Mall Standoff Farmer Freed
Justice Department Loses Bid to Keep North Carolina Man Jailed
By Carol D. Leonnig and Allan Lengel
Washington Post Staff Writers
Friday, July 2, 2004; Page B01
Still wearing his navy blue jail uniform, Dwight W. Watson was set free last night, nearly 16 months after driving his tractor onto the Mall and making a phony bomb threat in a protest that paralyzed parts of the District.
The North Carolina tobacco farmer, decried by federal prosecutors as a domestic terrorist after his 47-hour standoff with police, left the D.C. jail at 7:20 p.m., the beneficiary of a federal judge's decision Wednesday to sharply scale back a six-year prison term he rendered last week.
"Praise the Lord!" Watson said as he got into a car with his attorneys and flashed the peace sign as they drove past the media outside the Southeast Washington facility.
Watson would not speak to reporters last night, but A.J. Kramer, one of the two attorneys who picked him up from jail, said that the farmer expressed relief about being free and that he was remorseful about the ordeal.
"He said if he had to do it all over again, he would have never done it," Kramer said.
Watson's release came a few hours after a federal appellate court rejected the Justice Department's last-chance effort to keep him locked up. Federal prosecutors had been scrambling since U.S. District Judge Thomas Penfield Jackson cut Watson's sentence to 16 months. With credit for good behavior, Watson's sentence was up.
Prosecutors contended there was no reason for Jackson to act, arguing that the judge had misinterpreted a Supreme Court ruling issued June 24, a day after Watson's sentencing. Jackson said the decision, handed down in an unrelated case, convinced him that he had unjustly added time to Watson's sentence in a way the Constitution did not allow. Prosecutors wanted Watson to stay in jail while they appealed Jackson's ruling, but the appellate court turned them down.
"The stars must have aligned for Dwight," said A.J. Kramer, the federal public defender and Watson's defense attorney.
Watson, 51, drove his tractor into a pond on Constitution Gardens in March 2003, complaining about the plight of tobacco farmers through a bullhorn and threatening to detonate explosives. The incident forced road closures that tied up four downtown rush hours and led to the closing of some office buildings until Watson surrendered peacefully.
A jury convicted him in September of making threats and damaging federal parkland. Jackson agreed with prosecutors to add prison time to the normal sentencing range for those crimes -- 16 months -- for the havoc and fear Watson caused. Watson apologized to the court, saying that his actions were foolish. "It was not my intention to hurt anyone," he said.
The Supreme Court decision drastically altered Watson's fate. In a 5 to 4 ruling, the high court said that judges cannot increase sentences beyond statutory guidelines for factors not proved to a jury. Jackson had done that in sentencing Watson, adding time for the disruption he caused, as well as for lies he allegedly told the jury.
Prosecutors raced to the U.S. Court of Appeals. But a three-judge panel voted 2 to 1 that prosecutors had not met the standard for an emergency request to hold Watson in prison. That standard required prosecutors showing that they had a very strong chance of winning their appeal of the sentence, and that Watson's release would endanger the public.
The federal Bureau of Prisons commuted Watson's sentence yesterday morning, got word of the appellate decision in the afternoon and then sent to the D.C. jail the paperwork that set his release in motion.
The news thrilled Watson's family and friends in his home town of Whitakers who had shared his outrage about the decline of his family farm. Watson has not been home since March 16, 2003, when he hooked up a trailer carrying a jeep to the back of his tractor and set off for Washington. The standoff began the next day.
© 2004 The Washington Post Company
Watson, a North Carolina tobacco farmer, was decried by prosecutors as a domestic terrorist after driving his tractor onto the Mall last year in his two-day standoff with police.
(Robert A. Reeder -- The Washington Post)
U.S. Judge Cuts Farmer's Sentence In Mall Standoff (The Washington Post, Jul 1, 2004)
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)