Decision 2023

Judge rejects defense effort to throw out an Oath Keeper associate's Jan. 6 guilty verdict

WASHINGTON — (AP) — A federal judge on Tuesday upheld an obstruction conviction against a Virginia man who stood trial with members of the Oath Keepers extremist group in one of the most serious cases brought in the Jan. 6, 2021, insurrection.

U.S. District Judge Amit Mehta rejected a defense effort to throw out the Washington jury's guilty verdict against Thomas Caldwell, a retired U.S. Navy intelligence officer who was convicted last November in the U.S. Capitol attack alongside Oath Keepers founder Stewart Rhodes.

Mehta said there was sufficient evidence to find Caldwell, of Berryville, Virginia, guilty of obstructing an official proceeding — in this case, Congress' certification of Joe Biden's 2020 election victory over President Donald Trump — and tampering with documents or proceedings.

The judge said that while Caldwell didn't enter the Capitol, evidence supports the argument that he aided extremists who stormed the building. The judge pointed to Caldwell's own words, including a message from the evening of Jan. 6 in which he wrote: "So I grabbed up my American flag and said let's take the damn capitol ... I said lets storm the place and hang the traitors."

Caldwell and his attorney, David Fischer, appeared remotely on a video conference as the judge read his written ruling. Fischer later said Caldwell was disappointed but respected the court’s decision.

Caldwell was initially charged with seditious conspiracy along with Rhodes and other far-right extremists, and he was described by the Justice Department as a key figure in what prosecutors said was a plot to keep Trump, a Republican, in power after he lost the 2020 election to Biden, a Democrat.

But jurors cleared Caldwell of the sedition charge and two other conspiracy charges after a monthslong trial.

Rhodes was sentenced in May to 18 years in prison after jurors convicted him of seditious conspiracy and other serious charges. The judge delayed Caldwell's sentencing while he considered his attorney's challenge to the jury's verdict. Caldwell's sentencing is now set for Nov. 16.

Prosecutors alleged Caldwell helped coordinate “quick reaction force” teams stationed outside the capital city that were designed to get weapons into the hands of extremists if they were needed. The weapons were never deployed, and lawyers for the Oath Keepers said they were only there for defensive purposes in case of attacks from left-wing activists.

Caldwell took the witness stand at trial and played down messages he sent leading up to Jan. 6, including one floating the idea about getting a boat to ferry "heavy weapons" across the Potomac River. Caldwell said he was never serious about it, calling it "creative writing."

Fischer, the defense lawyer, noted that Caldwell was a disabled veteran who sometimes uses a cane to walk, telling jurors he "couldn't storm his way out of a paper bag." Fischer argued that there was no plot to attack the Capitol or stop the certification of Biden's victory, saying Caldwell wasn't even planning to go to the Capitol until Trump's speech on the Ellipse urging his supporters to "fight like hell" before the riot.

All told, six Oath Keepers were convicted of seditious conspiracy, the most serious charge prosecutors have levied in the Jan. 6 attack. More than 1,100 people have been charged with federal crimes stemming from the riot, and more than 650 defendants have pleaded guilty.

After another trial, former Proud Boys leader Enrique Tarrio and three other Proud Boys were convicted of the sedition charge for what prosecutors said was a separate plot to stop the transfer of power. Tarrio was sentenced this month to 22 years behind bars.

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Richer reported from Boston.