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The Oath Keepers on trial include Jessica Watkins, a former Army soldier

MARY LOUISE KELLY, HOST:

The defense is underway in the trial of five January 6 defendants who are facing the most serious charges yet in connection to the attack on the U.S. Capitol. Today jurors in the case heard from lawyers for one defendant, a former Army paratrooper named Jessica Watkins. NPR justice correspondent Carrie Johnson is following the trial. Hey, Carrie.

CARRIE JOHNSON, BYLINE: Hi, Mary Louise.

KELLY: So who is Jessica Watkins, and what'd she do on January 6?

JOHNSON: Yeah. She served in the Army for a few years and then went on to work as a firefighter, an EMT, and then ran a bar in Ohio. In 2019, she founded a small militia group there. Jessica Watkins linked up with the far-right group known as the Oath Keepers, and she entered the Capitol with other Oath Keepers on January 6. Here is some tape of her that day, recorded by a reporter from the public radio show On The Media.

JESSICA WATKINS: It has spread like wildfire that Pence has betrayed us, and everybody is marching on the Capitol - all million of us. It's insane. We're about two blocks away from it now, and police are doing nothing. They're not even trying to stop us at this point.

JOHNSON: Mary Louise, inside the Capitol, police did try to stop those Oath Keepers. The jury heard from an officer who was left bloodied after that push. And prosecutors also pointed out Watkins texted her boyfriend and her mother that night, telling them that she stormed the Capitol.

KELLY: OK. So if she was texting people that she stormed the Capitol and there's tape of her on the day, there's no dispute that she was there - that she breached the Capitol. What's the defense here?

JOHNSON: Well, her lawyer, Jonathan Crisp, told the jury at the start of this case that Watkins wanted to help people, that she wanted to use her medical training at protests. He also says she never felt she fit in, in part because she's a transgender woman, and she wanted to try to fit in with those Oath Keepers. That defense got more complicated this week, when prosecutors showed the jury a message where Watkins used an anti-gay slur to describe left-leaning protesters. This week I spoke with Ilan Meyer, who led a national study on the transgender population. Meyer is a senior fellow at the Williams Institute at UCLA. And Meyer told me Watkins may have had a hard time in the military and in civilian life, but it's not clear that her legal trouble has anything to do with her being transgender. Meyer says there are lots of things people might do, like volunteer for a transgender group, rather than bust into the Capitol building.

KELLY: The jury also heard testimony from Watkins' fiance. What is he saying?

JOHNSON: Her fiance, Montana Siniff, talked about Watkins going AWOL from the Army in 2003 because, he says, Watkins was getting hazed to the point where she feared for her life. He told the jury Watkins still wanted to serve people, and that's part of why she started that militia group many years later. He says he didn't go to D.C. on January 6, and he was very concerned when he heard that she had entered the building because she's a law-abiding person, and he thought that was a stupid idea.

KELLY: Briefly, Carrie, what else are you watching for from the defense case?

JOHNSON: Stewart Rhodes, the founder of the Oath Keepers and a defendant here, has promised to take the witness stand later in the trial. It could happen as early as Friday. His lawyers say most of his big talk before January 6 was just bluster, but we're going to find out what the jury thinks about that pretty soon.

KELLY: All right. NPR's justice correspondent Carrie Johnson. Thank you, Carrie.

JOHNSON: Happy to be here.

(SOUNDBITE OF MAHALIA SONG, "LETTER TO UR EX") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Carrie Johnson is a justice correspondent for the Washington Desk.