Trial Opens Today For Tractor Driver In D.C. Standoff
Farmer Rebuffed in Attempt to Call High-Profile Witnesses to Testify
By Carol D. Leonnig
Washington Post Staff Writer
Wednesday, September 17, 2003; Page B01
The tractor-riding farmer whose phony bomb threat paralyzed parts of downtown Washington for 47 hours last winter told a judge yesterday that he wants to call former president Bill Clinton and former Minnesota governor Jesse Ventura as witnesses in his criminal trial.
Dwight W. Watson, 50, is defending himself in a trial scheduled to start today. He contended that high-ranking government officials could attest to the plight of farmers, which he said was the reason he rode his John Deere tractor into a pond at Constitution Gardens on the Mall and held police at bay.
"Those are the issues that enabled me to come to Washington to express my opinion," declared Watson, dressed in a navy blue jumpsuit from the D.C. jail. "We don't want to make a real big deal about it, but I want to talk about it."
But U.S. District Judge Thomas Penfield Jackson said he will not allow the trial to become a forum for political speeches. He rejected as irrelevant Watson's request to subpoena Clinton and Ventura and other government officials.
Watson's wish list of witnesses also included former Mississippi attorney general Mike Moore, who negotiated a major settlement between states and tobacco manufacturers, and Clinton's Food and Drug Administration chief, David Kessler, who tried to regulate cigarettes. During the standoff, Watson repeatedly contended that government policies had devastated tobacco farmers.
Watson, a fifth-generation tobacco farmer from Whitakers, N.C., is charged with threatening to detonate explosives and causing thousands of dollars in damage to federal property in the March 17-19 incident. If convicted, he faces up to 10 years in prison. He has been in custody since he peacefully surrendered after talks with police.
With jury selection scheduled to begin today, Jackson gave Watson the option of having his case decided by the judge instead of a jury.
The judge warned Watson that it could be very difficult to find 12 unbiased people from Washington to hear the case. Jackson pointed out that the episode snarled traffic for days, led police to cordon off a 10-block area, forced the evacuation of some federal offices and received "extraordinary publicity."
"Traffic was tied up for hours and hours in this city while your, um, events here were transpiring," Jackson told Watson yesterday. "Some people were unable to make it home. Some people were unable to get to work. All of which probably engendered a fair amount of resentment."
Watson thanked the judge for the offer but turned it down, saying, "I believe we will find a jury that will be able to make the right decision and it will be a fair decision."
Much of yesterday's 90-minute hearing resembled a law school tutorial as Jackson tried to educate Watson on how a defense is mounted and what the judge would and would not tolerate in court. Jackson gave Watson some legal tasks to consider overnight.
First, the judge instructed, Watson should put together a list of suggested questions he thinks jurors should be asked in order to determine their potential bias. The judge said one question might be "Do you smoke?"
Also, Jackson suggested, Watson should consider whether he wants to testify in the trial. If so, Jackson said, he will have to waive his right to avoid self-incrimination.
Jackson explained to Watson that he could give an opening statement to the jurors, once they are selected, in which he could summarize why he believes he is not guilty.
"Your defense might be the government's got the wrong guy," Jackson explained hypothetically, to some stifled snickers in the courtroom. "There was somebody else out there on that tractor. You were at home plowing a field in North Carolina."
Watson has explained in several interviews why, broke and fed up, he drove his tractor on a trailer from North Carolina to Washington, then over the curb and onto the Mall about noon March 17.
Throughout the incident, Watson said over a loudspeaker and on his cell phone that he had explosives and was willing to "die trying" to get out his message. But he ultimately decided to give up and was found to have no explosives.
© 2003 The Washington Post Company
Dwight Watson sits in his submerged tractor on March 18, the second day of the 47-hour standoff. He falsely told police he had explosives, leading to street closures and traffic jams.
(Robert A. Reeder -- The Washington Post)
Farmer's Future In Judge's Hands (The Washington Post, Mar 3, 2004)
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Jury Hears Farmer's Warning in Standoff (The Washington Post, Sep 23, 2003)
Judge Declines to Free Farmer Pending Trial (The Washington Post, Jun 26, 2003)
Farmer Disrupts Hearing on Mall Standoff (The Washington Post, Mar 26, 2003)
Farmer Deemed Fit for Trial (The Washington Post, Mar 22, 2003)
Farmer Told Police to Evacuate District (The Washington Post, Mar 21, 2003)
Unhappy Man Grabs the Spotlight (The Washington Post, Mar 20, 2003)
Patience Paid Off, Police Say (The Washington Post, Mar 20, 2003)
Mall Standoff Fuels Evacuation Fears (The Washington Post, Mar 19, 2003)
N.C. Man Made Trip of Last Resort (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)