Judge to consider if Ohio woman’s Capitol riot charges are ‘crimes of violence’

By: - February 24, 2021 1:00 am

A still from footage of the riots in Washington D.C. captures Jessica Watkins, 38, seen with several people in Oathkeepers regalia, heading up the Capitol stairs. Screenshot from YouTube, credit Ford Fischer / News2Share.

A federal judge Tuesday delayed his ruling on whether to allow the pre-trial release of an Ohio woman accused of organizing a paramilitary unit to storm the U.S. Capitol on Jan. 6.

U.S. District Judge Amit Mehta asked an attorney for Jessica Watkins, who commanded a self-described militia, and prosecutors to submit arguments as to whether the destruction of government property qualifies as a “crime of violence,” as prosecutors argued.

His answer, he said, would act as precedent for the eight other charged members of the the Oath Keepers paramilitary group, and possibly other defendants charged in the Capitol riots as well.

Watkins, 38, was indicted on charges of conspiracy, obstruction of a congressional proceeding, destruction of government property, and entering a restricted building without lawful authority.

Because she was indicted on an offense “calculated to influence or affect the conduct of government,” prosecutors stated in court documents that Watkins was charged with a crime of terrorism and should remain in jail until her trial.

Several Oath Keepers seen in the U.S. Capitol during the Jan. 6 riots

They characterized her as fixated on the notion of organizing her unit (the “Ohio State Regular Militia”) to join a violent mob to obstruct the congressional certification of Joe Biden’s electoral win over Donald Trump.

“The profoundly brazen nature of Watkins’s participation in the Jan. 6, 2021 assault on the Capitol was uniquely dangerous and continues to impact security in the District and beyond,” they wrote. “Watkins joined a violent mob that overwhelmed law enforcement and destroyed government property, re-creating in modern times events not seen in this nation since the War of 1812.”

Footage captures Watkins and fellow Oath Keepers — a faction of the militia movement known for extreme, anti-government views that primarily recruits current and former members of the armed forces and law enforcement — ascending the Capitol stairs Jan. 6.

They cut through the crowd in what prosecutors called a “stack” formation, a human train with hands on the shoulders of the person in front of them. Watkins acknowledged in an interview prior to her arrest that she entered the Capitol but denied engaging in any violence or property destruction.

Assistant U.S. Attorney Ahmed Basset called the image of the militia slicing through the crowd and toward the Capitol some of the most “indelible and frightening images” of a violent day. Nearly 140 officers were assaulted, and five people died including a U.S. Capitol Police officer.

Watkins and co-defendant Donovan Crowl later took a selfie-style video in the Capitol rotunda, bragging about the siege. Prosecutors say along with weapons, police found a recipe for an explosive device after searching her apartment in Champaign County.

Footage from the crowd shows combat between rioters, armed with hockey sticks, bats, signs, and other melee weapons, against a comparatively small force of city and Capitol police.

WASHINGTON, DC – JANUARY 06: A pro-Trump mob breaks into the U.S. Capitol on January 06, 2021 in Washington, DC. Congress held a joint session today to ratify President-elect Joe Biden’s 306-232 Electoral College win over President Donald Trump. A group of Republican senators said they would reject the Electoral College votes of several states unless Congress appointed a commission to audit the election results. (Photo by Win McNamee/Getty Images)

Prosecutors, who obtained Watkins’ text messages after her arrest, highlighted her explicit references to combat, and references to a “QRF” (quick reaction force) that could bring guns as needed.

“I’m no doctor, I’m a soldier,” Watkins, a former combat medic, said in a text to a recruit. “A medic with a rifle, maybe, but a soldier. I will hurt/kill those who try to hurt/kill me or others.”

Watkins’ attorney argued her client made a conscious choice against violence, and that she didn’t enter the Capitol until 2:40 p.m. — nearly 40 minutes after the initial breach.

She said Watkins was brainwashed by bunk claims from then-lame duck President Donald Trump and a coterie of conservative media claiming he won the election. Watkins, she argued, wasn’t violent — she merely dressed like it with battle gear and owned an array of firearms and weapons.

“While some of the rhetoric she allegedly engaged in is troubling, she fell prey to the false and inflammatory claims of the former president, his supporters, and the right wing media,” said Watkins’ attorney, Michelle Peterson, in court documents.

“For example, she believed even after the events that occurred that the violence was not at the hands of people who shared her views, but were agitators. She believed the right-wing media’s assertions that the violence was perpetrated by ‘antifa’ or others.”

Peterson asked Mehta to allow Watkins to await trial at her apartment in Woodstock, which sits above a bar she runs.

Mehta previously denied bail for Thomas Caldwell, a Virginia man and alleged organizer within the Oath Keepers who was charged in the conspiracy alongside Watkins. However, the denial stems from accusations from prosecutors that he deleted Facebook messages, directed co-conspirators to do the same, and “stash” evidence at his home.

Watkins was charged in January alongside Caldwell and Crowl, another Ohioan.

Last week, authorities charged six more Oath Keepers, including Ohioans Sandra and Bennie Parker, an elderly couple who allegedly joined the conspiracy with Watkins.



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Jake Zuckerman
Jake Zuckerman

Jake Zuckerman is a statehouse reporter. He spent three years chronicling the West Virginia Legislature for The Charleston Gazette-Mail after covering cops and courts for The Northern Virginia Daily.