Al Watkins on fighting for the ‘QAnon Shaman’: ‘There’s method behind the madness’
Last spring, Clayton attorney Al Watkins gave an interview that set off a firestorm.
Watkins represented the “QAnon Shaman,” Jacob Chansley, the horned-helmeted Arizona man who’d become the embodiment of the Jan. 6, 2021, insurrection. Watkins himself had become a familiar face on the cable TV circuit, blaming President Donald Trump for setting the stage for vulnerable Americans to storm the Capitol.
But in expletive-laden comments to Talking Points Memo last May, Watkins took things a step further.
“These are people with brain damage,” he said, also referring to the mob as “short bus people” and people “on the spectrum” among other less judicious phrases. “But they’re our brothers, our sisters, our neighbors, our coworkers — they’re part of our country. These aren’t bad people, they don’t have prior criminal history. [F—], they were subjected to four-plus years of [g—---] propaganda the likes of which the world has not seen since [f—-] Hitler.”
The backlash was almost immediate. Advocates for people with disabilities condemned his remarks. Other lawyers hastened to distance their own clients.
But on Thursday’s St. Louis on the Air, Watkins insisted that he knew exactly what he was doing. He said he’d tried everything behind the scenes, and in court, to get his client mental health treatment. He said Chansley had serious issues, diagnosed more than a decade before, during his military service. Yet no one prosecuting his case or holding him in jail wanted to address them.
“All it took was one carefully crafted, vulgar, inappropriate quote, well placed for maximum disclosure, to garner within 24 hours mental health care that my client needed, a psych evaluation ordered by the court, and steps of immediate measures to be taken to save my client from the proverbial mental abyss,” he said.
Indeed, court records show, U.S. District Judge Royce C. Lamberth ordered a psychological examination of Chansley just three days after Watkins’ remarks.
But while St. Louis journalists have grown accustomed to Watkins’ penchant for saying outrageous (and even offensive) things on the record, his representation of Chansley gave many national reporters their first taste of his style. And they were left to consider the question that people in St. Louis have asked for years: Does his quotability serve his clients? Or does it merely elevate the profile of Al Watkins?
Watkins insisted it’s the former. He also declined to disavow the remarks that got him in hot water.
“For people with mental health vulnerabilities that were involved in Jan. 6, and there are a lot of them, they need compassion. They need patience,” he said. “And I'm not armed to give it to him. I'm an advocate. But I can advocate for compassion. And I can advocate for patience.”
He added, “Once it became clear what I was doing and once the diagnosis of [Chansley] was reconfirmed in 2021, and once the explanation for the basis of doing it came out, I garnered a remarkable amount of support from the very individuals who wanted to string me up by my nether regions.”
Guided by Watkins, Chansley pleaded guilty and was ultimately sentenced to 41 months in prison and also given credit for the 10 months he’d already served. Chansley has since hired a new lawyer, who filed to appeal his sentence, citing ineffective counsel.
Watkins said the sentence was a good deal for Chansley, noting that prosecutors originally wanted the Arizona man to do two 20-year sentences.
Watkins also claimed he handles most of his cases far from the public eye — but argued that he’s happy to come out swinging when the situation warrants it.
“You don't serve your client by looking at the media — local, national, international — and saying, ‘Oh, no comment. We'll talk later.’ ‘Oh, we're not trying the case in the media.’ The fact of the matter is, you serve your client as an advocate. And when you're a lawyer, your duty is to your client.
“When they see the high-profile stuff, people think, ‘Oh, it's somebody just trying to garner attention.’ No, there's method behind the madness. And it's the exception, not the rule.”
More than 725 people have faced criminal charges for their conduct last Jan. 6. Watkins continues to believe that most deserve compassion. Along with mental health issues, he cited the stress of the pandemic, the role of social media, and, yes, President Trump.
“They were invited,” he said. “They truly believe that they were there at a special instance, in calling of their president, they're there to save our nation, help our president to save our country. And we have to realize these are our neighbors, they are friends, co-workers or colleagues, sometimes our relatives, and but for all this collective combination of triggers, they wouldn't be there.”
“St. Louis on the Air” brings you the stories of St. Louis and the people who live, work and create in our region. The show is hosted by Sarah Fenske and produced by Alex Heuer, Emily Woodbury, Evie Hemphill, Lara Hamdan and Kayla Drake. Jane Mather-Glass is our production assistant. The audio engineer is Aaron Doerr.