Oath Keepers begin defense in trial over U.S. Capitol attack

FILE PHOTO: Stewart Rhodes of the Oath Keepers poses during an interview session in Eureka

By Chris Gallagher

WASHINGTON (Reuters) - Defense lawyers on Thursday opened their case in the trial of Oath Keepers leader Stewart Rhodes and four others over their alleged roles in the attack on the U.S. Capitol, arguing the defendants were in Washington to do security work and did not plot to stop the transfer of presidential power.

Rhodes and co-defendants Thomas Caldwell, Kenneth Harrelson, Kelly Meggs and Jessica Watkins are charged with multiple felonies in connection with the Capitol assault, including seditious conspiracy, which carries a sentence of up to 20 years in prison.

The first defense witness, Watkins’ fiancé Montana Siniff, testified that Watkins had had no intention to try to stop the election certification. Siniff was concerned when he saw that Watkins had entered the Capitol but said she was a “law-abiding citizen.”

“I never doubted her intentions but I thought it was a stupid idea,” he said.

Prosecutors, who rested their case on Thursday after more than a month, have said the defendants conspired to prevent Congress from certifying Democrat Joe Biden's election victory on Jan. 6, 2021, in a bid to keep Republican Donald Trump in power.

Some of the defendants were among the Trump supporters who stormed the Capitol building after the then-president falsely claimed the election had been stolen from him through widespread fraud.

Prosecutors presented evidence including text and audio communications among the defendants in the run-up to Jan. 6, and called witnesses including FBI agents and former members of the Oath Keepers.

Stanley Woodward, an attorney for Meggs, said in an opening statement that he would present an alternative motive for Meggs' actions.

Woodward, as well as Harrelson's lawyer Bradford Geyer in a separate statement, described their clients as having long been involved in disaster relief and security and were motivated to get involved with the Oath Keepers due to worries about riots and protests in the United States in 2020.

Woodward said Meggs had provided security at events on previous occasions, including for Trump ally Roger Stone, at the request of conspiracy theorist Alex Jones.

The evidence would show Meggs had done security work in Washington at a pro-Trump rally in November 2020 and was invited by Stone himself to Washington for security work on Jan. 6, but did not plan to enter the Capitol or stop the election, Woodward said.

Rhodes, a Yale-educated attorney and former U.S. Army paratrooper, is expected to take the stand at some stage as the defense presents its case.

(Reporting by Chris Gallagher, editing by Ross Colvin and Cynthia Osterman)