Proud Boys leader Enrique Tarrio sentenced: What is seditious conspiracy?

Far-right group’s former leader charged under law enacted in aftermath of American Civil War

Joe Sommerlad
Wednesday 06 September 2023 13:15 BST
Former Proud Boys leader gets 22 years in prison over role in Capitol riot

Enrique Tarrio, former leader of the far-right gang Proud Boys, has been sentenced to 22 years in prison for his role in orchestrating the US Capitol riot of 6 January 2021 in response to Donald Trump’s election defeat.

Tarrio and three other members of the group were found guilty of charges of seditious conspiracy and obstructing official proceedings at a federal court in Washington DC, on 4 May following a landmark four-month trial.

US District Judge Timothy Kelly characterised Tarrio as the “ultimate leader” of that conspiracy during a lengthy sentencing hearing on Tuesday before handing him the largest jail sentence to date of all cases connected to the insurrection – though still some way short of the 33 years sought by the prosecution.

In a sentencing memo, he was described as a “naturally charismatic leader, a savvy propagandist, and the celebrity chairman” of the Proud Boys, who had used his influence to “organise and execute the conspiracy to forcibly stop the peaceful democratic transfer of power” and worked “to inflame and radicalise untold numbers of followers, promoting political violence”.

Tarrio, from Miami, Florida, gave a statement to the court asking for leniency, claming he felt “ashamed” of the events of that day and vowing to leave politics behind. His mother and sister joined in his pleas to the judge.

Four other members of the group were sentenced last week for their roles in the attack. Ethan Nordean received a sentence of 18 years in prison; Joe Biggs was sentenced to 17 years; Zachary Rehl was sentenced to 15 years; and Dominic Pezzola – the sole co-defendant among them who was not convicted of seditious conspiracy – was sentenced to 10 years.

Nordean’s sentence tied him with Oath Keepers founder Stewart Rhodes for what is now the second-longest sentence handed down so far among the hundreds of people convicted in connection with Capitol riot.

Jeremy Joseph Bertino, a former Proud Boys leader from North Carolina, was the first member of the extremist group to plead guilty to seditious conspiracy back in October 2022.

The verdict against Tarrio marked the first successful conviction on the seditious conspiracy charge against a January 6 defendant who was not physically present at the Capitol that day.

Tarrio had been barred from entering DC that day after he was arrested for burning a Black Lives Matter banner outside a church during a post-election riot weeks earlier. Instead, he watched the attack unfold on television from a hotel room in Baltimore, Maryland.

So what is seditious conspiracy?

Seditious conspiracy is a rarely used federal charge that dates back to the American Civil War.

It was initially enacted to arrest any southerners who might continue to fight the US government after Robert E Lee’s troops surrendered to Union General Ulysses S Grant in 1865.

The charge can be difficult to prove, especially in cases when an alleged plot is unsuccessful.

In order to win a seditious conspiracy case, prosecutors have to prove that two or more people conspired to “overthrow, put down or to destroy by force” the US government or bring war against it, or that they plotted to use force to oppose the authority of the government or to block the execution of a law.

Former Proud Boys chairman Enrique Tarrio at a rally in Portland, Oregon, in August 2019
Former Proud Boys chairman Enrique Tarrio at a rally in Portland, Oregon, in August 2019 (AP)

For example in the Proud Boys case, Tarrio and his co-defendants were accused of conspiring to block the transfer of power from Mr Trump to Joe Biden. The indictment alleged that they conspired to forcibly oppose the authority of the federal government and to use force to prevent the execution of laws having to do with the transfer of power.

To prevail at trial, it was not enough to merely show defendants advocated the use of force – prosecutors had to show they conspired to use force.

Who has previously been convicted of the charge?

In recent history, sedition cases have been rare.

The convictions of Oath Keepers Rhodes and Kelly Meggs were the first seditious conspiracy guilty verdicts in decades.

Before that trial, the last time the Justice Department tried such a case was in 2010 in an alleged Michigan plot by members of the Hutaree militia to incite an uprising against the government.

A judge ordered acquittals of the sedition conspiracy charges at a 2012 trial, saying prosecutors relied too much on hateful diatribes protected by the First Amendment and did not, as required, prove the accused ever had detailed plans for a rebellion.

Lawyer William Swor, who represented Hutaree militia leader David Stone, has said that prosecutors in the case failed to prove that group members were “more than just talking” and were “actively planning to oppose the government”.

The judge said Stone’s “diatribes evince nothing more than his own hatred for – perhaps even desire to fight or kill – law enforcement; this is not the same as seditious conspiracy”.

Before this, the last successful prosecution in a seditious conspiracy trial was in 1995, when Egyptian cleric Sheikh Omar Abdel-Rahman and nine followers were convicted in a plot to blow up the United Nations, an FBI building and two tunnels and a bridge linking New York and New Jersey.

Abdel-Rahman, known as the “Blind Sheikh,” argued on appeal that he was never involved in planning actual attacks and his hostile rhetoric was protected by free speech. He died in federal prison in 2017.

Prosecutors also secured seditious conspiracy convictions in another, now largely forgotten storming of the US Capitol in 1954. Four pro-independence Puerto Rican activists rushed the building and opened fire on the House floor, wounding several representatives.

More recently, Oscar Lopez Rivera, a former leader of a Puerto Rican independence group that orchestrated a bombing campaign that left dozens of people dead or maimed in New York, Chicago, Washington and Puerto Rico in the 1970s and early 1980s, spent 35 years in prison for seditious conspiracy before Barack Obama commuted his sentence in 2017.

In 1988, jurors in Fort Smith, Arkansas, acquitted white supremacists charged with seditious conspiracy. The defendants were accused of plotting to overthrow the federal government and establish an all-white nation in the Pacific Northwest and conspiring to kill a federal judge and FBI agent.

Additional reporting by agencies.

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