U.S. Judge Cuts Farmer's Sentence In Mall Standoff
By Carol D. Leonnig and Neely Tucker
Washington Post Staff Writers
Thursday, July 1, 2004; Page A01
A North Carolina tobacco farmer sentenced last week to six years in prison for driving his tractor onto the Mall and threatening to detonate explosives had his sentence cut abruptly yesterday in one of the first cases to get a review after a Supreme Court ruling.
"Hallelujah!" Dwight W. Watson exclaimed in court yesterday morning after a federal judge resentenced him to 16 months. Watson has been locked up for 15 months and 11 days since his arrest in March 2003. With credit for good behavior, the man who waged a 47-hour standoff with police could be eligible for release this week.
A Supreme Court decision last Thursday raises questions about the legality of tens of thousands of other criminal sentences handed down across the nation. Watson was sentenced just one day before the high court's ruling, which said that juries -- not judges -- must decide on facts that are used to increase sentences beyond the maximum ranges called for in sentencing guidelines.
U.S. District Judge Thomas Penfield Jackson went beyond the 16-month term set by the guidelines in Watson's case, saying that his menacing conduct and the havoc he caused called for a much longer sentence. Yesterday, acting on a motion filed by the defense, Jackson said he had no choice but to reduce Watson's punishment.
Watson is the third criminal in the country, after cases this week in Utah and Arizona, to receive a reduced sentence since the high court ruling, according to prosecutors.
"The Supreme Court has told me that what I did a week ago was plainly illegal," Jackson told Watson. "By my count, Mr. Watson, you're a free man in a few hours."
But Watson remained at the D.C. jail as the court's probation department and the Federal Bureau of Prisons did their own reviews before setting a release date. And early last night, after all-day meetings and consultations with top officials at the Justice Department, federal prosecutors filed papers with an appellate court to prevent Watson's release and to argue for the longer sentence. They argued that Watson remains a danger to the public.
After making the trip to Washington from his Whitakers, N.C., farm, Watson, 51, set the city on edge March 17, 2003, when he drove his John Deere tractor into a Constitution Gardens pond. He complained through a bullhorn about bankrupt tobacco farmers and warned authorities that he had "organophosphate bombs." His actions led officials to close several nearby government offices, and road closings disrupted four consecutive rush hours. Police officers, including SWAT teams, surrounded the area until Watson gave up.
During his trial in September, Watson testified that he meant no harm and that he only wanted to highlight the plight of tobacco farmers and the dangers of pesticides. He had no bombs, only a couple of cans of bug spray.
The jury convicted him of making threats and destroying government property. Prosecutor Jay Bratt argued at sentencing that Watson's crimes called for a significant prison term, noting that the standoff occurred at a time when Washington was under an elevated terror alert and on the eve of the war with Iraq.
Jackson agreed that Watson deserved a stiffer penalty because he engaged in conduct that showed intent to harm, caused substantial disruption to the public and government, made more than two threats and gave false statements at his trial.
The judge told Watson last week that his protest terrified people and that the city regarded him as "a one-man weapon of mass destruction."
But less than 24 hours after those stern words, the Supreme Court issued a 5 to 4 decision in an unrelated case with parallels to Watson's. The high court said a trial judge in Washington state violated the Constitution by sentencing a convicted kidnapper, Ralph H. Blakely Jr., to 90 months in prison rather than the 53-month maximum set by state law. The high court said the judge had increased the sentence based on facts that were not ruled upon by a jury.
Jackson hastily scheduled yesterday's hearing, during which he said he felt that he had acted in the same manner as the Washington state judge. His ruling stunned the small audience of prosecutors and probation officials and gratified Watson's public defenders, A.J. Kramer and Erica J. Hashimoto.
© 2004 The Washington Post Company
Farmer's Future In Judge's Hands (The Washington Post, Mar 3, 2004)
Farmer's Explosive? A Bug Bomb (The Washington Post, Sep 26, 2003)
Jury Hears Farmer's Warning in Standoff (The Washington Post, Sep 23, 2003)
Trial Opens Today For Tractor Driver In D.C. Standoff (The Washington Post, Sep 17, 2003)
Patience Paid Off, Police Say (The Washington Post, Mar 20, 2003)
Mall Standoff Fuels Evacuation Fears (The Washington Post, Mar 19, 2003)
Park Police Avoid Pushing Incident To a Violent End (The Washington Post, Mar 19, 2003)
Farmer Says He'll Give Up Thursday if He Gets Respect (The Washington Post, Mar 19, 2003)
Tractor Driver In Standoff With Police on Mall (The Washington Post, Mar 18, 2003)