WASHINGTON (AP) — Two members of the Oath Keepers who stormed the U.S. Capitol in a military-style formation will be sentenced Friday, a day after the far-right extremist group's founder received an 18-year prison term for seditious conspiracy and other charges in the Jan. 6, 2021 attack.
U.S. District Judge Amit Mehta will sentence Army veterans Jessica Watkins and Kenneth Harrelson after handing Oath Keepers founder Stewart Rhodes the longest prison sentence so far in more than 1,000 criminal cases brought in the Jan. 6 riot.
Watkins and Harrelson were acquitted of seditious conspiracy but convicted of obstructing Congress in the trial alongside Rhodes and other members of the group that ended in November. One of their other co-defendants, Florida chapter leader Kelly Meggs, was sentenced Thursday to 12 years behind bars.
Harrelson was the group’s “ground team lead” when Oath Keepers joined the mob that stormed the Capitol on Jan. 6 and disrupted the joint session of Congress certifying President Joe Biden's electoral victory. Watkins founded and led a separate Ohio-based militia. Harrelson and Watkins marched toward the Capitol with other Oath Keepers members in “stack” formations.
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.
Justice Department prosecutors are seeking an 18-year prison sentence for Watkins, of Woodstock, Ohio, and a 15-year prison sentence for Harrelson, of Titusville, Florida.
Mehta canceled a sentencing hearing scheduled this week for another defendant — Thomas Caldwell of Berryville, Virginia — as the judge weighs whether to overturn the jury’s guilty verdict against Caldwell for obstruction and a documents tampering charge.
Lawyers for Oath Keepers argued there was no plan to attack the Capitol and insisted they never intended to interfere with Congress' certification of the election. Watkins testified at the trial that storming the Capitol was a “really stupid” decision, saying she got swept up in what seemed to be a “very American moment.” Harrelson didn't take the witness stand.
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 judge in Rhodes' case agreed with the Justice Department that Rhodes’ actions should be punished as “terrorism,” which increases the recommended sentence under federal guidelines. Judges had previously rejected such requests in other Jan. 6 cases.
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 extremist group. 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.