The high-profile seditious conspiracy trial for the leader of the far-right Oath Keepers extremist group will begin this month after a judge on Wednesday rejected a last-minute bid by Stewart Rhodes to replace his lawyers and delay his Capitol riot case.
Rhodes said in court papers this week there had been a “breakdown” in communication between him and his two lawyers, who he claimed weren’t defending him forcefully enough. Rhodes’ new lawyer argued that the Oath Keepers founder has not been given enough time to adequately prepare for trial and urged the judge to delay his trial at least 90 days.
But the obviously irritated judge called the claim that Rhodes is being denied a fair trial “simply false.”
U.S. District Judge Amit Mehta said Rhodes’ suggestion that his lawyers are not providing effective counsel appeared to be “complete and utter nonsense” and questioned why concerns about his lawyers were surfacing for the first time just weeks before trial.
“The notion that you are going to create the kind of havoc that you will — and havoc is the only appropriate word I can think of — by moving Mr. Rhodes’ trial, not going to happen,” Mehta told Edward Tarpley, whom Rhodes wanted as his new lawyer.
Mehta said Tarpley is free to join Rhodes’ two other lawyers — James Lee Bright and Phillip Linder — but Mehta was not going to remove them from the case.
Tarpley told The Associated Press after the hearing that he’s disappointed but respects the court’s decision and remains willing to help Rhodes’ defense team at trial.
“He never went into the Capitol … he never told anybody to go into the Capitol,” Tarpley said. There’s a lot of things in his favor. And, you know, I just think that he’s been unfairly accused and wrongly prosecuted in this case.”
The case against Rhodes and four co-defendants starting Sept. 27 in federal court will be the most serious case to go to trial so far in the riot of Jan. 6, 2021, that delayed the certification of Joe Biden’s 2020 president victory over Donald Trump.
It will also be a major test for the Department of Justice, which has brought rarely used and difficult-to-prove charges of seditious conspiracy against Oath Keepers members and those of another far-right extremist group, the Proud Boys.
Authorities say Rhodes was the ringleader of the Oath Keepers’ plot to violently stop the transfer of power. In the run-up to Jan. 6, authorities say the Oath Keepers recruited members, purchased weapons and set up a “quick reaction force” with guns on standby outside the capital with the goal of keeping President Donald Trump in office.
On Jan. 6, prosecutors say the Oath Keepers formed two teams, or “stacks,” that entered the Capitol. Rhodes is not accused of going inside the building, but was seen gathered outside the Capitol with several members after they did, authorities say.
Rhodes has said there was no plan to storm the Capitol and that the members who went inside the building went rogue. His lawyers have argued he believed Trump would invoke the Insurrection Act and call upon the Oath Keepers to support his bid to stay in power. When Trump did not do that, Rhodes took no action, his lawyers have said.
Three members of the Oath Keepers have already pleaded guilty to seditious conspiracy, are cooperating with investigators and could testify against Rhodes at trial.
Rhodes claimed that his lawyers, Bright and Linder, were not answering his calls or visiting him enough and failed to file legal papers they promised to. The defense also argued its case would be hurt by the arrest this month of the the Oath Keepers’ general counsel — Kellye SoRelle — whom the defense was expecting to call to the stand.
Bright denied not answering calls from Rhodes or failing to discuss the defense strategy with him. He called some of the new legal papers Rhodes wants to file “frivolous.”
Associated Press journalist Mike Pesoli contributed to this report from Washington.
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