COURTROOM BLOG: Judge sentences former sheriff’s deputy to 36 months in prison

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HUNTSVILLE, Ala. - A federal judge has sentenced former Madison County Sheriff's Deputy Justin Watson to 36 months in prison.  He pleaded guilty to obstruction of justice in the 2012 arrest and beating of Robert Bryant.

Many of Watson's family and friends were present, and the shock was palpable when Judge Karon Bowdre handed down the sentence.  Many people cried. Watson listened to the judge intently, learning he will also perform community service once he finishes his prison time. He is to report to U.S. Marshals on January 5.

Watson's attorney asked if his client could serve time at the Federal Prison Camp at Maxwell Air Force Base in Montgomery. The judge said she would recommend it.

The hearing took most of the day. The morning session including a handful of witnesses called to speak about evidence in the case and in support of Watson's character and work as a deputy. This testimony didn't impact Watson's guilty plea, but the defense tried to shed light on discrepancies.

Watson was charged with five different counts, accused of viciously beating Robert Bryant during a traffic stop, which prosecutors alleged was revenge for a bar fight.  He only pleaded guilty to what amounted to a perjury charge, with the others being dropped.

The defense requested a sentence of three years supervised release, while the prosecution asked for 33 to 41 months in prison.

We posted updates throughout the proceeding below, in our blog.

Claire Aiello November 17, 20169:20 am

Judge Karon Bowdre will oversee the sentencing. To our understanding she has granted us permission to live blog. 

Claire Aiello November 17, 20169:21 am

Things will get started at 9:30 a.m. We’re in the lower courtroom of the federal courthouse in downtown Huntsville, a smaller courtroom than the one upstairs. The seats are mostly filled. I’m here with colleague Brian Lawson.

Claire Aiello November 17, 20169:23 am

A small group is gathered outside to voice concern about the Sheriff’s Office. We spoke with a participant prior to coming in. 

Claire Aiello November 17, 20169:34 am

Here is some background information on the case from my colleague Brian Lawson. We should start any minute. Judge Bowdre has granted us permission to live blog, but no Tweeting will be allowed.

Claire Aiello November 17, 20169:46 am

We’ve started. Judge Bowdre is reviewing a few matters, including a number of objections filed in the case. Also made it firm no live transmission of information will be allowed, except for this blog, and that is only because we requested permission ahead of time.

Claire Aiello November 17, 20169:47 am

Judge says she will impose time limits on testimony presented, and witnesses called today.

Claire Aiello November 17, 20169:48 am

Defense attorney is Michael Tewalt. Judge addressing him and his client, Justin Watson about what Tewalt plans to present today. Tewalt is a federal public defender.

Claire Aiello November 17, 20169:52 am

Attorneys going over matters they plan to present today. This will likely take at least a few hours, maybe longer.

Claire Aiello November 17, 20169:53 am

Defense plans to call 4 witnesses based on time constraints.

Claire Aiello November 17, 20169:55 am

Defense calls Grady Baswell. He works for City of Huntsville. Worked for Sheriff’s Office in the past, around 2004. 

Claire Aiello November 17, 20169:57 am

Baswell was a reserve deputy (has been full time with City of Huntsville for at least 20 years.) Baswell was a reserve deputy between June and Aug 2012. He rode along with Deputy Watson and other deputies, possibly 6 others. He chose to ride along with Watson. “I felt safe with him. He’s very tactical, paid good attention to what was going on around us.”

Claire Aiello November 17, 20169:58 am

Baswell confirmed Watson was a member of the SWAT team. Confirms he rode along with Watson during June-Aug. 2012.

Claire Aiello November 17, 20169:59 am

Baswell confirms he was with Deputy Watson when he had to apply use of force. Baswell said Watson never lost control of the individual he was using force against. Said Watson used his skills to ‘de-escalate’ a situation.

Claire Aiello November 17, 201610:00 am

Baswell was not with Watson the night of the altercation. He did discuss with him later. Said he was upset about the situation, but didn’t get the impression Watson wanted to go after Bryant. 

Claire Aiello November 17, 201610:03 am

Attorney asking Baswell how traffic stops would go. Said Watson would often talk with people, but would usually let them go.

Baswell describing a situation with a woman who appeared to have been drinking. Actually, it was an older woman talking on cell phone, eating McDonald’s. He doesn’t believe a citation was issued to that person. 

Attorney asking Baswell about the typical patrol area, Hazel Green, Hwy 231/431.

Claire Aiello November 17, 201610:06 am

Attorney asking about equipment in the patrol vehicle. Baswell said various equipment in the vehicles often went down. 

“Did that affect your ability to do your job?” Yes, Baswell, replied.

Claire Aiello November 17, 201610:07 am

Baswell described interactions with other sheriff’s deputies. “They would find dead ends and watch movies.”

Not Deputy Watson, he said. They would respond to calls.

Claire Aiello November 17, 201610:09 am

Attorney asking Baswell about Billy’s Bar, and interactions with people who left there. Asking about traffic flow on 231/431 near the bar, and turnarounds in that location. Also, visibility of vehicles leaving Billy’s Bar. Baswell said deputies had clear visibility of vehicles leaving the bar, and were able to get to those vehicles quickly.

