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Jury deliberations begin in second sedition trial against Oath Keepers

CNN) — The fates of three members and one associate of the Oath Keepers are in the hands of a Washington, DC, jury that will decide whether they committed several federal crimes, including seditious conspiracy, on January 6, 2021.

Prosecutors allege that defendants, led by Oath Keepers leader Stewart Rhodes, plotted to violently stop Joe Biden from being certified as the winner of the 2020 presidential election.

“American Democracy is fragile,” Prosecutor Louis Manzo told the jury Wednesday, encouraging them to find the four defendants guilty. “It will not survive if people who are not satisfied with an election use force and violence to change the outcome.”

Manzo continued, “The defendants could not let this election stand, they could not let Biden come to power.” The men, Manzo said, acted violently and justified their attempt to stop the peaceful transfer of presidential power by citing the Founding Fathers, which he called a “perverted version of American history.”

Eight people associated with the far-right group were charged with conspiring together, but prosecutors split the large group into two separate trials because of space limitations in the DC federal courthouse. The first trial, against five alleged leaders of the group including Rhodes, finished in November. Rhodes and one other man were found guilty of seditious conspiracy, while the other three defendants were found guilty of various felony charges.

The defendants currently on trial are Roberto Minuta, an Oath Keeper from New Jersey who prosecutors described as one of Rhodes’ “most trusted men”; Joseph Hackett, an alleged recruiter for the Florida Oath Keeper who prosecutors said is talented at hiding his identity; David Moerschel, an alleged part of the so-called stack formation that prosecutors said acted as a “battering ram,” pushing through the mob and into the Capitol; and Edward Vallejo, one of the alleged leaders of the armed quick reaction force, who prosecutors said called for “guerilla war” the morning of January 6.

The defendants have pleaded not guilty to all charges brought by the government.

In closing arguments Wednesday, defense attorneys for the four men argued that their clients had not conspired together to stop a Biden presidency, saying that the government’s case presented no proof of a plan to storm the US Capitol.

“The government has built its case on selective evidence and scary words,” William Shipley, the attorney for Minuta, told the jury. “They control the information … they give you what they want you to see.”

Jury deliberations began late Thursday morning.

The DOJ’s case

On Wednesday, Manzo walked the jury through weeks of trial testimony and told the jurors to ignore defense attorneys’ arguments that the four men are innocent because they were merely following Rhodes.

“This is not a case where someone was in the wrong place at the wrong time or had the worst beginner’s luck,” Manzo said. The law does not require that each person played an “equal role” in the conspiracy to be found guilty, Manzo said, but rather that that “they talked together, they acted together, and they deleted together.”

Instead, he implored jurors to focus on evidence of how the four defendants, fueled by Rhodes, turned to increasingly violent rhetoric after the presidential election. He showed jurors violent messages and videos of the defendants, including one where Minuta, driving to Washington, DC, screams that “millions will die…get your f**king soul ready.”

“This isn’t ‘Twitter fingers,’ this isn’t a pop song,” Manzo continued, chiding Moerschel’s defense attorney Scott Weinberg who compared the violent rhetoric to a Drake song in his opening statement. “These are men trucking guns across the country to oppose the government by force.”

As Manzo spoke, two federal agents stood by him holding rifles that were stockpiled as part of the QRF. When the agents stood, the juror sitting closest to the agents physically recoiled.

On January 6, Hackett and Moerschel, with other members of the far-right militia, allegedly put their hands on the shoulders of the person in front of them, pushed into the Capitol and moved towards then-House Speaker Nancy Pelosi’s office. Minuta was not initially at the Capitol but sped over in a golf cart when he learned of the breach, prosecutors said. Once inside, he allegedly joined a crowd pushing against police and screamed, “This was bound to happen.”

“How far would Minuta have gone if law enforcement had not pushed him back,” Manzo asked. “He called for lawmakers to be hung.” Manzo pointed the jurors to testimony from one of the officers who faced-off against Minuta, and how, in that moment, the officer said he “thought of his daughter and how he wasn’t sure he was going home.”

All the while, Manzo said, Vallejo — who earlier that day allegedly said that if Congress certified the election, “I am the m*therf**ker that’s gonna fix it” — was waiting across the Potomac River offering over and over to deploy the QRF. Despite his messages, no one replied to Vallejo and the QRF was not deployed.

The defense

Attorneys for the defendants repeatedly argued that not only was the government manipulating evidence but that there was no proof of a conspiracy between the group, arguing that while the jury might find statements from their clients offensive, that wasn’t reason to convict them of plotting to stop the certification of the election.

Angela Halim, Hackett’s attorney, told the jury that the government had presented a “heavily edited reality show relying on repetition” and was guilty of “plucking” out selective words from the defendants.

Halim said her client was guilty of trespassing on Capitol grounds but it was not part of some larger plan. Hackett has not been charged with the misdemeanor offense of unlawfully entering Capitol grounds and instead faces counts including obstructing an official proceeding and destruction of government property, as well as the seditious conspiracy charge.

“The breach of the Capitol was a surprise to every single Oath Keeper that day,” Halim said.

Several of the attorneys cited testimony from Brian Ulrich, an Oath Keeper who pleaded guilty to seditious conspiracy in April, and said that Ulrich confirmed there was never any plan in the group to stop the certification that day or violently keep Biden out of the White House.

“These men just talked tough,” Weinberg told the jury. “They never actually back it up.”

Weinberg said that Moerschel quickly left the Capitol after entering and never confronted police that day.

The Oath Keepers, Weinberg argued, was nothing more than a personal “piggy bank” for Rhodes, calling it a “disorganized group” that Moerschel quickly left after the events of January 6.