In a move that surprised both the judge and Justice Department prosecutors on Wednesday, Oath Keeper Jessica Watkins opted to testify in the seditious conspiracy trial unfolding in Washington, D.C.
The decision arrived at a critical juncture in the six-week trial, since prosecutors were on the cusp of closing their arguments and jurors have spent the past two days in particular hearing testimony from Watkins’ co-defendant Thomas Caldwell and his wife Sharon Caldwell that often came across overly defiant, considering the stakes.
But Watkins struck a different chord and was a compelling and potentially sympathetic witness. Unlike Rhodes or Caldwell, she expressed a repeated and direct remorse for her conduct on Jan. 6. Her attorney Jonathan Crisp said during his opening remarks on Oct. 3 that Watkins should’t be awarded any medals for what she said or did on Jan. 6, 2021, but at the end of these proceedings, jurors should “only convict on a civil disorder charge.”
She faces a total of six charges including seditious conspiracy and has pleaded not guilty to all.
On Wednesday, Watkins told jurors when she breached the Capitol it was a spur of the moment decision and the product of getting swept up in the moment, just as many Jan. 6 defendants have claimed before her.
“I lost all objectivity. I wasn’t security anymore. I wasn’t ‘Medic Jess’ anymore. I was just another idiot running around the Capitol,” Watkins said.
Her attorney, Jonathan Crisp, elicited this testimony as he had Watkins walk through her experience not just on Jan. 6 but her experience as a trans woman with family trauma and a “steady diet” of conspiracy theorist Alex Jones’s hate and fearmongering.
Watkins, who was born a man, told jurors when she entered the Army in 2001, she was outed after a fellow service member discovered her search history on her laptop. Since she was four years old, she said, she struggled with her gender identity and it wasn’t any easier for her as she aged. Her family was devoutly Christian and there were epithets often hurled about gay people in her home. She was beaten in school and she was beaten at home, too.
When her “battle buddy,” she testified, confronted her about what he found on her computer—searches for trans support groups and forums—he lashed out at her in private.
“I know what you are, faggot,” she recalled him saying.
He was a big man and aggressive, she said. She knew a solider had been killed in the 101st Airborne not long before for dating a transgender woman. She panicked and fled to Alaska, going AWOL for just over two months. She turned herself in to police and, left with few options or outlets, went home and came out to her parents. Their reaction was “dark,” she recalled.
Banished by her parents from her home, it would be “maybe 15 years” before she would see them again.
They were able to reconcile, though it was “akward,” she said.
Today, Watkins said she is comfortable with her gender identity “generally speaking” but struggles with an internalized hatred imparted to her from her family, from people who were cruel to her and from years of embarrassment and shame.
She does not associate with the larger trans community any more, she said, because she feels they do not represent her in the way she feels comfortable. Waving a pride flag, she explained, made her feel like she was celebrating her pain.
When prosecutors showed jurors texts where Watkins threw around gay slurs, the Woodstock, Ohio resident and founder of the Ohio State Regular Militia didn’t demur. She copped to the language and said she thought she likely did this because she was “lashing out at others like I’ve been lashed out at.”
“Its emotions towards myself,” she said.
On Jan. 6, her emotions were running high and had been for awhile.
Since 2017, Watkins said she became increasingly concerned as protests broke out rejecting former President Donald Trump’s election to the White House. It upset her and worried her and as a person who had spent years wanting to “help,” she said, there was a stirring in her.
Years earlier when she had left the military, she had joined up with a local firefighting service. She left it in 2014 and by 2019, she and her now-fiancee Montana Siniff started to talk about forming the Ohio State Regular Militia. Back then, their mission was to protect homes and businesses from rioters, she said. And if she could put her Army medic experience to use, she testified, she wanted to do that too.
But as the 2020 election season kicked into full gear, the mission changed. The small militia now had recruits including Donovan Crowl and Bennie and Sandy Parker, all of whom are Oath Keepers soon to face trial themselves.
Watkins only learned of the Oath Keepers when they were first introduced on InfoWars, she testified. The ravings on the channel were lunacy and featured conspiracies about the Chinese invading the United States through Chicago, or the Chinese bombing military bases in the U.S.
“I gave it a 25% chance of likelihood,” she said.
