By Jacqueline Thomsen
WASHINGTON (Reuters) -Two members of the far-right Oath Keepers were sentenced to prison on Friday for their roles in the deadly Jan. 6, 2021, assault on the U.S. Capitol by supporters of Donald Trump who tried to overturn his presidential election defeat.
Kenneth Harrelson and Jessica Watkins were convicted in November by a federal jury in Washington of obstruction of an official proceeding for their roles in the storming of the Capitol, which saw rioters battle police, smash windows and send lawmakers running for their lives.
U.S. District Judge Amit Mehta on Friday sentenced Harrelson to four years in prison. Earlier on Friday, the judge imposed a prison sentence of eight and a half years for Watkins.
Harrelson was also found guilty of conspiring to prevent members of Congress from certifying President Joe Biden’s election win as well as tampering with documents and proceedings. Watkins was also convicted of conspiracy and obstruction of officers during the riots.
Watkins and Harrelson were acquitted of seditious conspiracy charges.
Mehta said he believes Harrelson is “genuinely remorseful” and that he did not think the Oath Keeper was as responsible as other members of the far-right militia he was charged alongside.
The judge added that the evidence in Harrelson’s case did not include messages from him that talked about “revolution” or other extremist terms, like other Oath Keepers had, and noted that he did not physically attack or threaten to assault any police officers at the Capitol that day.
Evidence displayed during trial included a video in which Harrelson could be heard chanting the word “treason” as he entered the U.S. Capitol.
“He wanted to intimidate members of Congress and people working in that building,” prosecutor Jeffrey Nestler said.
Harrelson told the court on Friday that he never thought about politics before Jan. 6, and that he would have tried to stop others’ violence against police officers that day if he knew about it.
“I am responsible, and my foolish actions have caused immense pains in my life and to our children,” Harrelson said, crying.
Prosecutors sought a 15-year sentence for Harrelson, while his attorney asked that the judge issue an unspecified lighter sentence.
Federal prosecutors had asked Mehta to sentence Watkins to 18 years in prison. Watkins’ lawyer asked that she be sentenced to five years in prison.
Mehta earlier Friday said it was “particularly hard” to issue a sentence for Watkins. He mentioned her testimony during trial about the struggles she faced with her transgender identity and her cooperation with law enforcement officials during their investigation of her conduct on Jan. 6.
But he said that “doesn’t wipe out” what she did during the attack.
“Your role that day was more aggressive, more assaultive, more purposeful than perhaps others,” Mehta said.
During tearful remarks in court, Watkins asked Mehta to issue a just sentence.
“My actions and my behavior that fateful day were wrong and, as I now understand, criminal,” she said.
Federal prosecutor Alexandra Hughes on Friday told Mehta that the actions of Watkins and other Oath Keepers on that day “were not an aberration” and that a significant sentence should be imposed.
Friday’s court proceedings are taking place one day after Mehta sentenced Oath Keepers’ founder Stewart Rhodes to 18 years in prison for crimes including seditious conspiracy, or using force to try to overthrow the federal government. That is the steepest penalty yet against those charged in the Jan. 6 violence.
Members of the Oath Keepers, founded in 2009, include current and retired U.S. military personnel, law enforcement officers and first responders. They have appeared, often heavily armed, at protests and political events including racial justice demonstrations that followed the 2020 murder in Minneapolis of a Black man named George Floyd by a white police officer.
Some of the Oath Keepers, including Watkins and Harrelson, breached the Capitol, a few clad in paramilitary gear. Others at a suburban hotel staged a “quick reaction force” prosecutors said was equipped with firearms that could be quickly transported into Washington.
Four other Oath Keepers members convicted of seditious conspiracy in a second trial are due to be sentenced next week.
(Reporting by Jacqueline Thomsen in Washington; Additional reporting by Sarah N. Lynch; Editing by Scott Malone and Mark Porter)