Fri, May 26, 2023 3:49 PM
By MICHAEL KUNZELMAN, LINDSAY WHITEHURST and ALANNA DURKIN RICHER, Associated Press
WASHINGTON (AP) — Two Army veterans who stormed the U.S. Capitol in a military-style formation with fellow members of the Oath Keepers were sentenced Friday to prison terms, a day after the far-right extremist group's founder received a record-setting 18-years behind bars in the Jan. 6, 2021, attack.
U.S. District Judge Amit Mehta sentenced Jessica Watkins, of Woodstock, Ohio, to eight years and six months behind bars and sentenced Kenneth Harrelson, of Titusville, Florida, to four years in prison.
A federal jury acquitted Watkins and Harrelson of the seditious conspiracy charge that Oath Keepers founder Stewart Rhodes was found guilty of in November. But jurors convicted Watkins and Harrelson of other Jan. 6 charges, including obstructing Congress’ certification of President Joe Biden’s victory.
Rhodes' 18-year term is the longest prison sentence that has been handed down so far in the hundreds of Capitol riot cases. The charges against leaders of the Oath Keepers and another extremist group, the Proud Boys, are among the most serious brought in the Justice Department's massive investigation of the riot.
Mehta agreed with the Justice Department that Rhodes and the other Oath Keepers' actions could be punished as “terrorism,” increasing the recommended sentence under federal guidelines.
But the judge ultimately gave Watkins and Harrelson far less time than prosecutors were seeking. The Justice Department had requested 18 years for Watkins and 15 for Harrelson.
Watkins and Harrelson marched toward the Capitol with other Oath Keepers members in “stack” formations as a mob of Trump supporters clashed with outnumbered police officers. Harrelson was the group’s “ground team lead” on Jan. 6. Watkins, who formed a separate Ohio-based militia group, recruited others to join the Oath Keepers in Washington that day.
Mehta said that while Watkins was not a top leader, like Rhodes, she was more than just a "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.
“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 conceded that 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 said Watkins' 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.
Harrelson told the judge he went to Washington after another Oath Keeper offered him a “security job," but said he has never voted for a president in his life and doesn’t care about politics. Some of the Oath Keepers provided security for Trump ally Roger Stone and other right-wing figures at events before the riot.
“I have totally demolished my life,” he said as he broke down in tears. “I am responsible, and my foolish actions have caused immense pain to my wife and our children.”
Mehta said he doesn’t agree with the government’s portrayal of Harrelson as a “mid-level organizer” for the Oath Keepers. Unlike many other group members charged in the attack, Harrelson didn’t send any messages “that anyone would consider extremist,” the judge said.
But the judge said he was struck by an image of Harrelson patting down a police officer on his way out of the Capitol.
“You weren’t just there that day because you got swept in,” the judge told him.
During a 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.”
Harrelson screamed “Treason!” — an epithet directed at members of Congress — as he entered the Capitol on Jan. 6, a prosecutor said.
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. 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.