WASHINGTON -- A federal judge sentenced Oath Keepers founder Stewart Rhodes to 18 years in prison Thursday and accepted the government's recommendation of an enhancement for terrorism for his role leading a seditious conspiracy to disrupt the certification of President Joe Biden's election victory that culminated in the violent assault on the U.S. Capitol on Jan. 6, 2021.
Rhodes' sentence is now the longest to date handed down to a defendant charged in connection with the Capitol assault.
For the first time in a Jan. 6 case, D.C. District Judge Amit Mehta accepted the government's recommendation to apply an enhancement for terrorism in Rhodes' sentencing. Mehta agreed with prosecutors that Rhodes "inspired the use of violence" in his followers to disrupt the certification and that his conduct met the legal definition of terrorism intended to influence the actions of government.
Mehta cited the stockpile of weapons the Oath Keepers had amassed just outside of Washington, D.C. on Jan. 6, as well as Rhodes' orders for members to delete incriminating messages after the Capitol assault.
"You, sir, present an ongoing threat and peril to this country," Mehta told Rhodes just before handing down his sentence.
Before his sentence was handed down, Rhodes opted to address Mehta in defiant remarks maintaining his innocence and describing himself as a "political prisoner."
"Like President Trump, my only crime is opposing those who are destroying our country," Rhodes said.
In his own remarks just before handing down his sentence, Mehta pushed back directly on Rhodes' claims of being a political prisoner, saying instead he poses an "ongoing threat to this country."
"For decades it is clear that you wanted the democracy in this country to devolve into violence," Mehta said. "You're not a political prisoner. You're here because 12 jurors in D.C. who acquitted you of multiple counts found you guilty of sedition."
"It could have been a far uglier day ... and people should not forget that," he said of Jan. 6.
After the sentence was handed down, Rhodes' attorneys said they did not agree with the sentence but also expected a much stronger one than Rhodes had received. They said this sentence speaks volumes to anyone who gets convicted of sedition.
Prior to Thursday, the harshest sentence for a defendant charged in connection with Jan. 6 was 170 months, or just over 14 years.
The Justice Department was seeking 25 years for Rhodes, with a prosecutor saying in court Thursday that a harsh sentence was critical "to ensure the respect for the rule of law that is essential to the survival of our democracy."
Assistant U.S. Attorney Kathryn Rakoczy said Rhodes "doggedly drilled in the minds of those on his chats, and those followers of the Oath Keepers the lie of the election fraud, and the false need to act like the Founding Fathers in order to save in his view, our Constitution and our country." She said it was "neither the first time nor the last time that he will seek to organize political violence in our country," and pointed to statements he made from jail just four days ago to a protest gathered outside where he said it would "take regime change" to fix the wrongs being done by the Biden Administration.
"It's not going to stop until its stopped," Rakoczy said, quoting Rhodes' remarks.
Rhodes was convicted of seditious conspiracy against the United States last November. A jury found he and other members of the group played a principal role in disrupting the certification of Joe Biden's 2020 election victory.
The decision marked the first successful seditious conspiracy conviction by a jury since 1995.
Justice Department prosecutors sought 25 years for Rhodes, their highest recommendation yet for a defendant charged in connection with Jan. 6.
In their sentencing recommendation to Mehta, they argued repeatedly that harsh sentences for all the Oath Keepers charged in the conspiracy were necessary in order to deter future potential attacks against democracy.
Juries in two separate trials returned convictions against Rhodes and eight of his associates on a variety of serious felony charges, though three from the group were acquitted of the most serious charge of seditious conspiracy.
Relying on a trove of messages between the group's members discussing "civil war" in the event of Biden taking office, prosecutors argued that Rhodes and his co-conspirators were willing to take any action necessary, including using force, to stop the certification.
Prosecutors also presented extensive evidence of the group's planning in advance of Jan. 6, showing how members stashed a massive cache of weapons at a hotel just outside city limits that the government argued would be transported into Washington in the event Trump invoked the Insurrection Act.
Stemming from unfounded claims of election fraud, the defendants railed against the government in private chats and social media posts.
Rhodes remained defiant in remarks before his sentence was ultimately handed down on Thursday.
On Wednesday, police officers who defended the Capitol and a Senate aide who carried the official 2020 election documents spoke in court to explain the continuing trauma they face more than two years after the riots.
"We were assaulted time and time again," D.C. police officer Christopher Owens told he court. He talked about the violent mob repeatedly grabbing at his police gear, even trying to take his weapon.
His voice heavy with emotion, Owens described coming home to his family and his wife sobbing after seeing his bruised and battered his body.
"We experienced physical trauma, emotional trauma and mental trauma," he said.
Mehta thanked each of the witnesses for their remarks and government service.