The day after his first post-arrest television interview, Jacob “QAnon Shaman” Chansley found his words turned against him by federal prosecutors at a bail hearing on Friday afternoon, as a federal judge appeared taken aback that the appearance took place without his authorization.
“Can you tell me how that came about?” Senior Judge Royce Lamberth asked, pressing Chansley’s lawyer Albert Watkins on whether his law firm used “subterfuge” to skirt jailhouse restrictions.
Watkins denied any intent to end-run the court or the detention facility’s restrictions.
“It didn’t occur to me that I wouldn’t be able to capture the video image of my client in my office,” he said.
As for the Ronald Reagan-appointed judge’s claim of “subterfuge,” Watkins said: “It’s just not my style.”
The exchange happened during a Friday afternoon hearing where the same judge was considering whether Chansley should be granted pre-trial release while awaiting trial in connection with the U.S. Capitol insurrection.
Those proceedings ended without a ruling.
Since his arrest three days after the Jan. 6th siege, Chansley leaned into his image as an icon of the insurrection, wearing a coyote-fur and horned headdress, holding a pole, and standing shirtless and tattooed behind the dais where former Vice President Mike Pence was whisked out of the Senate chamber. Court papers show the note that Chansley left for Pence, a man he had called a “traitor”: “It’s only a matter of time. Justice is coming.”
Prosecutors described the pole Chansley carried as a spear that could have been used as a deadly weapon.
Watkins tried to turn that deadly image on its head by depicting his client as a man inspired by Mahatma Gandhi, a believer in the principle of nonviolence toward all living beings called ahimsa, and a supposed shaman who allegedly would not crush a bug but painted a picture of a Cheshire cat and self-published a work of fiction.
“I’m not going to tell you that it’s a great book,” Watkins said, a line that caused the judge to chuckle.
Trying to undermine prosecutors’ allegations that Chansley led a dangerous conspiratorial movement, Watkins has depicted his client as a dupe of former President Donald Trump and a disillusioned follower of ideas that he now realizes are wrong. That position took a hit as soon as Chansley declared his continuing loyalty to Trump in a 60 Minutes+ interview where he repeated his stolen-election fantasy, in a segment first aired on Thursday.
That development did not go unnoticed by prosecutors on Friday.
“We know how the defendant feels to this day about some of these issue because he has spoken to the press,” Assistant U.S. Attorney Kimberly Louise Paschall said during a telephone conference.
Those issues include Chansley’s belief in post-election conspiracy theories and the view that President Joe Biden’s government is illegitimate.
“We know the defendant still believes that because he told 60 Minutes as much,” Paschall added.
It was not the first time that Chansley’s major-network interview backfired in his criminal case. The government quoted his remarks to NBC News in the immediate wake of the Jan. 6th siege, enthusiastically celebrating the terror the rioters caused to Congress members.
“The fact that we had a bunch of our traitors in office hunker down, put on their gas masks and retreat into their underground bunker, I consider that a win,” Chansley told NBC on Jan. 7.
Prosecutors have long characterized Chansley as a leader in QAnon, a conspiracy theory positing the existence of a sinister cabal of child-eating Democratic Satanists opposing Trump.
“Other members of this dangerous anti-government conspiracy view him as a leader also, contributing to his ability to travel off-the-grid and fund-raise rapidly through unconventional means,” a government memo states.
Chansley has cited his professed belief in shamanism in his legal defense, including a successful “emergency petition” for organic food behind bars. In early February, Judge Lamberth granted Chansley’s meal requests, even though some experts of shamanism find the rioter’s claims to the faith questionable.
“Jacob Chansley’s shamanism bears scant resemblance to the real thing, although he gets high sartorial marks for headgear and ink,” Professor Michael F. Brown, the president of the Santa Fe-based School for Advanced Research and author of The Channeling Zone: American Spirituality in an Anxious Age, told Law&Crime. “Traditional shamans consume organic foods largely because that’s all they have access to. Some take hallucinogens as part of their practice, while others don’t. But traditional shamanism is closely connected to specific communities and their cultural understandings, which hardly seems to be the case for him.”
The Department of Corrections told the judge that there was little support for the proposition that shamanism would require a diet of wild caught tuna, vegetables, and soup, and a federal magistrate judge in Arizona appeared reluctant to grant an order absent more information. But Judge Lamberth overruled that decision, finding that religiously appropriate meals were constitutionally required where a defendant expresses a sincere belief.
The ruling led to Chansley’s subsequent transfer to a federal detention center in Alexandria, Va., which previously housed the likes of Trump’s ex-campaign chair Paul Manafort and Soviet spy Aldrich Ames.
After the proceedings concluded, Judge Lamberth ordered the clerk of court to docket instructions from the Alexandria Sheriff’s office to a representative of Kodner Watkins about the detention center’s policy regarding media requests.
“Prisoner interview requests may only be approved upon the permission of the U.S. Attorney, the judge, the prisoner, the defense attorney, and the management of the detention facility where the prisoner is located,” Chief Deputy U.S. Marshal Lamont Ruffin is quoted as instructing in the email, adding that “media representatives” have the responsibility of obtaining that approval.
Dated Feb. 10, the message was not addressed to Watkins directly, and it is unclear whether the attorney or the media representatives were relayed the message.
Update—March 5 at 5:52 p.m. CT: This story has been updated to reflect an email sent to the law firm of Chansley’s attorney about the jail’s media request policy, which became public after the proceedings.
Listen to Law&Crime’s extended interview with Chansley’s attorney Al Watkins from last month in the podcast below:
(Jacob Chansley’s mugshot from the Alexandria Sheriff’s Office)
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