A self-styled militia leader and bar owner from Ohio and a former welder from Florida were sentenced to 8½ years and four years in prison Friday for joining Oath Keepers founder Stewart Rhodes in disrupting Congress’s confirmation of Joe Biden’s 2020 presidential election victory in the Jan. 6, 2021, Capitol attack.
Army veterans Jessica Watkins and Kenneth Harrelson were acquitted of seditious conspiracy but convicted on other felony counts in November at trial with Rhodes and his on-the-ground leader, Kelly Meggs. Rhodes and Meggs were convicted of seditious conspiracy and sentenced Thursday. Rhodes received 18 years in prison, the longest for any Jan. 6 defendant. 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.”
Watkins, 40, of Woodstock, Ohio, recruited three other people and was recorded on Jan. 6 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. The group marched single-file up the east Capitol steps and joined a mob that entered the Columbus doors by force.
Harrelson, 42, a former Army sergeant from Titusville, Fla., received firearms training with Meggs in Florida and, according to prosecutors, served as “Meggs’ right-hand man” in setting up video meetings and relaying instructions to other Florida Oath Keepers about stashing weapons for a “Quick Reaction Force” if violence erupted. Harrelson recorded himself yelling “Treason!” at Capitol occupants as he entered with Meggs.
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. But Harrelson received a fraction of his co-defendants’ time and close to the 45-month average sentence for 22 other Jan. 6 defendants who were convicted of obstructing Congress but not found guilty of conspiring with an organized group or of committing violence.
Mehta found that Watkins’s and Harrelson’s actions qualified for an enhanced terrorism sentencing penalty for offenses calculated to coerce the government, but the judge slashed years off the penalties sought by prosecutors. Mehta noted that Watkins, like Harrelson, had been acquitted of conspiring to use force to oppose government authority, and that she turned herself in and cooperated short of pleading guilty.
The judge added that of 2,000 to 3,000 communications exchanged by co-conspirators, he found only “a couple dozen” by Harrelson. That suggested lesser intent and explained why the jury also acquitted him of conspiring to obstruct Congress, while he was convicted of actually obstructing it, plotting to interfere with police and destroying evidence, the judge said.
- Oath Keepers founder Stewart Rhodes was found guilty of seditious conspiracy in the Jan. 6, 2021, attack on the Capitol.
- He is accused of guiding a months-long effort to unleash politically motivated violence to prevent the swearing-in of President Biden.
- Where do things stand now? Some Oath Keepers have been convicted and others still face trial.
- Rhodes is the most high-profile person charged in the investigation so far.
- The Oath Keepers trial is the highest-profile prosecution to arise from the 2021 Capitol chaos.
- The trial is an important step in the wider probe, analysts say.
“What distinguishes you from everyone else so far is that there not a single word on a Signal communication that anyone would consider extremist, radicalized, encouraging someone to engage in violence, or words like ‘civil war,’ ‘revolution,’ or thinking about death,” Mehta said. “You are not someone who bears the same responsibility or culpability as the others.”
Defense attorney Brad Geyer called Harrelson “a horse of a different color” and urged the judge to send his client to his family.
Watkins 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.
Watkins texted others, telling them to prepare for violence to keep Trump in office, beginning on Nov. 9, 2020, six days after the election, and she spoke of getting recruits “fighting fit by innaugeration” and uniting Oath Keepers and other extremist groups. “Be prepared to fight hand to hand,” she wrote. “Now or never.”
Like Rhodes, she expressed hope that Trump would invoke the Insurrection Act and mobilize private militias so he could remain in power. Watkins 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 was acquitted of destroying federal property, but found guilty of conspiring to obstruct and actually obstructing an official proceeding of Congress, rioting, and plotting to impede officers.
Both obstruction charges are punishable by the same maximum 20-year prison sentence as seditious conspiracy.
Addressing the court in an orange jail suit, Watkins apologized for impeding police and Congress and for inspiring anyone to enter the Capitol, and said she was ashamed of contributing to the country’s political division. 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.”
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 viewed police as being unprepared to manage the crowd, provoking it with tear gas, and 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 her fears about the consequences for the country if Biden won were “delusional.”
He said Watkins’s personal suffering as a trans woman could make her a role model at a time when people confronting questions over their sexual identity “are so regularly vilified and used for political purposes.”
But, the judge concluded, “It doesn’t white out what you did.”
Prosecutor Jeff Nestler argued that Harrelson knew that the Oath Keepers were bringing guns for “offensive,” not defensive, purposes and that he ranked just behind Meggs in a leadership role. Harrelson patted down an officer at the Capitol to see if he had body armor and yelled “Treason” there, knowing that the penalty for traitors is death, the prosecutor said.
“What they are saying is that people in this building deserve to be killed for serving their constitutional duties. That is what people including Harrelson thought,” Nestler said.
But Harrelson said he voted only once in his life, in 2018, and went to the Capitol on Jan. 6 only because Meggs called him three days earlier for “a security job.”
“I have no gripes against the government then or now,” Harrelson said, apologizing to police he encountered and to his wife and children for “demolishing” their lives.
“I got in the wrong car at the wrong time, and went to the wrong place with the wrong people,” he said. “I should have paid more attention at what was being said on my phone. … I should have paid attention and stopped it. … I should have done more, and I apologize.”
Tom Jackman contributed to this report.