WASHINGTON — An Army veteran who stormed the U.S. Capitol in a military-style formation with fellow members of the Oath Keepers was sentenced Friday to more than eight years in prison, a day after the far-right extremist group's founder received an 18-year prison term in the Jan. 6, 2021 attack.
Jessica Watkins, of Woodstock, Ohio, was acquitted of the seditious conspiracy charge that Oath Keepers founder Stewart Rhodes was found guilty of in November, but jurors convicted her of obstruction and conspiracy to impede Congress' certification of President Joe Biden's victory.
She is the third member of the antigovernment group to receive her punishment this week in one of the most serious cases the Justice Department has brought in the riot. Rhodes' 18 year-term is the longest sentence that has been handed down so far in the hundreds of Capitol riot cases.
U.S. District Judge Amit Mehta said that while Watkins was not a top leader, like Rhodes, she was more than “just foot soldier,” noting that at least three others charged in the riot wouldn’t have been there if she hadn’t recruited them to join. He sentenced her to 8 1/2 years behind bars.
“Your role that day was more aggressive, more assaultive, more purposeful than perhaps others," he told her.
Watkins tearfully apologized for her actions before the judge handed down her sentence. She condemned the violence by rioters who assaulted police, but said she knows her presence at the Capitol “probably inspired those people to a degree." She described herself as “just another idiot running around the Capitol” on Jan. 6.
“And today you’re going to hold this idiot responsible,” she told the judge.
The judge, for his part, said her personal story of struggling for years to come to terms with her identity as a transgender woman made it especially difficult for him to understand why she has shown “a lack of empathy for those who suffered” on Jan. 6. Watkins testified at trial about hiding her identity from her parents during a strict Christian upbringing and going AWOL in the Army after a fellow soldier found evidence of her contact with a support group for transgender people.
During the nearly two-month trial in Washington's federal court, lawyers for Watkins and the other Oath Keepers argued there was no plan to attack the Capitol. On the witness stand, Watkins told jurors she never intended to interfere with the certification and never heard any commands for her and other Oath Keepers to enter the building.
Evidence shown to jurors showed Watkins after the 2020 election messaging with people who expressed interest in joining her Ohio militia group about “military-style basic” training. She told one recruit: “I need you fighting fit” by the inauguration, which was Jan. 20, 2021.
On Jan. 6, Watkins and other Oath Keepers wearing helmets and other paramilitary gear were seen shouldering their way through the crowd and up the Capitol stairs in military-style “stack” formation. She communicated with others during the riot over a channel called “Stop the Steal J6" on the walkie-talkie app Zello, declaring “we are in the main dome right now.”
Another Oath Keeper and fellow Army veteran — Kenneth Harrelson — will be sentenced later Friday. One of their other co-defendants, Florida chapter leader Kelly Meggs, was sentenced Thursday to 12 years behind bars for seditious conspiracy and other charges.
Rhodes, 58, of Granbury, Texas, was the first Jan. 6 defendant convicted of seditious conspiracy to receive his punishment for what prosecutors said was a weekslong plot to forcibly block the transfer of power from former President Donald Trump to Biden. Four other Oath Keepers convicted of the sedition charge during a second trial in January will be sentenced next week.
During his sentencing Thursday, Rhodes defiantly claimed to be a “political prisoner,” criticized prosecutors and the Biden administration and tried to play down his actions on Jan. 6. The judge described Rhodes as a continued threat to the United States who clearly “wants democracy in this country to devolve into violence.”
The Oath Keepers' sentences this week could serve as a guide for prosecutors in a separate Jan. 6 case against leaders of the Proud Boys extremist group. Earlier this month, a different jury convicted former Proud Boys national chairman Enrique Tarrio and three other group leaders of seditious conspiracy for what prosecutors said was another plot to keep Trump in the White House.
Before Thursday, the longest sentence in the more than 1,000 Capitol riot cases was 14 years and two months for a man with a long criminal record who attacked police officers with pepper spray and a chair as he stormed the Capitol. Just over 500 of the defendants have been sentenced, with more than half receiving prison time.
Richer reported from Boston.