Attorneys for Oath Keepers leader Stewart Rhodes want the years he served as the organization’s leader to count toward his potential 25-year prison sentence, arguing the “entirely volunteer” organization’s history of public service goes “above and beyond” what would be considered “good community works” that are typically weighed in federal sentencing guidelines.
Rhodes, a Yale law school graduate, founded and led the right-wing organization for 12 years leading up to its involvement in the riot at the U.S. Capitol on January 6, 2021. He was ultimately found guilty on multiple sedition charges for allegedly helping orchestrate the riot in an effort to overturn the 2020 election result and could spend the next 25 years in prison after federal prosecutors requested the quarter-century sentence over the weekend.
Federal prosecutors said that Rhodes conspired with other members of the organization via encrypted and private communications applications to travel to Washington, D.C. to disrupt the vote count, going as far as laying plans to bring weapons to the area to support the operation.
According to the indictment, the group, led by Rhodes, sought to channel protective gear, firearms and ammunition into Washington, organize training in paramilitary combat tactics, and orchestrate the disruption of the presidential transfer of power. Rhodes himself spent a total of $33,000 obtaining an arsenal of weapons and gear in the days before and after the January 6, 2021, attack, the Department of Justice said.
All combined were crimes prosecutors said at the time carried as much as a 20-year prison sentence. Prosecutors, however, wanted more.
In court papers Friday, the U.S. government said Rhodes “exploited his vast public influence” as leader of the militia group to persuade others to join in the attack, qualifying him for far more prison time than the sentences others tied to the conspiracy had received. To date, the longest sentence levied in the scheme was 14 years, while most sentences to date have been under five years. Rhodes, they said, deserved more than that.
“(Rhodes) used his talents for manipulation to goad more than twenty other American citizens into using force, intimidation, and violence to seek to impose their preferred result on a U.S. presidential election,” the filing reads. “This conduct created a grave risk to our democratic system of government and must be met with swift and severe punishment.”
Attorneys for Rhodes, however, say such a sentence would be undeserved.
In a 70-page court filing from May 8, Rhodes’ attorneys argued Rhodes’ comments in the lead-up to January 6 were politically protected speech, noting emailed communications to members where he specifically stressed non-violence. But the ruling also sought to paint a different picture of the Oath Keepers than the one outlined by the prosecution.
In their telling, the Oath Keepers had an exemplary history of community involvement during times of natural disasters and civil unrest Rhodes’ attorneys said should be contemplated as part of the judge’s decision, and disproved allegations by prosecutors and the press the far-right, anti-government militia group had inherently extremist aims.
In one instance, the Oath Keepers provided security for a local fire department in the wake of Hurricane Harvey, and delivered wellness checks for stranded citizens, Rhodes’ attorneys said in the filing. During the riots that resulted from the killing of Michael Brown by police in Ferguson, Missouri as well as the police-involved killing of Breonna Taylor, the group provided security for businesses in Ferguson as well as Taylor’s hometown of Louisville, Kentucky from looters—often toting firearms—at the request of shopkeepers who felt threatened by the violence.
The group was not about “extreme” ideals, they said: they were about “American” ideals.
“Much as the character of those within the Oath Keepers has been misconstrued and mischaracterized by others, so too has their history and actions,” the court filing read. “The organization from its inception was dedicated to philanthropy, aiding others in times of both civil unrest as well as natural disasters, community preparedness, and legal education.
“Those efforts are the natural result of the underlying character and principles of its founder and is reflective of his intent for those principles to be one of the foundations of the Oath Keepers organization.”
Rhodes, his attorneys wrote, embodied that ethic—traits that should be kept in mind when weighing his sentence.
“If a person is judged by their character, that character is proven by their actions,” the filing read. “And if one is honest, the character of Mr. Rhodes is easily settled upon. From its inception, Mr. Rhodes gave his life to the Oath Keepers. Certainly, this court too should consider this in the totality of ‘the history and characteristics of the defendant.’”
Newsweek reached out to Rhodes’ attorney, Phillip Linder, via email for comment.