Two members of the far-right Oath Keepers were handed prison sentences on Friday for their involvement in the deadly assault on the U.S. Capitol on January 6, 2021. The attack was carried out by supporters of Donald Trump who sought to overturn his presidential election defeat. Kenneth Harrelson and Jessica Watkins, who were convicted in November by a federal jury in Washington, received their sentences for obstructing an official proceeding during the storming of the Capitol.
U.S. District Judge Amit Mehta presided over the sentencing. Harrelson was sentenced to four years in prison, while Watkins received a sentence of eight and a half years. In addition to obstruction of an official proceeding, Harrelson was found guilty of conspiring to prevent the certification of President Joe Biden’s election win and tampering with documents and proceedings. Watkins faced additional convictions for conspiracy and obstruction of officers during the riots.
Both Harrelson and Watkins were acquitted of seditious conspiracy charges, with Judge Mehta acknowledging that Harrelson seemed less responsible than other members of the far-right militia he was associated with. The judge highlighted that the evidence against Harrelson did not include messages from him advocating for “revolution” or using other extremist terms. Furthermore, Harrelson did not physically attack or threaten police officers during the Capitol assault.
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Prosecution’s Arguments and Defendants’ Statements
Prosecutor Jeffrey Nestler argued that Harrelson’s intent was to intimidate members of Congress and individuals working in the Capitol building. Nestler presented evidence, including a video where Harrelson could be heard chanting the word “treason” as he entered the premises. In court, Harrelson expressed remorse, claiming he had never been politically inclined before January 6 and that he would have tried to prevent violence against police officers had he known about it.
Prosecutors sought a 15-year prison term for Harrelson, while Watkins’ attorney requested a lighter sentence without specifying a duration. Federal prosecutors recommended an 18-year sentence for Watkins, who had testified during the trial about her struggles with her transgender identity and her cooperation with law enforcement officials. However, Judge Mehta acknowledged that Watkins’ actions during the attack were more aggressive and purposeful than others involved.
Prosecutor Alexandra Hughes emphasized that the actions of Watkins and other Oath Keepers on that day were not isolated incidents and advocated for a significant sentence. The sentencing of Harrelson and Watkins took place a day after Oath Keepers’ founder Stewart Rhodes received an 18-year prison term for crimes including seditious conspiracy. This marks the most severe penalty thus far for individuals charged in the January 6 violence.
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Background on Oath Keepers and Future Sentencing
The Oath Keepers, established in 2009, comprise current and retired U.S. military personnel, law enforcement officers, and first responders. The group has been known to appear, often heavily armed, at protests and political events, including the 2020 racial justice demonstrations following the murder of George Floyd. Some Oath Keepers, including Watkins and Harrelson, breached the Capitol wearing paramilitary gear. Others organized a “quick reaction force” equipped with firearms at a suburban hotel. Four other Oath Keepers members convicted of seditious conspiracy in a separate trial will be sentenced in the coming week.
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