Justice Department asks for 25-year prison sentence for convicted Oath Keepers leader

Jim Urquhart/Reuters/FILE

By Hannah Rabinowitz, CNN

(CNN) -- Prosecutors asked a federal judge Friday to sentence Oath Keepers leader Stewart Rhodes to 25 years in prison -- the government's first sentencing request for a person convicted of seditious conspiracy related to the January 6, 2021, US Capitol riot.

The Justice Department's request provides insight -- for the first time in more than a decade -- into how prosecutors believe a conviction for seditious conspiracy should be punished.

"These defendants attempted to silence millions of Americans who had placed their vote for a different candidate, to ignore the variety of legal and judicial mechanisms that lawfully scrutinized the electoral process leading up to and on January 6, and to shatter the democratic system of governance enshrined in our laws and in our Constitution," prosecutors wrote in the filing. "And when they did not get what they wanted, they acted by together attacking the very people and place at the very time when those laws were in action."

They added: "This Court has previously explained that it 'has been one of the great tragedies in the history of this country' to see 'ordinary, hardworking Americans' turn into criminals on January 6 and 'suffer[] the consequences.' These defendants are in part responsible for that national tragedy; they played significant roles in spreading doubt about the presidential election and turning others against the government, and they are incomparable to the actions of single actors on January 6."

Rhodes is scheduled to be sentenced on May 25.

The filing requests individual sentences for all nine Oath Keepers members and associates convicted by a jury -- six of whom were convicted of seditious conspiracy. The lowest sentence prosecutors asked for among the group was 10 years in prison for Oath Keeper David Moerschel, who prosecutors said was not a leader within the conspiracy.

"A lesser sentence could encourage further abuses not only by these defendants, but by others who disagree with the next elections in our country's local, state, and federal governments," prosecutors wrote in the filing.

Though the filing reflects prosecutors' request, Judge Amit Mehta will ultimately decide how much time each defendant will serve. Mehta could issue a sentence that exceeds the prosecutors' request or decide to sentence them to far less than the maximum.

During the more than seven-week-long trial, prosecutors argued the riot was more than just a political protest that got out of control, but rather a violent attack on American democracy. To bolster their argument, prosecutors presented to the jury hundreds of messages, audio recordings and videos of the defendants' revolutionary rhetoric in the wake of Biden's 2020 presidential victory and of their actions as they moved across the Capitol grounds during the riot.

Defense attorneys countered those arguments by telling the jury that the inflammatory recordings of the defendants were nothing more than "locker room talk," and arguing that the militia had no uniformed plan.

According to the filing, prosecutors made their sentencing requests for the nine Oath Keepers and associates based on several factors including whether they were a leader or follower within the far-right group, whether prosecutors believe a defendant perjured themselves during the trial and whether they deleted evidence.

Prosecutors also cited enhanced terrorism sentencing penalties, writing that "here, the need to deter others is especially strong because these defendants engaged in acts that were intended to influence the government through intimidation or coercion—in other words, terrorism." The terrorism enhancements, which are another reason for the proposed harsh sentences, are necessary, prosecutors wrote, "because these defendants not only contributed to the attack on the Capitol but helped to organize it, their sentences will be noted by those who would foment such political violence in the future."

The Justice Department has previously sought the same enhancement in other January 6-related cases, though judges have so far refused to apply it.

Citing public reporting, prosecutors said that political violence is seen as more acceptable today than in the past several years, and that "the justice system's reaction to January 6 bears the weighty responsibility of impacting whether January 6 becomes an outlier or a watershed moment" in American history.

"Left unchecked, this impulse threatens our democracy," they wrote.

This story has been updated with additional details.

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