Caldwell’s role in the Capitol Siege came to prominence after prosecutors uncovered private messages he exchanged with other Oath Guardians to discuss plans to travel to Washington and join efforts to halt certification of the 2020 election results. Caldwell discussed building a gun-armed “rapid reaction force” outside DC boundaries in the event the Oath Guards chose to resort to violence.
The decision is a setback for the Justice Department as it aims to show that some elements of the January 6 attack on the Capitol were part of sophisticated and organized cells designed to forcibly block the transfer of power between Donald Trump and Joe Biden. Caldwell is one of around a dozen Oath Guardians arrested as part of the attack.
At a hearing on Thursday, a prosecutor said 15 or more people could be charged in the Oath Keepers conspiracy case. In total, more than 300 people have been arrested for participating in the attack on the Capitol, which Attorney General Merrick Garland has identified as his first priority as the new Justice Department head.
Many of those arrested have spearheaded former President Donald Trump’s month-long campaign to convince supporters that the election was stolen as the reason they were forced to march on and break through the Capitol.
Though judges largely dismissed this as a criminal defense, Trump’s role was an inevitable part of the narrative. Mehta repeatedly wondered if the Capitol breach might have been an unplanned aspect of the Oath Guards’ vague intentions, and arose only after Trump donned it at a rally on the Ellipse that morning. He repeatedly referred to the “fantastic” idea of the Oath Guards that they had been asked to correct an imaginary injustice.
“It is unfortunate that they fell victim to these ideas,” said Mehta.
Prosecutors had argued that Caldwell posed a risk of violence as he and his allies remained convinced that the election was stolen after January 6th.
“These factors still exist for her, “said US assistant attorney Kathryn Rakoczy,” that the current political order is problematic and should not be followed. “
The prosecutor noted that Caldwell told another oath guardian in a post-Jan. 6 text messages to find comfort “because what they did was righteous.”
Rakoczy said the group was clearly preparing for violence, despite acknowledging the timing and not clearing the target in advance.
“The group itself, when they made these plans, did not know exactly how violence and violence might be required to support this plan,” she said. “They were ready to do whatever was necessary to stop this certification. … From the government’s point of view, they were ready to use violence in any way they needed. “
Nonetheless, Rakoczy acknowledged that there is currently no evidence that anyone in the group spoke or exchanged news of the Capitol breach prior to Jan. 6. “At this point, we don’t have anyone who specifically says: Our plan is to enter the Capitol,” she said.
Mehta admitted that the evidence supports the allegations the government has made against Caldwell, but that it does not bear the burden it takes to prove that he is a community danger if released pending trial becomes. Instead, Mehta imposed a string of strict release conditions denying Caldwell access to the internet, firearms, and contact with anyone allegedly linked to the Capitol attack.
Mehta also seemed moved by the evidence that Caldwell had serious health problems that required regular medical attention. Caldwell’s attorney, David Fischer, said his client had “the body of an 85-year-old man” and his suffering in pre-trial detention up to that point was motivation enough to comply with whatever conditions Mehta would offer.
Prosecutors said they are considering but have not yet decided whether to appeal the verdict. However, Mehta denied a motion to suspend his decision pending a possible appeal.
Mehta’s decision overturned a decision he had made a month ago to hold Caldwell pending trial. The judge said Friday he was unaware of all of the relevant facts over the past month, including a two-hour interview Caldwell gave the FBI, his collaboration in facilitating a search of his home and computer, and the lack of evidence of Caldwell’s involvement break through the Capitol building planning.
Several other members of the Oath Guards remain in detention. These include Jessica Watkins and Donovan Crowl, who have been spotted together in the Capitol Rotunda in various publicly released videos. Connie and Kelly Meggs, two Florida-based oath guards, were also arrested. Several other oath guards, who provided safety to Trump employee Roger Stone on Jan. 5 and 6, were also charged with violating the Capitol, but they have not been linked to the more general alleged conspiracy.
Fischer, who had to order Caldwell not to vocal interruption, painted a picture of Caldwell as a seedy military veteran whose back problems were so severe that his portrayal as the leader of the attack became ridiculous. Caldwell sat with his wife outside the Capitol near a fountain hundreds of meters from the building’s entrances and had no access to the encrypted communication channels used by Oath Guards entering the building.
Fischer said any hint his client made about the use of weapons was merely in defense of his group if it was attacked by Antifa or if Trump took extraordinary measures to stay in power and left-wing activists launched an attack.
Mehta seemed to acknowledge that much of the planning revolved around bizarre contingencies, such as the notion that Trump would invoke the act of insurrection and call in the military – a popular belief among extremist groups consistent with Trump and QAnon conspiracy theorists . The judge said it was clear that Caldwell was involved in “preparing an Armageddon-type solution in defense of the President of the United States who claimed the election was stolen from him”.
Mehta repeatedly warned that his judgment should not be viewed by Caldwell or others as diminishing the gravity of the attack on the Capitol.
“Do not take that, Mr. Caldwell, as an expression of my view of the seriousness of what you have been charged with or of your conduct,” said the judge at the end of the hearing. “I have standards to be followed by the law … Make no mistake, Mr. Caldwell. If you break my terms, you will be back in jail very quickly.”