HUNTSVILLE, Ala. (WHNT) -- Former Madison County Sheriff’s Deputy Justin Watson pleaded guilty today to obstruction of justice in a case stemming from the August 2012 beating of a Tennessee man while Watson was on duty in northern Madison County.
Federal prosecutors recommended a sentence between 33 and 41 months in prison for Watson.
U.S. District Judge Karon Bowdre accepted the guilty plea and said she would schedule a sentencing hearing for a later date. The judge told Watson several times before he entered his plea that she was not bound by the government’s recommendation and the sentence could be higher.
Watson was set for trial next month. He was indicted July 31 of last year, and charged with the unlawful traffic stop and beating of Robert Bryant. The charges also included two counts of witness intimidation and the obstruction charge.
Under the plea agreement, the government waived the charges dealing with the stop and beating of Bryant. The government also waived the witness intimidation counts.
The U.S. Attorney's office in Birmingham said in a news release that Watson's conduct was unacceptable.
“My office is committed to investigating allegations of police misconduct, and prosecuting cases where appropriate, in order to ensure that everyone in our community can expect fair treatment from law enforcement,” said U.S. Attorney Joyce White Vance. “Any law enforcement officer who tries to interfere with an investigation into police misconduct should expect scrutiny for that misbehavior, as well. "
The case began in July 2012 when Bryant and Watson got in a fight at a bar in Hazel Green. Following that, Watson reportedly stalked Bryant for weeks, before identifying him.
Prosecutors said he parked outside the same bar on August 22, 2012 and waited for Bryant to leave. He followed Bryant, pulled him over and then “punched Bryant in the face, hit him with a baton and choked him until he was unconscious,” prosecutors said.
During Wednesday's plea hearing, Watson agreed with the government’s version of events, but said he didn’t punch Bryant in the face that night. The two sides agreed to change the wording to “struck Bryant in the face,” apparently with the baton.
Bryant was badly injured in the encounter and was charged with assaulting a police officer. He claimed he was attacked by several deputies who punched, kicked and tased him while he was handcuffed.
Bryant later sued Watson, Sheriff Blake Dorning and several deputies. His lawyer reached a $625,000 settlement with Madison County.
No other deputies have been charged in the case.
The assault charge against Bryant lasted more than a year before it was dropped. It was Watson’s misleading testimony during Bryant’s preliminary hearing in 2012 that was the focus of the charge he pleaded guilty to today.
During that December 2012 preliminary hearing Watson was asked if he’d seen Bryant before, or had a previous encounter with him. Watson denied any prior knowledge of Bryant, or a prior encounter, and claimed Bryant attacked him on the night of the traffic stop.
The obstruction of justice charge focuses on that false testimony and contends that Watson lied to prevent federal investigators from becoming aware of his conduct and pursuing a civil rights case against him.
Today Watson admitting testifying falsely, but denied that he did it to prevent a federal investigation.
He told the court today, he believed he was “giving the best answer I could with the information I had.”
Watson will remain free on bond until he is sentenced.