Washington — The Oath Keepers' seditious conspiracy trial took an unexpected turn on Wednesday when defendant Jessica Watkins — a military veteran from Ohio — decided to testify in her own defense, a move that put her face to face with the Washington, D.C., jury that is set to decide her guilt.
Watkins is accused of mobilizing a group of Oath Keepers to Washington, D.C, on Jan. 6, 2021, in support of then-President Donald Trump's efforts to overturn the results of the 2020 presidential election. Prosecutors say she ultimately made her way from Trump's speech at the White House Ellipse — dressed in armor and tactical gear — to the Capitol building, allegedly forming a military-style stack to breach the building, where she allegedly interfered with law enforcement and encouraged other members of the mob to push past police.
She and her four co-defendants are charged with seditious conspiracy — the most serious count so far levied in the Justice Department's investigation — accused of planning to use force to prevent the peaceful presidential transfer from Trump to Joe Biden. They all pleaded not guilty.
The defendant testified she did not plan to enter the Capitol that day but "lost objectivity" in the crowd and got "swept away," rejecting the government's assertion that the group formed a military formation to approach the building.
Prosecutors have already presented the jury with multiple messages and recordings of Watkins discussing plans to head to the nation's capital on Jan. 6 and declaring the group "stormed the Capitol" during the attack over a radio-like digital communication app.
But Watkins testified her plan was not to storm the Capitol, but instead to provide medical care and security during the planned protests, a common defense at trial. The day took a turn, she said, when she said she became "another idiot" inside the Capitol building, a part of the mob. Her mention of storming the Capitol, she argued, was an outcome of joining the crowd. Watkins claimed she thought the certification of Electoral College votes was over. It was not, she testified, a call to action.
"At any point did anyone say, 'Now it's time to enter the Capitol? Now it's time to stop the certification," her attorney, Jonathan Crisp, asked in court on Wednesday.
"No, sir," Watkins said, "I thought the certification was over."
But once inside, Watkins said she was "pissed off" over what she thought was a stolen election and in pain due to broken ribs, and that's why she was urging others to move past police inside the building, she said.
She told the jury it was "stupid," and she admitted to interfering with law enforcement and apologized, explaining the officers were merely "trying to protect the capital from my dumbass face."
"I thought it was an American moment," Watkins said of her mindset in the days after the attack, I " took one for the team." But she reflected that she has since come to regret her actions and is no longer proud of her role in the events of Jan. 6.
Crisp has previously described his client's actions on Jan. 6 as "misled and mistaken," an attempt to fit in.
Watkins — who is transgender — said Wednesday she went AWOL from military service after her true identity was discovered and condemned by her roommate in the military. She fled to Alaska because her family did not accept her, a rejection she said still fills her with some "level of shame."
The jury heard testimony that Watkins ultimately returned home to Ohio and bought a bar after her family "warmly" came to terms with her identity.
She said she began to worry about her business being vandalized after the 2017 presidential election and leading up to 2020, said she thought, "If Trump gets elected again, there will be a lot more of that" from anti-Trump factions that she blamed for the damage.
Watkins explained she and her fiance, Montana Siniff — who also testified in Watkins' defense — started a militia in the spring of 2020 to protect her and other businesses, even traveling to Louisville, Ky., in the wake of Breonna Taylor's murder (Watkins condemned Taylor's death on the stand).
"I got a steady diet of InfoWars and Alex Jones," Watkins said of that period in her life, which led her to join the far-right Oath Keepers group. She learned the group was going to protect Trump ally Roger Stone on Jan. 6 — which she said she was "stoked" for — and at one at point there were discussions of protecting a member of Congress.
Messages from an Oath Keepers group chat released prior to the trial revealed they did in fact discuss protecting Stone and other Trump allies including Michael Flynn.
Prosecutors say part of the alleged conspiracy involved the formation of a Quick Reaction Force (QRF), which involved the amassing of weapons in a nearby Virginia hotel ready to respond to Washington, D.C. if called upon.
Despite ample evidence demonstrating her knowledge of some QRFs on Jan. 6 — including a message she sent on Jan. 4 about dropping off weapons — Watkins said Wednesday nothing was "firm."
Watkins did admit, though, that the group was preparing for Trump to invoke the Insurrection Act after the election results were rejected in Congress, calling on militias to defend against members of "the left" who they expected to "lose their mind" and start riots.
Neither Watkins nor her codefendants — including leader Stewart Rhodes — are accused of bringing weapons into Washington, D.C., and Trump never invoked the decades-old law.
Prosecutors have yet to question Watkins under cross-examination, which is expected on Thursday. They are likely to confront the defendant with her own comments and communications leading up to and after Jan. 6, similar to their questioning of defendant Thomas Caldwell on.
Caldwell, Rhodes, and now Watkins have all decided to take the stand in their own defense during the high-profile trial. Two other defendants, Kenneth Harrelson and Kelly Meggs, have so far opted not to testify.
Judge Amit Mehta, who is presiding over the trial, said Wednesday it is likely the jury will start deliberating the case on Monday afternoon.