Forgotten Coups: January 6 wasn’t the first seditious conspiracy in the U.S.

seditious conspiracy

The first convictions of January 6 perps for seditious conspiracy in decades are epically monumental given the history of past efforts. Before the first conviction in November, 2022 of Oath Keepers leader Stewart Rhodes and the latest round of convictions on January 23, 2023 (in which 4 more seditionists were convicted), there has been little success in the realm of prosecuting insurrection or coup plotters for seditious conspiracy — and only a handful of trials:

  • No convictions in the Christian Front trial (1940)
  • None in the Sedition Trial of US Nazi sympathizers (1944)
  • None in Fort Smith sedition trial (1988) — Louis Beam and the Covenant, The Sword, and the Arm of the Lord white supremacist and Christian nationalist group
  • None in Hutaree trial (2010)

Does that make this the first successful sedition conviction of white paramilitaries?!

Before January 6, there came these attempts to overthrow the American government.

Christian Front trial (1940-41)

The Christian Front trial of the 1940s was a highly publicized criminal trial in the United States that took place in 1940 and 1941. The Christian Front was a right-wing, antisemitic, and pro-Nazi organization that was active in New York City in the late 1930s and early 1940s.

In June 1940, the FBI arrested several members of the Christian Front for conspiracy to overthrow the U.S. government and for advocating the violent overthrow of the government. The trial began in Brooklyn, New York, in January 1940, and attracted widespread media attention due to the severity of the charges and the controversial nature of the Christian Front’s beliefs. The prosecution aimed to prove that the defendants were involved in a seditious conspiracy and had established a stockpile of weapons and ammunition to carry out their violent plans. However, the defense argued that the allegations were exaggerated, and that the Christian Front members were merely exercising their First Amendment rights to free speech and assembly.

Despite the seriousness of the charges, the trial ended in a victory for the defendants. In December 1940, the jury acquitted all of the accused on the sedition charges, and in January 1941, Judge Henry W. Goddard dismissed the remaining charges, citing insufficient evidence. The Christian Front trial underscored the challenges of prosecuting political extremists and raised questions about the balance between protecting free speech and ensuring national security. The case remains an important example of the complexities involved in addressing extremist ideologies within the legal framework of the United States.

The Great Sedition Trial (1944)

The U.S. Nazi sedition trial of 1944, also known as the Great Sedition Trial, was a high-profile court case during World War II that involved 30 defendants, many of whom were American citizens. These individuals were charged with sedition, conspiracy to commit sedition, and violations of the Smith Act, which criminalized the advocacy of overthrowing the U.S. government. The accused were a diverse group of Nazi sympathizers, anti-Semites, and isolationists, who were allegedly involved in spreading Nazi propaganda and attempting to undermine the American war effort.

The trial took place in Washington, D.C., and began on April 17, 1944. It was presided over by Judge Edward C. Eicher, who was known for his strong anti-Nazi stance. The prosecution sought to prove that the defendants were part of a coordinated effort to undermine the United States on behalf of Nazi Germany. However, the defense argued that their clients were exercising their First Amendment rights to free speech and that there was no actual conspiracy. The trial was marked by procedural irregularities, disorganization, and infighting among the defendants and their counsel.

The trial abruptly ended on November 29, 1944, when Judge Eicher died of a heart attack. The case was declared a mistrial, and no retrial was pursued, as the government considered the trial a failure and decided not to press the charges further. The Great Sedition Trial of 1944 is considered a landmark case in American legal history, as it highlighted the complexities and challenges in prosecuting sedition cases, balancing national security concerns with the protection of civil liberties. The trial also raised questions about the limits of free speech during times of war and the government’s ability to effectively counter propaganda and extremist ideologies.

Fort Smith sedition trial (1988)

The Fort Smith Sedition Trial of 1988 was a high-profile court case in the United States involving 14 white supremacists, including prominent leaders such as Richard Girnt Butler and Robert E. Miles. They were accused of plotting to overthrow the U.S. government, establish an all-white nation, and planning violent attacks against government officials and minority groups. Charged under the RICO Act and federal seditious conspiracy statute, the trial took place in Fort Smith, Arkansas, and lasted for about two months.

The defense argued that the defendants were exercising their First Amendment rights to free speech and association, and their activities did not constitute a criminal conspiracy. On April 7, 1988, the jury acquitted all 14 defendants on all charges, sparking mixed reactions from the public. Civil rights activists feared the outcome would embolden extremist groups, while others saw it as a victory for free speech.

In the aftermath, the trial reiterated the challenges faced by law enforcement and the judicial system in addressing extremist threats in the United States. The unsuccessful attempt to prosecute the white supremacists led to discussions about the limitations of using criminal law to combat extremist ideology. The Fort Smith Sedition Trial remains a notable example of the complexities surrounding the prosecution of political extremism and the balance between protecting free speech and combating hate and violence.

Hutaree trial (2010)

The Hutaree trial of 2010 was a prominent court case in the United States involving a Michigan-based Christian militia group called the Hutaree. Nine members of the group, including its leader, David Brian Stone Sr., were arrested in March 2010 on charges of seditious conspiracy, attempting to use weapons of mass destruction, and other weapons-related offenses. The group was accused of planning a violent uprising against the government, intending to kill law enforcement officers and spark a broader conflict that would lead to the overthrow of the U.S. government.

The trial took place in Detroit, Michigan, in 2012. The prosecution presented evidence of the group’s plans, including recorded conversations, training videos, and seized weapons. However, the defense argued that the group’s activities were protected by the First Amendment rights to free speech and assembly, and that the alleged plot was mere “fantasy” and “bravado” rather than a genuine conspiracy — call it the “Just Joking!” defense. On March 27, 2012, U.S. District Judge Victoria Roberts dismissed the most serious charges of sedition and conspiracy to use weapons of mass destruction against the defendants, citing insufficient evidence.

The outcome of the Hutaree trial raised questions about the effectiveness of the government’s approach to tackling homegrown extremism and the balance between national security and constitutional rights. While some individuals saw the dismissal of the most serious charges as a failure to address the threat posed by extremist groups, others argued that it was a victory for civil liberties and the protection of free speech. Overall, the Hutaree trial serves as a reminder of the complexities in prosecuting cases of domestic extremism and the challenges faced by the legal system in striking the right balance between security and liberty.

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