No Extra Prison Time For D.C.'s 'Tractor Man'
Wednesday, February 13, 2008
The infamous "Tractor Man" who kept police at bay in a 47-hour standoff on the Mall faced the threat yesterday of being sent back to prison more than three years after he finished his sentence -- but dodged it.
In an unprecedented case for Washington's federal court, a judge was tasked with revisiting the case of Dwight W. Watson because an appeals court considered his previous sentence inaccurate and probably too lenient. Watson had long finished his 16-month prison term by the time the appeals court agreed late last year with prosecutors who challenged the way his punishment was set.
Watson, 55, appeared yesterday before Chief U.S. District Judge Thomas F. Hogan, who clearly had mixed feelings about the case.
Hogan said that Watson deserved an additional three years in prison as punishment for the chaos he caused in March 2003, when the North Carolina tobacco farmer drove his John Deere tractor into a Constitution Gardens pond and threatened to set off bombs. Police officers, including SWAT teams, surrounded the area and cordoned off major roads until Watson gave up.
But in the end, Hogan decided that he would let Watson remain free, credited with time served, because there was little benefit to the public in returning him to prison.
"What do we gain by giving you a long five-year sentence at this late date?" Hogan asked. "Nothing."
It was the first time in recent memory the federal court in Washington had been called upon to reconsider an appealed prison sentence for a convicted criminal who had served his time. But the case has had other odd twists. Watson initially was given a six-year prison term after a jury convicted him of making false threats and destroying government property. But the judge reconsidered after a Supreme Court ruling involving federal sentencing guidelines. Prosecutors took issue with the resulting 16-month term, leading to the appellate battle. Watson was freed in July 2004.
Hogan noted that although he believes the crimes merited 53 to 61 months in prison, Watson is working with a friend in Rocky Mount and taking care of his mentally ill sister and has been an exemplary citizen.
Watson, who has said he came to Washington to complain about the plight of tobacco farmers, told the judge that he remains remorseful.
"I want to sincerely apologize to all the citizens of Washington, Virginia and Maryland for the harm I caused," he said. "Not a waking day goes by that I don't regret what I did. All I can do is hope for their forgiveness."
Hogan said he was impressed, after reading the record, with the restraint of the Park Police and their persistent efforts to persuade Watson to turn himself in. "You're lucky to be alive," Hogan said. "I'm surprised you weren't shot."
Hogan stressed another way Watson was lucky. He said it was only the second time he had ever varied from sentencing guidelines in handing down a punishment since a major Supreme Court decision that made the guidelines only advisory.
"I hope you understand how fortunate you are, and that you go home and tell people that there is a lawful way to take up their concerns," the judge said.
Watson promised to do that.
"People should seek help if they are distraught," he said. "Help is available if we ask. I should have asked for help."