A self-styled militia leader from Ohio was sentenced to 8 1/2 years in prison Friday for joining and recruiting at least three others into an armed plot led by Oath Keepers founder Stewart Rhodes to prevent the transfer of presidential power from Donald Trump to Joe Biden, a plot that culminated in the Jan. 6, 2021, Capitol attack.
Jessica Watkins, an Army veteran and bar owner, was acquitted of seditious conspiracy but convicted on four other felony counts in November at trial with Rhodes and his on-the-ground leader, Kelly Meggs, who were each convicted of and, on Thursday, sentenced for seditious conspiracy. Rhodes was sentenced to 18 years in prison, the longest for any Jan. 6 defendant, and Meggs was sentenced to 12 years.
On Friday, U.S. District Judge Amit P. Mehta told Watkins after a two-hour sentencing hearing: “Nobody would suggest you’re Stewart Rhodes; I don’t think you’re Kelly Meggs. But your role in those events is more than that of just a foot soldier.”
He added, “As someone who takes a greater role in a conspiracy, you bear a greater responsibility not just for your conduct but for the conduct of those you bring to it.”
On Jan. 6, Watkins was recorded on a walkie-talkie-style app saying she was walking with a group of about 30 to 40 people to the Capitol and “sticking together and sticking to the plan,” before she eventually met up with a group led by Meggs that marched single-file up the east Capitol steps and joined a mob that entered the Columbus doors by force.
Outside of Rhodes and Meggs, Watkins received the longest sentence to date for any Jan. 6 defendant who has not been convicted of assaulting a police officer. As with Rhodes and Meggs, Mehta found that Watkins’s actions qualified for an enhanced terrorism sentencing penalty for offenses calculated to coerce the government, but he slashed years off the 18-year penalty sought by prosecutors, noting that Watkins was acquitted of conspiring to use force to oppose government authority, turned herself in and cooperated short of pleading guilty.
Watkins, 40, was accused of merging her local Ohio armed group with the Oath Keepers in 2020. She became a recruiter and organizer in advance of the Capitol attack, bringing firearms and other weapons and storing them outside Washington.
Like Rhodes, she expressed hope that Trump would invoke the Insurrection Act and mobilize private militias to remain in power. She entered the Capitol with other Oath Keepers in military-style gear before joining rioters in a Senate hallway, yelling “Push” and “Get in there” as they confronted police protecting the Senate chamber.
Watkins’s actions were “more assaultive” and “more purposeful, and you led others to fulfill your purposes,” the judge told her.
Addressing the court in an orange jail suit, Watkins apologized for trespassing, impeding police and interfering with Congress, and said she was ashamed of contributing to the country’s political division and inspiring anyone to enter the Capitol. She maintained, as she testified at trial, that she was arming herself because she believed disinformation propagated widely by “Infowars” host Alex Jones and other far-right leaders that a Biden presidency would allow the United Nations and China to invade the United States.
“Violence is never the answer,” Watkins said. “My actions there were impermissible. . . . Today you’re going to hold this idiot responsible.”
But Watkins maintained that she thought that the 2020 election result “needed a thorough audit to ensure reliability,” and prosecutors said she continued to blame police for the riot as recently as in a January call from jail.
“Boohoo. The poor little police officers got a little PTSD. Wah,” Assistant U.S. Attorney Alexandra Hughes said Watkins was recorded saying, as well as, “The police are responsible for inciting January 6.”
“She remains unbowed,” Hughes said, arguing that a “significant sentence” was required as a “deterrent for those who would use force to derail a political process they disagree with.”
Beginning on Nov. 9, 2020, six days after the election, Watkins texted others that “violence was needed to keep Trump in office,” Mehta agreed.
“This is what we’ve been waiting for,” Watkins told one associate, referring to Oath Keepers and other extremist groups. “Be prepared to fight hand to hand,” she told another. “Now or never.”
That same day, she began contacting recruits and contemplated a “Basic Training” camp outside Columbus, Ohio, so they would be “fighting fit by innaugeration.”
After entering the Capitol on Jan. 6, Watkins wrote her partner that night: “Forced our way into the Senate and House. Got tear gassed and muscled the cops back like Spartans.”
Later, she texted Oath Keepers about having a “bug-out” plan to retreat to the Kentucky hills to fight like the “NVA,” or North Vietnamese Army.
Watkins was acquitted of seditious conspiracy and destroying federal property, but convicted on four other counts, including conspiring to obstruct and actually obstructing an official proceeding of Congress, rioting, and conspiring to impede or injure an officer.
Both obstruction charges are punishable by the same maximum 20-year prison sentence as seditious conspiracy.
Defense attorney Jonathan Crisp said that Watkins “never talked about overthrowing the government. She talked about fighting to support it,” and was recruited by the Oath Keepers as a medic.
Crisp said Watkins would have pleaded guilty to all counts but seditious conspiracy, but prosecutors did not let her, and she would not contest her convictions. He noted that Watkins - a trans woman - was “rejected by her family,” the Army and colleagues she served with in Iraq.
He explained her comments about police as coming from someone who has been “demonized” and part of a group wrongly made “a poster child” for Jan. 6, even though they showed up after the Capitol was breached and committed little violence. At the same time, Crisp said, Watkins as a former soldier saw police as making undisciplined mistakes by being unprepared to manage the crowd and provoking it with tear gas, and then complaining about the physical risks of their jobs afterward.
“There is cognitive dissonance between yes, this was truly horrible,” and, “It’s part of the job . . . and I think that she struggles with that,” Crisp said. “That doesn’t exonerate the acts of crime. . . . It doesn’t dismiss the trauma.”
Mehta credited Watkins for her service but said: “Somewhere along the line, that all got waylaid, perverted, I don’t know what it was. . . . You clearly began having delusional thoughts about what the risks were if the other guy won.”
The judge also noted that Watkins’s personal suffering as a trans woman could make her a role model for some, at a time when trans people and people confronting questions over their sexual identity “are so regularly vilified and used for political purposes.”
But, the judge concluded, “It makes [it] all the more hard for me to understand why there is still a lack of empathy for those who suffered that day,” and, “It doesn’t white out what you did.”