Claire Aiello November 17, 201610:11 am

Baswell talking about what steps would be taken if they pulled over someone who appeared to be driving under the influence. 

Claire Aiello November 17, 201610:13 am

Baswell describing what Watson told him about the night of the fight. Baswell wasn’t there that night.

Baswell said Watson told him the guy was bothering him and his wife. 

Claire Aiello November 17, 201610:14 am

Attorney asks Baswell about culture of Madison Co. Sheriff’s Office. Said he liked it for the most part. Some people were friendly, others were not.

“Did you ever see deputies change things in a report, or investigation?”

Yes, said Baswell. In describing how they were trained to write reports, Said “use this word because it sounds better for us. Use this word, because it sounds worse for them.”

Claire Aiello November 17, 201610:17 am

Cross-examination very short. Baswell is finished.

Claire Aiello November 17, 201610:19 am

Defense calls Jeff Warden. He worked with Deputy Watson. Was employed with the Sheriff’s Office – 2007-2009, 2010-2012.  He currently lives in Florida.

Claire Aiello November 17, 201610:20 am

Warden said he knows Watson from on and off duty. Said Watson was a fun, proactive guy as a Deputy. “Let’s go get into stuff.” Said it was county slang they used, they were proactive, didn’t want to sit around. They’d want to get a warrant list, go into neighborhoods, do traffic stops, look for DUIs, serve warrants, etc. Not all deputies were proactive, he said.

Claire Aiello November 17, 201610:22 am

Attorney asking Warden about Hwy 231/431 in Hazel Green, area surrounding Billy’s Bar. Said you could definitely make DUI arrests in that spot. “It’s dangerous to stop vehicles up there cause it’s really dark.” Often, deputies would park at Hazel Green High School.

Claire Aiello November 17, 201610:23 am

Warden said Watson was not a hothead, not someone to use excessive force.

Claire Aiello November 17, 201610:25 am

Warden said Watson called him the day after the fight at Billy’s Bar. Said “I wish you were with me last night. Two guys jumped me at the bar.” Said Watson was laughing about it, embarrassed to have a black eye. Said Watson did not ask him to track anyone down, get retribution, etc. Warden said he never heard anything about it after that. 

Warden said he was not aware of the traffic stop of Bryant in August 2012. Said he heard about it in the news. “Would you have expected Watson to use excessive use of force, knowing what you know about him?” “No sir,” Warden replied.

Claire Aiello November 17, 201610:27 am

Warden describing culture of MCSO. “I had a lot of good friends there. It was up and down, I enjoyed my time there.”

He confirms he is a good friend of Watson’s. Trust hims. Trusts him with his children.

Said he would still trust him, despite Watson lying under oath. 

Claire Aiello November 17, 201610:28 am

Warden describing how Watson was a trainer, and how he would train deputies how to handle situations properly, if someone was aggressive. Pressure-point tactics.

“Do you believe Watson should be punished with incarceration?”

Objection from prosecution. Judge: sustained.

Claire Aiello November 17, 201610:30 am

Prosecution is up. Asks Warden if he ever violated his rights, or helped another officer cover something up. “No sir.”

He said he didn’t approve of that sort of behavior. Cross was very short.

Claire Aiello November 17, 201610:30 am

Dawn Hendricks called to the stand. 

Claire Aiello November 17, 201610:31 am

Hendricks started with HPD in 1996, then worked for the Secret Service, hired there in 2003. Around 2006, worked at gyms, decided she missed law enforcement. Tried HPD, but a hiring freeze, so she applied with MCSO. Was hired there. Worked for MCSO for 2 years. Hired around 2010, left a few months prior to events of August 2012.

Claire Aiello November 17, 201610:33 am

Said she worked with Deputy Watson. Said she never saw him act anything but professional, respectful. “He was all about training. I’ve never seen him act anything but professional.”

Claire Aiello November 17, 201610:34 am

Said there were many occasions where she’d show up as a second or third deputy on the scene. Never saw him act out of control.

During an incident in Gurley, a man was shooting rounds in his backyard. Hendricks said Watson is the one (w/SWAT team) who took control and used a beanbag to de-escalate the situation.

Claire Aiello November 17, 201610:36 am

Hendricks describing that situation in Gurley. Said lethal force would have been warranted against the man.

“He didn’t kill the man. He used a beanbag. That takes some guts, that was what he chose to do,” describing Watson’s use of a beanbag.

Claire Aiello November 17, 201610:37 am

Hendricks describing various calls she responded to in Hazel Green area. 

Attorney asks about Deputy Watson being proactive. Said he’d ask supervisor to get lists of warrants in the area. If they had downtime, they’d be proactive and do something rather than just sitting around.

Claire Aiello November 17, 201610:38 am

The phrase “let’s get into something” keeps coming up. Hendricks said that meant they’d be proactive. Said again there were other deputies who were not.

Claire Aiello November 17, 201610:39 am

Hendricks said Watson was one of the deputies she trusted. There were others she didn’t, because of things they did — “that was not what I got into law enforcement to do.”

Claire Aiello November 17, 201610:40 am

Defense attorney asks Hendricks about Watson pleading guilty to lying under oath.

“He’s taking the fall for some of the guys he worked with.”

Would you still trust Watson, attorney asks?

“Yes, I would. Everything I’ve seen, I believe he’d take the fall for the others.”