She read information elsewhere about the United Nations helping the U.S. distribute COVID-19 vaccines once Joe Biden became president. What she heard and read about that, she said, led her to believe there was a 50% chance the U.N. really would align with the Biden administration and force people to take the vaccine “door to door.”
She worried too about the incoming administration seizing people’s guns.
Though she described herself to jurors as “gullible” for believing the swill that Jones and other right-wing media types broadcast, she told the jury she still has “a lot of questions” about the outcome of the 2020 election.
It has been proven time and again and confirmed by numerous intelligence agencies as well as members of the Trump administration itself that Trump’s claims of widespread fraud were false. No widespread fraud was ever found and every legal challenge that Trump mounted citing voter fraud was summarily shot down. This is a lie Trump has perpetuated since September 2020. He continues to do this until today.
When she entered the Capitol on Jan. 6, Watkins described feeling pride and said the crowd around her was peaceful and that it was a “great heroic moment.”
“We the people were going into our House and we were going to be heard,” she said.
But she also claimed that after she was herded into the building by a jostling crowd and heard glass break once inside the rotunda, she became “really pissed.”
Apologizing for her profane testimony on Wednesday, she said: “I told them, ‘This is my house. This is the taxpayers’ house. If you fuck it up, I’m going to fuck you up.”
Her attorney asked her point blank if she wanted to apologize for her actions in hindsight.
“I want to say I’m sorry to you, but I’d rather say I’m sorry to the police officer Christopher Owens who was here the other day. He was on the end of that line protecting other officers from my dumb ass, basically,” she said, facing jurors.
Owens, a D.C. Metropolitan Police officer, testified on Oct. 26 that the clash between himself and rioters on Jan. 6 was so intense that it lifted his more than six-foot, 200-plus pound body clear off the ground.
One rioter, he said, told him: “No mercy here. All for [Speaker of the House Nancy] Pelosi.”
Watkins was one of many rioters he worked to fend off on Jan. 6. During the Capitol siege, he was punched, kicked, pelted with flagpoles and 2x4s. His body was battered, bloodied, and bruised.
The only reason police were able to hold the mob —and Oath Keepers—at bay was because police had “better training,” Owens said.
“And sheer will and determination to not let them do what they came here to do,” Owens testified.
“Are you proud of what you did?” Crisp asked Watkins on Wednesday.
“Not anymore,” she said.
Overblown rhetoric posted on Parler after the attack was the byproduct of her frustration with media coverage of Jan. 6, she claimed.
And while civil war once seemed inevitable if not almost preferable to her Oath Keeper cohorts, Watkins today says that a civil war would be the “worst possible solution for this country.”
Watkins flatly denied receiving any instruction to storm the Capitol or to stop the certification of the 2020 election. She denied altogether having knowledge of such plans.
If she would have known there was a plan to stop the certification, she told jurors there was only one thing she would have done.
“I wouldn’t have gotten involved and quite frankly, I would have contacted law enforcement,” she said.
That may be true. But jurors will have to decide if it is true or, at the least, believable. And they will have to compare that remark with others she made on Wednesday, as well as in the past.
“I’ve probably got a little bit of, well, I don’t want to say a death wish, but I put myself in harm’s way deliberately. If I’m going to die for something, it probably should matter. And I’m not afraid of that, of embracing that,” she testified.
Watkins will go under cross-examination on Thursday morning where she’s likely to face off with prosecutors who will pepper her with questions about the violent rhetoric and conduct she and other Oath Keepers are alleged to have been part of on the path to the insurrection at the Capitol.
Due to her abrupt decision to testify, closing arguments from the government that were expected to unfold Wednesday are now slated for Thursday.
Presiding U.S. District Judge Amit Mehta said Wednesday that Bradley Geyer, an attorney for Watkins’ co-defendant Kenneth Harrelson, told him during a bench conference that Harrelson will not call any witnesses. Mehta also revealed after jurors left that attorneys for defendant Kelly Meggs have indicated Meggs only has a few exhibits to present before resting his case.
Before this trial is over, Judge Mehta ruled on Wednesday that evidence about Oath Keeper founder Stewart Rhodes’ failure to pay taxes from 2008 to 2020 can be admitted by prosecutors.
For all of the talk at trial about his history of being “law abiding,” Mehta explained, it was only reasonable to introduce information that speaks to the veracity of those claims.
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