an extraordinary victory in the fight against terrorism,” while attorneys for the 10 defendants condemned the proceeding as a “trial of nationalism” decided on “fear,” the Washington Post reported at the time.