By Sarah N. Lynch
WASHINGTON (Reuters) – A member of the far-right Oath Keepers told a jury on Wednesday that she got “swept up” in the moment when she stormed the U.S. Capitol on Jan. 6, 2021, comparing it to the same feeling shoppers get on Black Friday when they rush to buy flat-screen televisions.
In at times emotional testimony, Jessica Watkins admitted to some of the crimes she is charged with and apologized to police officers for impeding them from doing their duties that day.
But Watkins denied having any plans to breach the building or block Congress from certifying the election, and said she has frequently asked herself why she did it.
“It’s really stupid. I got swept up in it,” she said. “It was like Black Friday.”
In the United States and some other countries, ‘Black Friday’ is a bargain shopping day that marks the start of the holiday shopping season.
Watkins is charged along with Oath Keepers founder Stewart Rhodes and co-defendants Thomas Caldwell, Kenneth Harrelson, and Kelly Meggs with multiple felonies in connection with the Capitol assault, including seditious conspiracy, which carries a sentence of up to 20 years in prison.
The government contends the Oath Keepers plotted to use force to stop Congress from certifying President Joe Biden’s election victory, with defendants Meggs, Watkins and Harrelson entering the building clad in tactical gear.
Prosecutors also allege the Oath Keepers staged a “quick reaction force” in a nearby Virginia hotel, a plan which entailed stockpiling firearms that could be ferried across the river into the capital if needed.
More than 900 people so far have been charged in the Capitol attack, which led members of Congress to run for cover as hoards of then-President Donald Trump’s supporters stormed the building.
Watkins, a transgender woman and Afghanistan war veteran, also spoke on Wednesday about her struggles growing up in a conservative Christian family, and said she abandoned her U.S. Army post after she was confronted about her sexuality and called homophobic slurs.
The 11th hour decision by Watkins’ attorney to call her to the stand stunned observers and visibly angered U.S. District Judge Amit Mehta, who lamented he wished he had known sooner before advising the jury the case was nearing its conclusion.
Defense attorneys typically urge their clients not to testify in their own defense at trial, but Watkins marks the third of five defendants in the case to take such a risky move.
Last week, Rhodes took the stand in his own defense, where he denied making plans to storm the Capitol, and called the decision by some of the group’s members to breach the building “stupid.”
Then this week, defendant Thomas Caldwell, the only other defendant in this case apart from Rhodes who did not physically enter the building, also testified in his own defense.
On Wednesday, Caldwell downplayed down some of the inflammatory texts and social media messages he sent associates on Jan. 6, saying they were inspired by movies and television.
In one message where Caldwell declared “I am such an instigator,” for instance, Caldwell testified that the phrase “actually comes from ‘Bugs Bunny,'” and he quickly followed it up with a history about the line and a brief Bugs Bunny impression.
Caldwell later broke down crying as he recalled his wife’s reaction on the day the FBI searched his home.
“I saw the lights of their automatic weapons all over her face and her chest,” Caldwell said, choking up. “She’s so innocent. And I said…’Father God, don’t let them murder my wife.'”
(Reporting by Sarah N. Lynch, Editing by Rosalba O’Brien)