U.S. urges jury to convict Oath Keepers for plotting to keep Trump in power

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

By Sarah N. Lynch

WASHINGTON (Reuters) - A prosecutor on Friday urged jurors to convict Stewart Rhodes, founder of the right-wing Oath Keepers militia group, and four associates, saying they "threw their bodies to the cause" on the day of the U.S. Capitol attack to try to block Congress from certifying Joe Biden's victory over then-President Donald Trump.

Prosecution and defense lawyers gave closing arguments to the jury in federal court in Washington in an eight-week trial that has included testimony from 50 witnesses and video of the Jan. 6, 2021, rampage by Trump supporters at the Capitol. The defense was due to complete its closing arguments on Monday before jurors begin deliberations.

The defendants, their lawyers told the jury, went to Washington that day to protest the election and provide security to high-profile speakers at political rallies, and had no plan to storm the Capitol - nor were they ordered to do so.

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

"These defendants banded together and agreed to do whatever was necessary, up to and including using force and violence, to stop the election result from becoming finalized, and then on Jan. 6, they struck," prosecutor Kathryn Rakoczy told the jury.

"They saw the riot unfolding at the Capitol and they threw their bodies to the cause, and they took it," Rakoczy added.

The Capitol attack followed false claims by Trump, a Republican, and his allies that the November 2020 presidential election was stolen from him through widespread voting fraud. Biden, a Democrat, took office two weeks later.

The rioters attacked police and sent lawmakers, staff and even Trump's own vice president, Mike Pence, fleeing for safety.

Prosecutors presented video of the riots, text messages, audio recordings, surveillance footage and excerpts from the testimony of confessed co-conspirators. Three of the five defendants also took the witness stand in their own defense.

As Rakoczy recapped the evidence on Friday, she sought to convince the jury that the defendants' inflammatory banter about the 2020 election was more than just bluster.

In order to obtain a conviction on the charge of seditious conspiracy, prosecutors must prove beyond a reasonable doubt that two or more people plotted to use force to oppose the U.S. government.

The prosecution has said members of the Oath Keepers conspired to use force to keep Trump in power by stopping Congress from certifying Biden's election victory, with defendants Meggs, Watkins and Harrelson entering the Capitol clad in tactical gear.

Prosecutors also have said the Oath Keepers staged a "quick reaction force" in a nearby Virginia hotel that featured a stockpile of firearms that could be taken into Washington if needed.

The defense painted a different picture.

"There was no meeting of the minds. There was no plan," James Lee Bright, one of Rhodes' attorneys, told jurors.

Rhodes, Caldwell and Watkins testified in their own defense. They denied plotting any attack or seeking to block Congress from certifying the election results, though Watkins admitted to impeding police officers protecting the Capitol.

During cross-examination, prosecutors tried to undermine the credibility of the defendants by showing examples of violent rhetoric they used before, during and after the riot in messages on the Zello "walkie-talkie" app, phone calls, texts and on social media.

Defense attorneys downplayed the significance of that evidence.

"It was heated rhetoric. Horrible heated rhetoric. Bombast. Inappropriate. But that is not indicative of an agreement of a meeting of the minds," Bright said.

(Reporting by Sarah N. Lynch; Editing by Will Dunham, Howard Goller and Ross Colvin)