Claire Aiello November 17, 201610:42 am

Hendricks describing the morning she went to talk with Sheriff Dorning, to resign. Was uncomfortable with some of the other deputies, not Watson. Hendricks got emotional. “Law enforcement is my career. I loved it. He loved it too. I think he got caught up in some things and couldn’t get away from it. It’s a lot to step away from something you love.”

Claire Aiello November 17, 201610:44 am

New witness being sworn in. He trained some deputies at the MCSO in Jiu-Jitsu. Not employed by MCSO, but a number of deputies trained with him to learn defensive moves.

Claire Aiello November 17, 201610:45 am

Witness said Watson is very laid back, “a very good guy.” He was perceptive to the training, was very good. A smaller guy, a good training partner. Very humble, witness said.

Claire Aiello November 17, 201610:46 am

Witness said Watson never showed aggression, hostility or anger in training.

Claire Aiello November 17, 201610:48 am

Witness said Deputy Watson called him on the way to the hospital, to tell him about the altercation. Gist of conversation was “hey man, you saved my life tonight.” Watson said he was attacked, and the training witness did with him had saved his life.

“Based on your experience training and working w/Watson, do you think Justin is a dishonest, lying, vindictive individual?”

Witness said no. He would still trust him.

Claire Aiello November 17, 201610:48 am

Cross-examination — asking about various jiu-jitsu tactics. Some are meant to break people’s arms.. correct? “Correct,” witness replied.

Claire Aiello November 17, 201610:50 am

Witness said he doesn’t know anything about the bar fight or the person stopped, and that they were the same, other than what he heard in the news.

Claire Aiello November 17, 201610:50 am

Prosecutors are up now. Talking about witnesses they plan to call. 

Claire Aiello November 17, 201610:51 am

Prosecutor wants to clarify the record shows Watson pleaded guilty to obstruction of justice, not perjury. 

Claire Aiello November 17, 201610:57 am

Prosecutor’s first witness — Susan (not sure of spelling of last name)
She investigated case thoroughly, involving bar fight and events that followed.

Fiancee of Justin Watson attracted some attention. “There was a cat call, Watson believed it came from Robert Bryant, and a fight ensued.”

Investigator said she talked with owner of Billy’s Bar. Said Bryant was shooting pool at the time. Bryant not a big drinker, owner said, and came in for pool tournaments.

Watson didn’t like sound he heard from Bryant. Watson put his hands on Bryant first, and two other men.

Judge asking if any witnesses said Bryant hit Watson first. Investigator couldn’t think of any.

Fight ended up on the flood. Was broken up by bar owner, multiple witnesses confirmed. He told both to leave.
Bryant left right away. Watson stayed for a little bit. Judge cleared up, this was confirmed by several witnesses.

Claire Aiello November 17, 201610:58 am

Witnesses said Watson asked around about who that man was. Investigator also said Watson told owner he was a deputy. Owner said “I don’t care, get out of my bar,” acc. to investigator.

Claire Aiello November 17, 201611:01 am

Witness told investigator Watson was very riled up in the parking lot. She tried to calm him down, she told investigator. 

Investigator said Watson continued to try to find out who the person was, he fought with.
Mandy Billings, Jake Church. Billings was a regular at Billy’s Bar. Billings said through asking around, she was able to surmise who the person was, and it was Robert Bryant. She got that from someone who had been in a relationship with Bryant, at one time.

Billings said she texted Watson with the full name (Robert Bryant) and vehicle description. 

Watson also asked Jake Church if he knew Robert Bryant, a truck with TN tags. Church was a deputy with MCSO and best friends with Watson at the time.

Claire Aiello November 17, 201611:02 am

Investigator asked if Watson asked Billings to do anything else. Said Watson asked her to keep an eye out, if she saw Watson at any local bars.

Claire Aiello November 17, 201611:04 am

Attorneys are talking privately with judge right now. 

Claire Aiello November 17, 201611:06 am

Attorneys, judge go to private chambers.

Claire Aiello November 17, 201611:16 am

We’re not sure how long this break will go. Still waiting on judge, attorneys to re-enter the courtroom.

Claire Aiello November 17, 201611:20 am

Court is back in session.

Claire Aiello November 17, 201611:22 am

Investigator remains on the stand. DOJ asking about text messages between Billings, Watson. Some of these were sent from ‘Night Moves,’ another bar. 

Claire Aiello November 17, 201611:24 am

“Is my boy out?” Watson’s text asked Billings.

Some other texts were sent another night. Billings said she was at Billy’s Bar, Watson said ‘let me know if my boy’s there’ and Billings said he was. Billings described what Bryant was wearing, what he was doing. 

Watson asked Billings if he could trust her. She said ‘of course.’

Billings said later, Bryant was leaving. Watson was on duty that night, assigned to patrol in Hazel Green area.

Claire Aiello November 17, 201611:28 am

Investigator said data on Watson’s patrol car showed the car was parked at Billy’s, as he was sending the texts to Billings inside the bar.

Watson got called to Charity Lane to answer a domestic violence call. Vehicle data shows that too. Afterward, when Billings texted Watson to say ‘your boy is leaving’ his patrol car shows he drove back to Billy’s Bar.

