- The Washington Times - Wednesday, June 30, 2004

The tobacco farmer dubbed “Tractor Man” was abruptly resentenced yesterday by a federal judge who believed he had no choice after an unexpected U.S. Supreme Court ruling last week.

“His release is imminent,” said A.J. Kramer, the public defender representing Dwight Ware Watson.

Watson, 51, drove his tractor into a pond on the Mall on March 17, 2003, and began a 47-hour standoff with police, claiming to have “organophosphate bombs.” Streets were closed and traffic backed up for miles over four consecutive rush hours until Watson surrendered.

Watson was convicted of making a false threat to detonate explosives, and destruction of federal property. On June 23, U.S. District Judge Thomas Penfield Jackson sentenced Watson to six years in prison.

But that was one day before the Supreme Court ruled that only juries — not judges — could lengthen prison terms beyond the maximum set forth in state guidelines. Although the high court decision applied only to Washington state, Judge Jackson believed that what he did in sentencing Watson was wrong.

“The Supreme Court has told me that what I did a week ago was plainly illegal,” Judge Jackson said in court yesterday as Watson sat quietly.

It was a far cry from the first sentencing, when Judge Jackson told Watson, “You did terrify the people of this city,” and characterized Watson’s actions as “an illegitimate attempt to justify a legitimate grievance.”

A spokesman for the U.S. Attorney’s Office said the government filed an emergency motion for Judge Jackson to stay his order late yesterday, calling it a precursor to an appeal. Judge Jackson rejected an earlier request from a federal prosecutor to stay his order, pending guidance from the Justice Department.

Watson’s sentence will now be recalculated based on the more than 15 months he has served since his arrest, said A.J. Kramer, director of the federal public defender’s office, who added, “What Judge Jackson decided to do was to follow what the Supreme Court says the Constitution requires.”

Watson, a down-and-out tobacco farmer from Whitakers, N.C., was protesting against changes in state and federal tobacco policy, and the $200 billion multistate tobacco settlement, both of which he blamed his problems on.

For more than a century, his family farm grew tobacco on as much as 1,500 acres. At the time of his arrest, Watson was farming just a few dozen acres and was threatened with foreclosure.

The tractor incident began the same day that the Department of Homeland Security elevated the terror threat level to orange — three days before the start of the U.S.-led war in Iraq.

During a February hearing, Watson apologized. He also recounted a jailhouse conversation he had with a federal probation officer after his conviction.

“I told her I was here to start a revolution on behalf of tobacco-farming families,” Watson said.

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