WASHINGTON, D.C. (WGHP) – At about the same time the leader of the Oath Keepers militia group was being sentenced to 18 years in federal prison for conspiring to overthrow the government, a former High Point Police officer convicted of helping him do so is asking for a new trial.
An attorney for Laura Steele, a resident of Thomasville who was convicted on March 20 of six counts of aiding Oath Keepers founder and leader Stewart Rhodes in planning to disrupt that lawful transfer of power in Washington on Jan. 6, 2021, asks that a new trial be granted because Steele’s due process was violated by the jury.
Rhodes was sentenced Thursday by U.S. District Judge Amit Mehta on charges of seditious conspiracy, obstruction of a criminal proceeding and other felonies. His sentence was the largest given out in cases involving the attack on the U.S. Capitol. Another Oath Keeper, Kelly Meggs of Dunnellon, Florida, also was sentenced Thursday to 12 years in prison and 36 months of supervised release.
Steele, who is scheduled to be sentenced on Aug. 31, was convicted with codefendants Sandra Parker, Connie Meggs (Kelly Meggs’ wife) and William Isaacs on charges that include conspiracy to obstruct an official proceeding, entering restricted grounds, destruction of government property and others cited in an eighth superseding indictment.
Defendant Bennie Parker (Sandra’s husband) was acquitted of obstruction as well as one conspiracy charge, and Michael Greene was acquitted of two conspiracy charges. All six defendants were convicted of a misdemeanor trespassing offense.
Steele is one of 27 defendants from North Carolina charged for being among the thousands of supporters of former President Donald Trump, allegedly inspired by Trump’s unfounded claims about a stolen election, who stormed the Capitol in a deadly siege designed to disrupt the constitutional process of confirming President Joe Biden’s election in November 2020.
Steele’s motion for a new trial, filed last week by her attorney Peter A. Cooper, cites an interview he had with a reporter for Politico following the verdict that indicates the jury improperly “shifted the burden of proof to the defense” while determining guilt.
Cooper wrote that in an email to him the reporter “indicated that a juror in Ms. Steele’s trial had provided a lengthy interview to that organization. In that interview, the juror, in response to questions from the interviewer, stated that she believed the defense had an obligation to put on a defense case. This was in direct violation of the Court’s jury instructions providing that the defense has no burden of providing evidence to the jury, and underlying basic Due Process that the burden of proof never swings from the government at any point during trial.”
The document included a transcript of the interview between the reporter and the juror in which the juror was asked at what point in the roughly 6-week trial had that person made up his or her mind about guilt.
Laura Steele Motion for New Trial by Steven Doyle on Scribd
“Uhm, you really couldn’t until the def… Y’know, the prosecution case was the majority of our time. You really couldn’t until you heard the defense put on a case, if they put on a case. You needed to hear the other side of it,” the document says.
The juror said, based on the transcript in the document, that the prosecution had built a long case that showed “oh my God these people are guilty.” But that “you have to hear the other side. You have to hear, y’know, something that’s gonna sway you. … You have to keep an open mind.”
Cooper argues that the juror’s open mind of anticipating the defendants’ case violated Judge Amit Mehta’s jury instruction – which he said was proper – that “the defense has no burden of providing evidence to the jury.”
The case against Steele
Steele, Parker, Connie Meggs and Isaacs were convicted of conspiracy to obstruct an official proceeding, aiding and abetting that crime, conspiracy to prevent an officer from discharging any duties, entering and remaining in a restricted building or grounds and two counts of aiding and abetting civil disorder.
Court documents say the group traveled to Washington and, wearing paramilitary clothing that included helmets and vests and bearing Oath Keepers’ identification, overpowered guards and invaded the Capitol through the doors to the rotunda.
Prosecutors at trial said that at around 1:30 p.m. on Jan. 6 Rhodes “sent a message on an encrypted group chat announcing that Vice President Michael R. Pence would not intercede to stop Congress’ certification of the Electoral College vote, and so ‘patriots’ were taking matters into their own hands.”
That’s when Steele, her codefendants and other Oath Keepers marched toward the Capitol, penetrated barricades and “joined with 10 co-conspirators in placing hands on shoulders and marching up the steps and into the Capitol in a military ‘stack’ formation.”
The group tried to push past police into the Senate chamber, and then some of them tried to find House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, the court documents said.
Steele’s brother, Graydon Young of Englewood, Florida, — mentioned in the indictment against her – pleaded guilty to two counts against him, including conspiracy, and was the first Oath Keeper to do so. His plea and an agreement to testify against Rhodes spared him a potential 30 years in prison. During the trial of Rhodes in October, he broke into sobs on the stand and apologized.
Court documents describe how Steele and Young on Jan. 7 allegedly used a backyard burn pit to destroy evidence of the attack, including their clothing.
Militia groups in NC
The Department of Justice says that 29 Oath Keepers members and affiliates were charged for actions on Jan. 6. Eight have pleaded guilty, and 15 who have proceeded to trial have been found guilty. Six are awaiting trial.
Steele is one of more than 1,100 members of Oath Keepers in North Carolina – including at least two state legislators – and there also are the Proud Boys, another group of right-wing extremists.
One of that group’s state leaders, Charles Donohoe of Kernersville, pleaded guilty to charges earlier this year and agreed to testify in the sedition trial of Proud Boys leader Enrique Tarrio, who earlier this month also was found guilty of seditious conspiracy.
There were hundreds of injuries to law enforcement officers, death threats on the life of Vice President Mike Pence and others, and, ultimately, seven lives were lost during or after the insurrection.
Most recent court records suggest that more than 1,030 individuals have been arrested in nearly all 50 states. More than 570 have pleaded guilty, and nearly 500 have been sentenced, including about 220 to jail time. Among those from North Carolina who have been charged or convicted, six are residents of the Piedmont Triad.
In sentencing Rhodes on Thursday, Mehta spoke for several minutes about the case and chastised Rhodes for having referred to himself as a political prisoner.
“You are not a political prisoner, Mr. Rhodes,” Mehta said, adding that he presents “an ongoing threat and a peril to this country.”
He added that what we “cannot have is a group of citizens … prepared to take up arms in order to foment a revolution. That’s what you did.”
“We now all hold our collective breaths every time an election is approaching. Will we have another Jan. 6? That remains to be seen.”