Patrol vehicle data also shows he drove up to Tennessee and back. He pulled over a single-cab white pickup truck with TN tags. It wasn’t Bryant’s truck, though, and he wasn’t inside. 

The person pulled over, and described being pulled over, supposedly for a license plate light being out. It was a guy leaving work, headed back to TN.

Claire Aiello November 17, 201611:29 am

Another night, Watson was assigned to patrol in Hazel Green area. Investigator reviewed data on Aug 22, 2012 to determine where Watson was. He was parked at Billy Hunter Park, just up the road from Billy’s Bar. At that location, you can see where cars pull out from Billy’s Bar, investigator confirmed.

Claire Aiello November 17, 201611:31 am

He sat there from 10:31-10:53 pm. Robert Bryant was at Billy’s Bar that night. He has a single cab white truck, with TN plates. has “Bryant Painting” or similar wording on side. 

Watson sent a text to his friend/fellow deputy, Jake Church:

“65 with me at Billy Hunter Park. I might get into something soon.”

Church was with a trainee at another location.

Church said he didn’t see that text message right away.

He only saw it when he heard Watson’s panicked voice on radio saying ‘1039.’

Claire Aiello November 17, 201611:32 am

When Robert Bryant left bar, he headed north on 231. Watson pulled car out of park, turned south, turned around to go North, then sped 69 mph to catch up with Bryant. The vehicle data gives location and speed, that’s how investigator knows this. He caught up to Bryant, pulled him over on side of road. 

Claire Aiello November 17, 201611:36 am

Investigator reviewed radio traffic, vehicle data, witness reports (several police who responded, Robert Bryant) and Justin Watson’s report (use of force report.)

Investigator on traffic stop:
Watson pulled over Bryant, asked for license and registration. Bryant turned these things over as well as a concealed carry permit.

Goes back to car, with license and permit. He radioed for backup, went back to vehicle to ask Bryant to step out of car. Bryant did.

Investigator said Watson knocked out Bryant’s teeth with baton, beat him/choked him till he was unconscious. 

(Watson claims Bryant lunged at him.)

Claire Aiello November 17, 201611:37 am

Other responders noticed Bryant wasn’t breathing. They sat him up and hit him on the back.
Others who responded included two (couldn’t catch names) then Lt. Salomonsky, Brooks, Jake Church & trainee, Tim Whisante.

Claire Aiello November 17, 201611:38 am

Jake Church asked Watson if that was the guy he got in a bar fight with.

Watson said “don’t tell anyone about that.”

Claire Aiello November 17, 201611:40 am

DOJ asking investigator about picture of Bryant, which has previously been released. It is on the screen now. It shows him bloodied and bruised in a hospital bed.

Claire Aiello November 17, 201611:41 am

Another photo shown of Deputy Justin Watson in hospital bed. This has also been previously shown.

Claire Aiello November 17, 201611:42 am

Investigator said Watson was asked at the scene to remove his clothing. In hospital bed, he is wearing undergarments/underclothes.

The clothes collected/removed, were bloody, investigator said.

Claire Aiello November 17, 201611:44 am

Investigator also interviewed the doctor on call in the Huntsville Hospital ER that evening. Said he looked up his notes about the case when he was interviewed. Said Bryant had problems remembering what had happened to him. Suspected Bryant had a concussion, lack of oxygen to brain, loss of consciousness could have contributed to memory loss. Doctor ordered tests, and bloodwork. Exam showed there was alcohol in his blood, but consistent with “1 beer.”

Claire Aiello November 17, 201611:47 am

Sheriff’s Office started internal investigation on matter a few days later, investigator confirmed. Started by Lt. Salomonsky and Sgt. Brooks. Brooks said a few things didn’t seem right with him, with the traffic stop. Said report by Watson was incredibly detailed, out of character for Deputy Watson, whose reports were usually much shorter. He wanted to open an internal investigation.

Claire Aiello November 17, 201611:48 am

MCSO reached out to Mandy Billings, Jake Church.

Billings said Watson told her to shut her mouth, not to say anything.

Church said Watson warned him of an internal investigation, and the text message he sent. Watson’s reply was “don’t worry about it, they can’t get text messages that far back.”

Claire Aiello November 17, 201611:49 am

Moving ahead to Robert Bryant’s hearing – he was charged with assaulting a police officer. That charge was dismissed.

DOJ reminding that Watson has pleaded guilty and that’s what we’re here for today. Pleaded guilty to misleading the court/lying under oath.

Claire Aiello November 17, 201611:51 am

FBI opened its own investigation, because Robert Bryant went to the FBI about what happened to him. Investigator, who is with FBI, talked about what she did to review the case.. collecting reports, interviewing witnesses, various things they did to look into the matter.

Said she was aware this was getting around the MCSO, that the FBI was now looking into the case.

Claire Aiello November 17, 201611:52 am

FBI said Jake Church told them Watson was like a brother to him.

Church said he was sad that it happened, because they weren’t friends any more.
FBI got involved in January 2015. 

Claire Aiello November 17, 201611:54 am

DOJ asks investigator about an incident in SWAT team training room, between Church and Watson. On a computer, Church saw he had been cropped out of a photo. He asked Watson “when did you crop me out of this picture?” Watson said “when did you go talk to the FBI?”

