While it’s not yet clear whether former President Donald Trump will face legal consequences for his role in the January 6 insurrection, those who stormed the Capitol continue to do so as two developments made evident this week.
On Wednesday, one of the rioters — Richard Barnett, who is known for being photographed with his feet on a desk in then-Speaker Nancy Pelosi’s office — was sentenced to four and a half years in prison after being convicted on eight charges by a jury, including civil disorder.
And on Thursday, Stewart Rhodes, the leader of the Oath Keepers, a far-right extremist group that helped spread claims of election fraud and planned for violence on January 6, was sentenced to 18 years. Rhodes was sentenced for seditious conspiracy, one of the most severe offenses that an insurrectionist has been charged with thus far.
Together, the sentences are a reminder of how courts are holding insurrectionists accountable, and set a precedent for how attempts to subvert democracy will be punished moving forward.
Rhodes’s sentencing, in particular, could send a message to far-right extremists with anti-government leanings and signal how seriously courts are taking these groups’ plans on January 6. As Vox’s Ellen Ioanes explained, seditious conspiracy is a significant charge that former federal prosecutor Laurence Tribe has previously described as “treason’s sibling.”
Defined as an act of two or more people conspiring to “overthrow, put down, or to destroy by force the Government of the United States,” according to US criminal code, seditious conspiracy is also a rare charge. Previously, the Justice Department hadn’t pursued such a charge in more than a decade — and Rhodes is the first of those involved in the insurrection to be sentenced for it. His sentence is the highest that any insurrectionist has faced for their actions related to January 6.
As part of the case against Rhodes, prosecutors emphasized that the Oath Keepers repeatedly urged the blocking of the election certification, brought small arms to the DC area, and planned to defend Trump’s election claims with violence if necessary. Rhodes’s defense has said the Oath Keepers were only in DC to protect prominent Trump supporters attending the “Stop the Steal” rally.
According to the Washington Post, prosecutors expressed hopes that the sentence will serve as a deterrent to people who may seek to pursue similar attempts to disrupt the peaceful transfer of power in the future. Additionally, it will establish a standard for how other insurrectionists — including additional members of the Oath Keepers and the far-right Proud Boys who have been convicted of seditious conspiracy — are treated as their cases play out.
“I think it absolutely does send a message to anyone who wants to engage in this type of activity, this anti-democracy activity,” Stephen Piggott, a program analyst at the Western States Center studying right-wing extremism, told Vox. “It sends a very clear message that this type of activity will not be tolerated, that political violence is not a viable option.”
This sentencing sets a precedent for future January 6 cases
Thus far, multiple members of the Oath Keepers and the Proud Boys have been convicted of seditious conspiracy, and will face their respective sentencings later this year. So far, courts have sentenced more than 500 people involved in the insurrection, and the longest sentence, of 14 years, had previously gone to a person who attacked police officers with pepper spray and a chair.
Experts in far-right extremism have emphasized that prosecutors’ decision to pursue the seditious conspiracy charge in multiple cases was important because it establishes the insurrection as intentional and planned versus a spontaneous effort.
“I think it’s a significant win for the federal government in terms of putting one of the masterminds, essentially, of January 6 behind bars,” says Piggott.
The severity of the sentence in Rhodes’s case could be interpreted differently by various constituencies, says Sam Jackson, a University of Albany professor who studies right-wing extremism.
Jackson noted that the longer, more aggressive sentence could strengthen loyal Oath Keeper supporters’ beliefs that the government is tyrannical, but that it could convince those who are weaker supporters of the group that it’s not a patriotic organization like they may have believed.
Clarification, May 26, 9:30am ET: This story has been updated to clarify where the photo of Barnett was taken.