WASHINGTON (CN) — Despite being acquitted of the top charge, seditious conspiracy, two Oath Keepers who led the assault on the Capitol after the 2020 election were sentenced to significant prison terms Friday.
Jessica Watkins and Kenneth Harrelson will spend 8 1/2 years and 4 years in prison, respectively, for the counts on which they were convicted, obstruction of an official proceeding, namely the certification by Congress of the 2020 election results.
Watkins, 40, was convicted of other felonies, including conspiring to injure an officer for Watkins, while Harrelson, 47, was convicted of tampering with evidence and conspiring to impede an officer.
U.S. District Judge Amit P. Mehta drew a distinction between Watkins and Harrelson and their superior officers in the Oath Keepers, Stewart Rhodes and Kelly Meggs, whom he sentenced a day earlier to 18 years and 12 years, respectively. Unlike Rhodes and Meggs, both convicted of seditious conspiracy, the Obama appointee noted that Watkins and Harrelson were following orders.
But that did not mean they were at the bottom of the command chain, and Mehta specifically pointed out the recruitment efforts Watkins undertook, saying that without her, several rioters would never have been at the riot, making her culpable for their violent actions on top of her own.
“Your role in those events are more than that of just a foot soldier,” Mehta told Watkins, who is transgender and held herself out on social media as the commanding officer of the Ohio Regular State Militia, a dues-paying subset of the Oath Keepers. “Your role that day was more aggressive, more assaultive, more purposeful than others.”
On the encrypted chat application Telegram, Watkins and other leaders in the Oath Keepers exchanged messages after the 2020 election that show her efforts to recruit others into the conspiracy and her expectation of violence.
"This is the real for real shit," Watkins texted another member, referring to Jan. 6. "This is what we've been waiting for, let's make history motherfucker."
According to a sentencing memorandum from the government, Watkins went to the Capitol carrying pool cues that she had sharpened into night sticks after leaving a stack of guns in the vehicle she drove from Ohio. Footage from Jan. 6 shows Watkins, an Army veteran, dressed in full body armor inside the Capitol Rotunda.
Watkins expressed remorse in her testimony before Mehta, recognizing the criminality of what she did that day and in the weeks leading up, calling herself an “idiot.”
“Idiots get held responsible, and today this idiot will be held responsible,” Watkins said.
In Harrelson’s case, Mehta found that the evidence showed that he did not have much of a leadership role in the conspiracy, and that his title on Jan. 6 of “ground team leader” was little more than a name.
Justice Department Attorney Jeffrey Nestler argued that, while Harrelson did not hold much personal sway in the group or the conspiracy, he was the “right-hand man” to Meggs and the designated point person for the Florida chapter of theOath Keepers with knowledge on what weapons and equipment members should bring with them.
Mehta disagreed with this characterization, telling Harrelson before he passed down his sentence: “I don’t think you are what the government thinks you are.” Unlike his co-conspirators, who sent countless messages calling for armed revolution against Congress and the government, Harrelson said little to nothing in Oath Keeper group chats.
“There is not a single word on a single communication that shows you as an extremist,” Mehta said, admitting that, while it may be possible he agreed with messages without responding, the more likely explanation is that he simply did not pay attention to them.
Harrelson apologized for his participation in the riot, saying that he never cared or paid much attention to politics and couldn’t explain what brought him to the Capitol that day.
“I got in the wrong car at the wrong time, went to the wrong place with the wrong people,” Harrelson said prior to his sentencing.
The three defendants appeared in court earlier this week for their sentencing on Wednesday, along with Rhodes, to hear statements from law enforcement officers and congressional staffers who were present at the Capitol during the riots.
U.S. Capitol Police Officer Harry Dunn, who testified at the jury trial for the four defendants, described how he and his fellow officers have had to “relive the horrors of that day” every time they return to work at the Capitol, to the point that some refuse to return to certain locations of the complex.
“I used to enjoy coming to work each day,” Dunn said. “But the defendants ripped that away from me.”
The Justice Department has charged more than 1,000 people to date in connection with the Capitol riot. As of last month, approximately 541 people have pleaded guilty and 445 have been sentenced.
Many of the rioters have received relatively light sentences, in part because they pleaded guilty, forgoing a jury trial, and because few others have been charged with as serious crimes as the Oath Keepers. The FBI investigation is still ongoing, with at least 250 people who assaulted police officers still unidentified.
A fifth Oath Keeper who was on trial with the other defendants, Thomas Caldwell, was acquitted of seditious conspiracy like Watkins and Harrelson, but Mehta canceled his sentencing hearing as he considers whether or not to overturn his guilty verdicts of obstruction and evidence tampering.
Read the Top 8
Sign up for the Top 8, a roundup of the day's top stories delivered directly to your inbox Monday through Friday.