Said two other SWAT team members confirmed the incident. 
Said the mood was uncomfortable after that, among the SWAT team.

Claire Aiello November 17, 201611:55 am

At another SWAT team training, Church said he was playing the part of a bad guy. Church heard a ‘click’ in the back of his head. Watson held it up and shrugged when Church asked him about it.

Gun was not loaded.

Investigator said there have been incidents in training exercises like this, but always involving plastic guns.

Claire Aiello November 17, 201611:56 am

Defense is up now for cross-examination.

Claire Aiello November 17, 201611:56 am

Warning – I’ve got about 10% on my battery left. Hoping it holds up till we get a recess and I’ll recharge.

Claire Aiello November 17, 201611:57 am

Defense asking investigator about experience with FBI. Defense asks about fight at Billy’s Bar, and witnesses who said they saw “Robert hit him first.” 

Claire Aiello November 17, 201612:02 pm

Defense asks about Amanda Billings, and other people present with Watson at the bar the night of the fight. 

Defense is trying to illustrate discrepancies between witness statements and past testimony.

This is about who threw the first punch in the bar fight.

Claire Aiello November 17, 201612:04 pm

Defense asking about SWAT team members and their testimony to the FBI.

Claire Aiello November 17, 201612:10 pm

Defense trying to establish if there’s any possibility the text messages could have been about anyone but Robert Bryant, possibly Jake Church.

Investigator firmly says no. They were about Bryant. “Your boy’s here.” Investigator said this definitely referred to Bryant.

Claire Aiello November 17, 201612:11 pm

Defense wants to talk about traffic stop on Aug 22, 2012. Said Watson called in a ‘1039 in a panicked voice’

Claire Aiello November 17, 201612:14 pm

Investigator asked about Deputy Watson, and how he initiated traffic stop, got the driver’s license and concealed carry permit.. then went back to his vehicle. 

Establishing he made initial call for backup, then a second ‘1039’ call during the fight.

Claire Aiello November 17, 201612:17 pm

Defense asking about other witness statements. Asking what other deputies testified about the traffic stop that turned into a fight, and who handcuffed Bryant.

Claire Aiello November 17, 201612:20 pm

Investigator: Sgt. Brooks arrived, and said Bryant kicked him in the groin, Bryant also kicked another deputy in his leg. Brooks said “Bryant was fighting for his life.”

Defense said a number of deputies were trying to subdue Bryant. Investigator confirms this.

Claire Aiello November 17, 201612:21 pm

Deputy Church transported Robert Bryant to hospital. Defense says this is against MCSO policy, it should have been an ambulance.

Claire Aiello November 17, 201612:22 pm

Defense: 8 deputies/MCSO personnel at scene that night. 

Claire Aiello November 17, 201612:22 pm

No pictures taken at the scene of Bryant, only at the hospital. 

Claire Aiello November 17, 201612:29 pm

Attorneys are talking about an early-on internal investigation that cleared Watson. Judge questioning why the government didn’t pay much attention to that.

Claire Aiello November 17, 201612:31 pm

Defense asking investigator why Watson pulled over Bryant. Watson’s report indicated he thought Bryant was intoxicated, and illegally changed lanes.

Claire Aiello November 17, 201612:32 pm

Investigator: ER doctor didn’t find ‘long term, long lasting’ injuries on Bryant.

Claire Aiello November 17, 201612:34 pm

Defense establishing others, besides Church, got cropped out of photo. Another deputy did the cropping. “But he led Church to believe that he did,” the investigator said of Watson.

Claire Aiello November 17, 201612:36 pm

Defense asking about ‘clicking sound’ and plastic guns, at the SWAT training incident. Asking if other things could have made that clicking sound. 

Claire Aiello November 17, 20161:46 pm

I apologize for the stoppage – my battery died. Back now and I’ll add the updates as we wait for things to resume. Court recessed at 12:50pm and will start back at 2pm.

Claire Aiello November 17, 20161:46 pm

Ran to the station and got an extension cord to plug in, so we’re good.

Claire Aiello November 17, 20161:48 pm

Before the break, the defense said medical records showed Bryant had other substances in his system, including Oxycontin.  FBI witness was not aware of that.
The Dept. of Justice emphasized while the MCSO’s internal investigation cleared Watson, it didn’t contain several of the things the FBI found, including Mandy Billings’ text messages and Jake Church’s testimony.

Claire Aiello November 17, 20161:50 pm

The judge also asked questions of the FBI investigator, referring to the SWAT team training and the ‘clicking sound’ from the gun. The judge asked if the FBI interviewed any other witnesses, and why this particular indictment against Watson was based on the account by Jake Church and no one else.

Claire Aiello November 17, 20161:52 pm

The defense stressed there were multiple inconsistencies and conflicting reports from various witnesses.

The Dept. of Justice stressed the facts stand, and said every criminal case has inconsistencies. DOJ said text message chains between Deputy Watson and Billings, and between Watson and Church, as well as the ADL evidence (patrol car information) speak to what really happened.

The DOJ said Billings’ and Church’s prior testimony show pre-medidation on Watson’s part.

Claire Aiello November 17, 20161:54 pm

At that point, Judge Bowdre said she had heard quite a bit, not expecting to go this long for the morning session. She needs time to organize the information. Said the objections raised this morning (and testimony presented about these objections) don’t have bearing on the sentencing guideline. 

