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Jury selection is underway in the Jan. 6 riot trial of Oath Keepers members

JUANA SUMMERS, HOST:

Jury selection is underway in the highest-profile prosecution yet over the January 6 attack on the Capitol. The founder of the far-right group known as the Oath Keepers and four other defendants are on trial, accused of conspiring to overthrow the government by force. NPR justice correspondent Carrie Johnson is at the courthouse, and she's here now to talk more about that case. Hi, Carrie.

CARRIE JOHNSON, BYLINE: Hi, Juana.

SUMMERS: So, Carrie, what is it like in court today?

JOHNSON: Remember; this courthouse is actually down the block from the U.S. Capitol, the scene of this crime. About 120 prospective jurors filed into the court to be questioned. Judge Amit Mehta told them it might be impossible to find someone with no feelings about the insurrection. The question is whether they could set aside their feelings and be impartial when they hear evidence in this case. We had prospective jurors who talked about trauma they experienced on January 6. I felt like they invaded my house, one man said. But many others said they could keep an open mind. And the judge denied a motion by the defense to transfer this case out of D.C. He said 40% of the jury pool didn't know who the Oath Keepers were, and nearly half had not watched any of the congressional hearings by the panel investigating January 6.

SUMMERS: OK. Now, there's a separate House panel that is investigating the Capitol riot as well. Carrie, how did that panel come up in court today?

JOHNSON: Yeah, when the next hearing of that panel happens, the judge warned people not to watch the hearing or read any media coverage about it, including social media. He's told the prospective jurors not to discuss this case with anyone and to let him know if anyone approaches them. You know, there's a lot of interest in this trial. It's the first time the Justice Department has brought a seditious conspiracy charge in connection with January 6. Plenty of reporters are here, but so is the wife of Guy Reffitt, the Texas man who became the first person to be convicted by a jury over his actions on January 6. And so is a lawyer for one of the Proud Boys, another extremist group whose members have been charged with crimes and who are headed to trial here in December.

SUMMERS: And when the government begins presenting evidence, what do you expect to hear?

JOHNSON: Prosecutors say their case could last about 3 1/2 weeks, with as many as 40 witnesses, including Capitol police officers and insiders with the Oath Keepers who pleaded guilty and agreed to cooperate. We expect a lot of video evidence and also recorded conversations on walkie-talkers (ph) the defendants allegedly used to coordinate their movements during the riot. The Justice Department says Stewart Rhodes and these four other defendants started planning right after the 2020 election to keep Donald Trump in power. And they allegedly bought weapons and military gear, storing them in Virginia to create a quick reaction force on January 6. Rhodes allegedly kept on buying firearms even after January 6.

SUMMERS: And Stewart Rhodes, who you just mentioned, is the lead defendant here. And he has vowed to fight these charges. So what is at the heart of his defense?

JOHNSON: He's a trained attorney. He attended Yale Law School. So he's more legally sophisticated than some other defendants in the January 6 cases. Rhodes didn't enter the Capitol building that day. Instead, the DOJ says he was coordinating outside. His lawyers have suggested Rhodes may take the witness stand during this trial to argue that he was actually trying to follow the law. The lawyers are saying Rhodes expected former President Trump to invoke the Insurrection Act, and Rhodes wanted the Oath Keepers to be prepared when that happened. But prosecutors say that's just a cover story. We're going to hear a lot more about that in this trial that could easily last one month or longer.

SUMMERS: All right. We'll check back in with you. NPR's Carrie Johnson. Thanks.

JOHNSON: Happy to do it. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Carrie Johnson
Carrie Johnson is a justice correspondent for the Washington Desk.