WASHINGTON (AP) — The Justice Department is appealing the 18-year-prison sentence handed down for Oath Keepers founder Stewart Rhodes in the Jan. 6, 2021, attack on the U.S. Capitol, as well as other far-right extremists’ punishments that were shorter than what prosecutors had sought, according to court papers filed Wednesday.
While Rhodes received a lengthy sentence for seditious conspiracy and other convictions, the 18-year term was below the recommended range under federal guidelines and less than the 25 years the Justice Department had asked for in one of the most serious cases to go to trial in the Capitol attack.
Defendants routinely appeal their convictions and sentences, but it is more unusual for prosecutors to challenge the length of a prison term imposed by judges who have wide discretion when handing down punishments. Rhodes’ was the longest sentence that has been handed down so far in more than 1,000 Capitol riot cases.
Rhodes’ attorney, James Lee Bright, called the government’s decision to appeal “surprising.” At his sentencing hearing in May, a defiant Rhodes claimed to be a “political prisoner,” criticized prosecutors and the Biden administration and tried to play down his actions on Jan. 6.
The Justice Department filed notices in court that they they intend to appeal the sentences of other Oath Keepers, including Florida chapter leader Kelly Meggs, who was convicted of seditious conspiracy alongside Rhodes and sentenced to 12 years behind bars.
Three other Oath Keepers tried with Rhodes were acquitted of the sedition charge but convicted of other felonies. Four Oath Keepers were convicted of the seditious conspiracy charge at a second trial in January.
An attorney for Meggs declined to comment Wednesday.
During a series of sentencings for the Oath Keepers in May, U.S. District Judge Amit Mehta agreed with prosecutors that Rhodes and the other Oath Keepers’ actions could be punished as “terrorism,” increasing the recommended sentence under federal guidelines. But the judge ultimately went below — in some cases far below — the sentence prosecutors were seeking for each defendant.
The Justice Department’s announcement came after it suffered a rare setback in a related case involving Oath Keepers associates. A former “Jesus Christ Superstar” actor was acquitted Wednesday of conspiring with members of the far-right extremist group to obstruct Congress in the Capitol attack.
James Beeks — a Florida resident who was playing Judas in the traveling production of the musical when he was arrested — was cleared of conspiracy to obstruct Congress’ certification of the 2020 election and civil disorder after a trial in federal court. Mehta convicted Beeks’ co-defendant, Ohio resident Donovan Crowl, of the same charges after hearing evidence without a jury.
Beeks is only the second Jan. 6 defendant to be acquitted of all charges after a trial. Beeks represented himself at trial, though he was assisted by a lawyer who served as stand-by counsel and delivered his closing argument. Approximately 100 others have been found guilty of at least one count after a trial decided by a jury or judge, and more than 600 have pleaded guilty.
The trial for Beeks and Crowl was what’s called a “stipulated bench trial,” which means the judge decided the case based on a set of facts that both sides agreed to before the trial started. Such trials allow defendants to admit to certain facts while maintaining a right to appeal any conviction.
Prosecutors had previously charged Beeks with other lower-level offenses — including illegally entering the Capitol — but agreed to only go to trial on the two felony offenses and dismiss the remaining counts.
Prosecutors say Beeks and Crowl were part of a group of Oath Keepers wearing paramilitary gear who stormed the Capitol alongside the mob of Trump supporters. Beeks joined the Oath Keepers in December 2020 and drove to Washington from Florida before meeting up with a group of extremists ahead of the riot, prosecutors said.
Beeks, who was also a Michael Jackson impersonator, wore a jacket from Jackson’s “Bad” World Tour along with a helmet and was carrying a homemade shield during the riot, according to court papers.
Mehta said Beeks — unlike other Oath Keepers charged with riot-related crimes — didn’t post any messages on social media or exchange text messages with other extremists that could establish what his “state of mind” was leading up to the Capitol riot. The judge also cited a lack of evidence about what Beeks did inside the Capitol that could support a conviction for interfering with police.
“His actions must rise and fall on their own,” the judge said.
Beeks was arrested in November 2021 while he was traveling in Milwaukee with the “Jesus Christ Superstar” tour. He told reporters after the verdict that it “feels like a huge burden” has been lifted of his shoulders.
Beeks acknowledged that he joined the Oath Keepers through the group’s website but said he never met or communicated with any of his alleged co-conspirators before Jan. 6. He said never knew of any plan to attack the Capitol and mistakenly believed the Oath Keepers “were the good guys.”
“I met up with the wrong people,” he said. “I lost my whole career. (Jan. 6) is like a scarlet letter.”
Crowl was part of the Ohio State Regular Militia led by Jessica Watkins, who was acquitted of seditious conspiracy but convicted of other serious charges in the trial alongside Rhodes. In December 2022, Crowl sent a message in a group chat that included Watkins that said “law abiding citizens are fix’n to ‘act out of character’… Time for talk’in is over.”
Crowl’s attorney, Carmen Hernandez, said her client was exercising his First Amendment free speech rights on Jan. 6 without any intent to obstruct Congress from certifying President Joe Biden’s 2020 electoral victory.
“His conduct was no different than that of many Americans who’ve gone to Congress to peacefully protest and have not been charged with felonies,” Hernandez wrote in an email.
Richer reported from Boston.