The defense has requested three years of supervised release, while the prosecution has asked for 33 to 41 months in prison.

Claire Aiello November 17, 20161:55 pm

We resume at 2pm and the defense is expected to call mitigating witnesses. 

Claire Aiello November 17, 20162:07 pm

We should start any minute. Waiting on the judge to enter.

Claire Aiello November 17, 20162:10 pm

Court is in session.

Claire Aiello November 17, 20162:12 pm

Judge says she will rule on various objections raised by the defense.

Claire Aiello November 17, 20162:13 pm

Some of these are technical, honestly, relating to court documents & filings.

One has to do with a line about the defendant being ‘sucker punched.’

Claire Aiello November 17, 20162:17 pm

Judge reviewing sentencing time frame, fines. Not time for sentencing yet, we’re still likely to hear from at least one mitigating witness.

Judge discussing “key parts” of sentencing materials and what she’s going to use as she makes her decision.

Claire Aiello November 17, 20162:21 pm


Defendant was a deputy sheriff of MCSO

While off duty, he was involved in a fight at Billy’s Bar with Robert Bryant

Regardless of whether defendant touched Bryant or Bryant threw the first punch.. 

For 6 weeks after that bar fight, Watson searched for Mr. Bryant and enlisted help of Amanda Billings to learn Bryant’s name, tag, and where she saw him

Mr. Bryant was at Billy’s Bar that night in August, Mr. Watson was on duty in that area and parked his patrol car nearby and waited.

When Bryant pulled out of the parking lot, the defendant pulled out, u-turned to follow Bryant’s truck and pulled him over

Defendant asked for license and received it, plus concealed carry permit and walked to car to radio for backup. He then approached Bryant’s truck again. The defendant had Bryant step out, the men got in a physical altercation. Watson struck Bryant with baton, hit him in the face and choked him till he was unconscious.

Defendant then issued ‘1039’ to indicate emergency and other officers arrived.

Claire Aiello November 17, 20162:21 pm

Judge finds after he was resuscitated, Bryant continued to struggle with officers/deputies on scene.

(Judge still going over what she is basing her considerations on.)

Claire Aiello November 17, 20162:22 pm

Judge finds hospital records reflect Bryant’s injuries, and no physical injuries to Watson. 

Claire Aiello November 17, 20162:23 pm

They are discussing now, earlier testimony about what was found in Bryant’s system (through bloodwork, at the hospital.) DOJ disputes that Oxycodone was in his system.  

Claire Aiello November 17, 20162:25 pm

Defendant admitted, at his plea, that he made false statements about not ever seeing Bryant before the night of the traffic stop. We now know through numerous witnesses that isn’t true.

Claire Aiello November 17, 20162:29 pm

Defense calls Jim Ernest to the stand. 

Claire Aiello November 17, 20162:30 pm

Mr. Ernest has known Watson since 1990. Knows his mother, grandmother. Very close to him.

Claire Aiello November 17, 20162:31 pm

He is like a stepfather to Watson. Has known him since age 4. 

Claire Aiello November 17, 20162:32 pm

Ernest talking about Watson growing up – playing sports, football, was in ROTC at Sparkman H.S. Went on to UNA on a ROTC scholarship. Went to Fort Benning.

Claire Aiello November 17, 20162:33 pm

Ernest said Watson was involved in a number of sports, also helped with activities like Habitat for Humanity. ROTC involvement in high school and college. Also a loss prevention officer for Sears, during college. 

Claire Aiello November 17, 20162:35 pm

Ernest: Watson went through rigorous training at Fort Benning. AIT – Advanced Individual Training. He received some awards during his military service.

He then came back to Madison County, to seek a job with the MCSO. He had done ride-alongs as a teen with the sheriff’s office. 

Ernest said Justin Watson was raised in law enforcement – his father was in it, and he always wanted to pursue a career in it himself.

Claire Aiello November 17, 20162:36 pm

Mr. Ernest said Deputy Watson would always leave for duty professionally dressed, ready to work. 

“He was one to belly up to the bar. If he did something, he’d raise his hand and said he did it. His mother raised him that way.”

Claire Aiello November 17, 20162:38 pm

Mr. Ernest said he’s never known Watson to be angry, aggressive or hostile.
After Watson’s mother had a stroke, Watson has been actively involved in her care. “He’s been involved in her care all along.” He came back from the Army to help with her care.

Claire Aiello November 17, 20162:39 pm

Defense to Ernest: “You’re aware Watson perjured himself.” “He’s pled guilty to that.”

“I’m aware,” said Ernest. He said this does not change his view of him, or his character.

Claire Aiello November 17, 20162:40 pm

Mr. Ernest said Watson has 2 young daughters, a wife, many family members who love him and care about him. 

Claire Aiello November 17, 20162:41 pm

Since Watson resigned from the MCSO, he took a job at Toyota. Has taken some construction jobs to make ends meet. 

Claire Aiello November 17, 20162:43 pm

Mr. Ernest is talking about Justin Watson’s interaction with his daughters. “I wish you could see him with them. They need their father.” Ernest said Watson is a great father, a great family man.

Many in the courtroom have expressed emotion, hearing Ernest’s words.

