By Sarah N. Lynch and Chris Gallagher
WASHINGTON (Reuters) -The trial of Oath Keepers founder Stewart Rhodes and four associates in connection with the Jan. 6, 2021 attack on the U.S. Capitol on Tuesday heard some prospective jurors express fears that reliving that day would be too traumatic for them to be impartial.
The case against the followers of the far-right militia, whose membership includes current and former U.S. military and law enforcement personnel, marks the most high-profile prosecution so far in the Justice Department’s investigation into the deadly attack.
Supporters of former President Donald Trump, a Republican, stormed the U.S. Capitol in a failed attempt to overturn his 2020 election loss to Democrat Joe Biden after Trump falsely claimed the election had been stolen from him. Five people died during and shortly after the riot, and about 140 police were injured.
Rhodes and his co-defendants Kelly Meggs, Thomas Caldwell, Jessica Watkins and Kenneth Harrelson are the first people in more than 10 years to face federal charges of seditious conspiracy under a Civil War-era statute that is rarely prosecuted and carries a statutory maximum sentence of 20 years in prison.
Seditious conspiracy is defined as two or more people plotting “to overthrow, put down or to destroy by force the government of the United States.”
Nearly 30 of the more than 130 people in the jury pool were quizzed by Judge Amit Mehta, prosecutors and defense attorneys on Tuesday on their views on guns, Trump supporters and whether they had closely followed news coverage of the Jan. 6 attack.
At least two people compared the trauma of the events of Jan. 6 to the al Qaeda attacks of Sept. 11, 2001, while another man said he was so triggered by television footage of the riot that he would need prescription medication to get through the trial.
Other jurors, meanwhile, told the court they were concerned their strongly held political views could make it too difficult to be impartial.
“I think the Capitol is a sacred space. It is more sacred than a church,” yet another prospective juror told the court.
VIDEO CLIPS, TEXT MESSAGES
In addition to seditious conspiracy, the five accused Oath Keeper defendants also face charges of conspiring to obstruct and of obstructing an official proceeding, which carries a sentence of up to 20 years in prison, and conspiring to prevent an officer from discharging duties.
The defendants who physically entered the Capitol building – Watkins, Meggs and Harrelson – are also charged with property destruction. Watkins separately faces a civil disorder charge, while the other four are each charged with tampering for allegedly trying to destroy evidence.
The indictment against the five alleges they plotted to use force to oppose the peaceful transfer of power from Trump to Biden. Prosecutors have also said the defendants trained and planned for Jan. 6, the day Congress met to certify Biden’s win.
Prosecutors say Rhodes led and coordinated the alleged plot, which involved the defendants setting up a “quick reaction force” and stockpiling weapons at a northern Virginia hotel.
Earlier on Tuesday, Mehta denied a request by the defense to move the trial to a different venue amid concerns they could not find enough impartial jurors in Washington, D.C.
He noted that of the 150 prospective jurors who filled out a questionnaire, 40% indicated they had never heard of the Oath Keepers, while another 45% said they have not watched any of the televised congressional hearings on the Jan. 6 attack.
Mehta ordered all of the prospective jurors on Tuesday to avoid watching or reading any coverage about the congressional probe. A hearing scheduled for Wednesday was postponed by the committee, citing the approach toward Florida of Hurricane Ian.
The trial, which is expected to last between six and seven weeks, will feature testimony from dozens of witnesses, as well as video clips from the day of the attack, and both audio and text message exchanges among the defendants.
(Reporting by Sarah N. Lynch and Chris Gallagher, additional reporting by Dan Whitcomb, Editing by Ross Colvin, Alistair Bell and Aurora Ellis)