Thursday, October 6, 2022

Oath Keepers trial … Stewart Rhodes fires lawyers

The federal judge overseeing the seditious conspiracy case against Stewart Rhodes rebuked the Oath Keepers founder in court Wednesday for trying to delay a trial set to start in three weeks.

Rhodes filed a motion Tuesday afternoon in federal court in the District claiming he could not continue with his current legal team because of “a complete, or near-complete breakdown of communication,” and needed at least three months with a new lawyer to file over a dozen motions.

US District Judge Amit P. Mehta called Rhodes’s allegations about the case and his own attorneys “incorrect and frankly bewildering.” In a nearly two-hour hearing, he dismissed most of Rhodes’s proposed demands as irrelevant, legally impermissible or redundant.

“Mr. Rhodes at no point … since he’s been arrested has remained silent,” Mehta said. “Never, not once … have I heard a peep from Mr. Rhodes about his lack of contact with his lawyers or his disenchantment with his lawyers’ performance.”

He said Rhodes could add an attorney to his legal team if he wanted but that he would be going to trial in three weeks and that his original counsel, James Lee Bright and Phillip Linder, would not be removed from the case.

Rhodes is accused of conspiring to use force against the federal government and stop the lawful transfer of power by attacking the US Capitol on Jan. 6, 2021. While he is not accused of entering the building, prosecutors say he overlooks a group that violently confronted law enforcement and tried to hide evidence of those crimes. Three associates have pleaded guilty to seditious conspiracy; four will go to trial with him and four more in November.

Delaying would cause “havoc” to a packed court schedule, Mehta said, and “there is no humanly possible way” a new attorney “could be ready in 90 days.” The trial is set to begin Sept. 27; it was previously scheduled for Sept. 26, but last week Mehta ordered a one-day delay for the Rosh Hashanah holiday.

Mehta called it “complete and utter nonsense” to suggest that Rhodes was not competently represented by Bright and Linder, whom he credited with leading efforts to help all the defendants prepare for trial. The two Texas attorneys have represented Rhodes since his January arrest.

Far from being shut out of the process, Mehta said, Rhodes was “getting dispensation that no other defendant, to my knowledge — that no other defendant in any case, not just Jan. 6 cases, but any case in this district, is getting.”

Rhodes is jailed in DC; US marshals have brought him to court twice a week to review evidence for six hours at a time. “No other defendant is getting that kind of accommodation,” Mehta said. The judge acknowledged that having attorneys in Texas was a challenge but said Rhodes made the choice not to hire local counsel.

Rhodes’s new attorney, Edward L. Tarpley Jr., wrote that Rhodes’s previous lawyers “do not materially communicate with Rhodes regarding trial preparation, witness discovery, evidence selection, or even basic defense strategy,” even though “Rhodes is a Yale Law School graduate with legal training, experience and education.”

Mehta challenged Rhodes’s legal acumen, saying the self-styled militia leader was making demands a federal judge had no power to grant — including forcing the House committee investigating the Jan. 6 attack to hand over information and barring use of a recording made by a private citizen because it might violate state law. “You don’t have to be a constitutional scholar to know that” a First Amendment challenge to the indictment would go nowhere, Mehta said.

Bright told the court that he had rejected some of Rhodes’s proposals on similar grounds, including a “red herring” from “the conspiratorial world.” Others, he said, he had heard about for the first time in Tarpley’s motion.

“I have no ill will in any way towards Mr. Rhodes. I’ve given seven months of my life to Mr. Rhodes,” he said. But “I’m real strained right now to not tell the court that this isn’t a broken relationship.”

By the end of the hearing, he and Rhodes had both apologized for accusing each other of lying, and Bright promised to “bend over backwards” to communicate better with his client.

Mehta said the only concern raised by Tarpley that had any merit was that the indictment last week of Kellye SoRelle, former general counsel for the Oath Keepers, “represents a monumental change in how Rhodes expected to defend himself.” In short, Linder said that up until her arrest SoRelle had been willing to testify for Rhodes’s defense.

Prosecutor Jeffrey Nestler said the Justice Department had told all the defendants months ago that SoRelle, who stood on the Capitol grounds with Rhodes on Jan. 6, had “potential criminal exposure.” She is accused of conspiracy to obstruct the congressional vote count and tampering with evidence, among other crimes. She has publicly maintained her innocence.

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