“He’s taken the fall, in my opinion, for the whole Madison County Sheriff’s Department, from what I’ve read,” Ernest said.

Claire Aiello November 17, 20162:43 pm

Mr. Ernest is finished. Justin Watson is now going to read a statement.

Claire Aiello November 17, 20162:44 pm

Watson: “I’m here to take responsibility for my actions.”

“I’m a man who made a mistake, but my biggest fear is if you incarcerate me, I won’t be able to recover with my family intact.”

“I spent my entire life in civil service.” He was active in Scouts, as a cadet with the MCSO and ROTC.

Claire Aiello November 17, 20162:46 pm

Watson’s goal in college was to work in law enforcement. After time in Army, came home to work as a deputy sheriff. “It was extremely stressful at times, but I embraced it.” 

He indicated he wanted to serve in a federal position after about 5 years with MCSO. “Unfortunately, at the 5-year mark, I made a mistake. I lied under oath.”

Claire Aiello November 17, 20162:49 pm

Says he rededicated himself as a deputy after the Aug. 2012 incident with Bryant. Rededicated himself to SWAT team. Became a lead training instructor for reserve deputies.

Left Sheriff’s Office in 2015 due to “constant cloud of negativity.” Found a temp job with Toyota. However, Toyota laid him off after hearing of his indictment.

Then took a job with a granite countertop office. Was injured in a work accident. 

Has another job now, and is thankful because it helps him put food on the table.

Claire Aiello November 17, 20162:51 pm

Watson remains on ankle monitoring, and home confinement. Wife takes children to appointments, activities. Has changed the subject when daughters ask why Daddy can’t go with them, why he can’t be there at games or other activities. 

Many are emotional about this, including Watson. 

Claire Aiello November 17, 20162:52 pm

He is addressing individuals now, first, his wife Melissa for standing by him.

His sister. His Mom. His Dad. 

Claire Aiello November 17, 20162:53 pm

Many are emotional. Watson is trying to stay strong as he talks to those he loves.

Claire Aiello November 17, 20162:54 pm

“I’ll refocus and I’ll try to do harder,” Watson says to the judge. “I’ll continue to be the best husband, father, son, uncle and brother that I can be.”

Claire Aiello November 17, 20162:55 pm

“Your honor, I’m asking you to consider the person I am, and the person I’ll continue to be.”

Claire Aiello November 17, 20162:56 pm

Watson now turning to Robert Bryant. “I should have been the bigger person and walked away that night at the bar.” Offers his sincerest apology.

Closes with Romans 5:3, which talks about suffering, endurance, character and hope.

Claire Aiello November 17, 20162:57 pm

Defense attorney Michael Tewalt talking again, about his personal experience with this case. 

Claire Aiello November 17, 20162:58 pm

“One of the most critical jobs, I believe, a defense attorney has, is to get to know our client. I would put everything on my character, on my experience and my knowledge of what or what has not transpired in this case, that Justin Watson is not the man I believe the government believes him to be.”

Claire Aiello November 17, 20163:01 pm

Attorney Tewalt talking about his interactions with Watson, his wife, father, family. Says he has represented a lot of clients who don’t show this kind of remorse. 

He’s talking about the range of cases he has been involved in, and where this one should fall.

Claire Aiello November 17, 20163:02 pm

Attorney said this case falls on the side of “leniency and mercy.” 

Claire Aiello November 17, 20163:04 pm

Attorney talking about past court hearings in the case, and past evaluations Deputy Watson had on the job. He scored highly, the attorney said. Even in an evaluation in 2013, after the traffic stop.

Claire Aiello November 17, 20163:06 pm

Attorney stressing Watson continued to score highly in work evaluations after he perjured himself on the stand. 

“He was a leader in the Sheriff’s Office. A trainer. Asked to train at the academy, after these events. He was given commendations and awards after these events.”

Claire Aiello November 17, 20163:08 pm

“He rededicated his life to law enforcement for an extended period and that has been taken from him. That is everything for someone like Mr. Watson. That’s all he ever wanted to be. That’s no longer an option for him,” said Attorney Tewalt.

Claire Aiello November 17, 20163:11 pm

Defense is bringing up a similar case, where officers have been convicted of obstruction of justice, and the person was sentenced to home confinement/supervised probation. That is what Watson is asking for. The Dept. of Justice is pushing for prison time.

Claire Aiello November 17, 20163:13 pm

Defense brings up cases of Huntsville Police Officers Brett Russell and Officer Joshua Bates.

Claire Aiello November 17, 20163:14 pm

Defense urges judge not to make example of Watson, when others have gotten off with light punishments, or no punishment, especially in this district (referring to HPD officers.)

Claire Aiello November 17, 20163:17 pm

Robert Bryant speaking now. 

Claire Aiello November 17, 20163:18 pm

Bryant apologizes to people involved. He’s a handyman, said his work has been affected. He feels his life has been threatened, and feels that it is, in court today. 

Claire Aiello November 17, 20163:19 pm

Dept. of Justice (DOJ) is speaking now. 

Claire Aiello November 17, 20163:20 pm

DOJ responds to a comment by the defense, that lives weren’t at stake. Attorney said Robert Bryant’s life, and freedom was at stake.  Said Deputy Watson lied on the stand, and Bryant could have gone to jail if the court ruled a certain way based on Deputy Watson’s lie.

