By MICHAEL KUNZELMAN
WASHINGTON (AP) — A former Ohio bar owner who stormed the U.S. Capitol in a military-style stack formation with fellow members of the far-right Oath Keepers extremist group told jurors Wednesday that it was a “really stupid” decision, saying she got swept up in what seemed to be a “very American moment.”
In a decision that surprised even the judge, Jessica Watkins took the the stand to testify in her defense as the high-stakes seditious conspiracy case against her, Oath Keepers founder Stewart Rhodes and three others nears a close.
Watkins, an Army veteran who has been locked up since her arrest nearly two years ago, testified that she never intended to interfere with Congress’ certification of President Joe Biden’s electoral victory and never heard any commands for her and other Oath Keepers to enter the building on Jan. 6, 2021.
Watkins recalled consuming a “steady diet” of conspiracy theorist Alex Jones’ “Infowars” show, which pushed the lie that the 2020 election was stolen. She called herself “just another idiot” in the mob on Jan. 6 and likened the scene outside the Capitol — where rioters smashed windows and engaged in hand-to-hand combat with police — to a Black Friday sale.
“Are you proud of what you did?” her attorney, Jonathan Crisp, asked.
“Not anymore,” Watkins replied.
Watkins, of Woodstock, Ohio, is the third defendant in the more than monthlong trial to take the witness stand — a move generally considered by defense lawyers as a last-resort option as it opens defendants up to intense cross-examination by prosecutors and often does more harm than good. Prosecutors will get a chance to question Watkins on Thursday.
Watkins took the stand in the seventh week of testimony in the case accusing Rhodes, Watkins and three others of a violent plot to stop the transfer of presidential power. Closing arguments could happen as early as this week.
Jurors have heard how Watkins before the riot was messaging with people who expressed interest in joining her Ohio militia group about “military-style basic” training planned for early January. She told one recruit: “I need you fighting fit” by the inauguration, which was Jan. 20, 2021.
They have seen video of Watkins and other Oath Keepers shouldering through the angry pro-Trump mob and into the building in what prosecutors have described as military-style stack formation. They have also heard a recording of a channel called “Stop the Steal J6” on the walkie-talkie app Zello that Watkins used to communicate with others during the riot.
“We are in the mezzanine. We are in the main dome right now. We are rocking it. They are throwing grenades, they are fricking shooting people with paint balls. But we are in here,” Watkins said in the recording.
“Get it, Jess. … Everything we (expletive) trained for,” someone responded.
The defense has spent weeks hammering prosecutors’ lack of evidence of an explicit plan for the Oath Keepers to attack the Capitol before Jan. 6.
Rhodes, a former Army paratrooper and Yale Law School graduate from Granbury, Texas, told jurors that there was never a plan to attack the Capitol. He testified that he was surprised and upset when he learned that some group members had joined a pro-Trump mob in storming the building and that their only mission that day was to provide security for Trump ally Roger Stone and others at events before the rally.
Thomas Caldwell, another defendant whose trial testimony ended earlier on Wednesday, told jurors he wasn’t serious when he floated the idea in messages before the riot of getting a boat that could ferry “heavy weapons” across the Potomac River into Oath Keepers’ “waiting arms.” Caldwell, a retired U.S. Navy intelligence officer from Berryville, Virginia, described it as “creative writing.”
Watkins’ lawyer told jurors during opening statements last month that she is a transgender woman who served as an Army Ranger but was discharged early — a decision that has “haunted her for the duration of her life.”
“She’s never felt like she fit in,” Crisp said. “A lot of the things she did that day were to try and fit in.”
Watkins told jurors that she struggled with her gender identity since she was a young child but kept it from her parents for years given her strict Christian upbringing. She described being confronted after a deployment to Afghanistan by a fellow soldier who borrowed her laptop and saw evidence of her contact with a support group for transgender people.
“I just panicked. Freaked out,” she said. “I panicked and went AWOL. I ran.”
Watkins said she went AWOL for about two months, spending time in Alaska before receiving an “other than honorable” discharge. She came out to her parents, who she said told her “never to come home again.” Watkins said she reconciled with her parents roughly 15 years later, and they welcomed her back home.
Her fiancé, Montana Siniff, testified earlier this month that Watkins’ 2003 discharge came after she was hazed on a deployment. “She was hazed to the point on one of her deployments that she absolutely feared for her life,” he told jurors.
Watkins’ attorney didn’t signal before Wednesday that she planned to testify. U.S. District Judge Amit Mehta appeared frustrated that the court wasn’t given a heads-up, telling Watkins’ lawyer “it would have been nice to know this” before he told jurors earlier in the day that they may get the case by Friday.
Also on trial with Watkins, Rhodes and Caldwell are Kelly Meggs, leader of the Florida chapter of the Oath Keepers, and Kenneth Harrelson, another group member from Florida. They face several other felony charges in addition to seditious conspiracy.
Associated Press reporter Alanna Durkin Richer contributed from Boston.
For full coverage of the Capitol riot, go to https://www.apnews.com/capitol-siege
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