Claire Aiello November 17, 20163:20 pm

DOJ maintains Deputy Watson searched Robert Bryant out, through Mandy Billings. 

Claire Aiello November 17, 20163:22 pm

DOJ says they don’t consider Watson high-risk of committing this type of crime again, because he cannot be a law enforcement officer ever again. However, confinement will deter other officers from lying under oath. 

Claire Aiello November 17, 20163:24 pm

DOJ brings up other cases that have been similar to this case, and punishment was handed down against officers. One involved 36 months, another 46 months. “Those cases demonstrate perjury by a police officer can have a devastating impact on the justice system.”

Claire Aiello November 17, 20163:26 pm

“A man who didn’t do anything wrong might have been put in jail because of the defendant’s actions,” the DOJ attorney said.

Claire Aiello November 17, 20163:26 pm

That’s it for the prosecution. Judge Bowdre speaking now.

Claire Aiello November 17, 20163:27 pm

Judge: this was not a split-second decision. The facts show Watson searched for Bryant for 6 weeks.

Claire Aiello November 17, 20163:30 pm

Judge: We have to keep in mind the defendant was charged with 5 counts, and pled guilty to one. Only that 1 has been established beyond a reasonable doubt, and that is in fact, he lied at the preliminary hearing about his prior encounters with Mr. Bryant. That is the offense for which he stands here, convicted. The court can, of course, consider relevant conduct that calculation of guidelines is appropriate for sentence.

I have found the defendant had, in fact, searched for Mr. Bryant for approx. 6 weeks. That indicates there’s a little bit more than lying to the judge at the preliminary hearing in this case.

Claire Aiello November 17, 20163:31 pm

Judge: Had he told the truth, at the time, from the facts we now know, there likely would have been an investigation into his conduct. 

Claire Aiello November 17, 20163:33 pm

The lying, and continued lying, certainly heightened the suspicion that Mr. Watson had engaged in civil rights violations. Judge Bowdre is discussing the indictments now. 

Claire Aiello November 17, 20163:34 pm

Judge said she is not finding, today, that Watson is guilty of one of the charges he didn’t plead guilty to, but his conduct after the fact showed he had more to hide considering he had encountered Mr. Bryant earlier. 

Claire Aiello November 17, 20163:35 pm

The offense Watson is convicted of tarnishes the [Madison] County Sheriff’s Office and all of law enforcement. That is the seriousness of this offense, Judge Bowdre said.

We count on our officers to be truthful, especially in their testimony before a court, the judge said. I’m summarizing here, that isn’t an exact quote.

Claire Aiello November 17, 20163:36 pm

Judge believes a sentence should be imposed to deter others, especially those in law enforcement, from lying under oath. 

Claire Aiello November 17, 20163:37 pm

Those are the bad things, the judge said, but she should also consider Mr. Watson’s military service. The good things he has done. Judge has a son who has served in military. 

Claire Aiello November 17, 20163:40 pm

Judge: He was an upstanding law enforcement officer, but “that cuts both ways.” He should have been able to see the effect of truthful and untruthful testimony.

This conduct here, both the allegations about his searching for Mr. Bryant and his false testimony, appear to be very out of character for Mr. Watson. However, this was not an immediate reaction to a situation. This was part of, for lack of a better word, obsession. I believe Mr. Watson was obsessed with getting even with Mr. Bryant, and that overtook what has demonstrated to be good judgment on his part.

Claire Aiello November 17, 20163:41 pm

Judge says, as part of her responsibility, she has to balance the seriousness of the offense and the positive things in Mr. Watson’s life. 

“This is a situation where law enforcement officers should be held to that higher standard. I believe Mr. Watson should be punished, and appropriately punished.”

Claire Aiello November 17, 20163:43 pm

Judge: I agree with Mr. Watson’s statement, that he is not defined by what happened between June-August 2012, and in Dec. of that year. 

Claire Aiello November 17, 20163:43 pm

However, I believe the seriousness of the offense warrants a custodial sentence. 

Claire Aiello November 17, 20163:44 pm

It is the judgement of this court that Justin Watson be committed to the custody of prison – 36 months.

Claire Aiello November 17, 20163:44 pm

Courtroom reacts strongly.  Many people crying, emotional.

Claire Aiello November 17, 20163:45 pm

This is towards the high side of what the Dept. of Justice asked for. Defense had asked for supervised probation. 

Claire Aiello November 17, 20163:47 pm

Justin Watson is listening intently to the judge.  He is calm as she hands down the sentence. 

“You are not defined by the sentence today. You are a better man than your conduct in Dec. 2012 implies. You understand that, and I hope the community service will be an opportunity for the community to fully embrace you are not the sum of the series of bad decisions you made.”  Community service will follow the prison time, to my understanding.

Claire Aiello November 17, 20163:50 pm

Defense attorney requests for Watson to serve his time at Maxwell Air Force Base, because it would make it easier for his family to visit him. Judge says she will recommend that.

Judge also agrees he can report to U.S. Marshals on Thursday, January 5, so he can spend the holidays with his family.

Claire Aiello November 17, 20163:51 pm

Judge has left the courtroom.

Claire Aiello November 17, 20163:54 pm

Many are still here, and Watson is hugging family members as they offer support.