The “Bookends” Of My Legal Career
By Donald V. Watkins
©Copyrighted and Published on December 15, 2018
A lot of people have asked me about the bogus wire and bank fraud charges federal prosecutors in Birmingham, Alabama brought against my son, Donald V. Watkins, Jr., and me last month. I have discussed these charges in several recent articles.
There is some irony in the fact that this case will likely represent a “bookend” to a very fulfilling and exciting 45-year legal career. It comes at a time when I was planning to retire from the active practice of law at the age of 70. As I have done throughout my career, I will secure one more dramatic courtroom victory for the history books.
My first “bookend” experience occurred while I was a second year student at The University of Alabama’s School of Law. It was just as challenging and dramatic. The story below describes what happened.
I graduated from a small racially segregated high school in Montgomery, Alabama in 1966. I attended college at Southern Illinois University in Carbondale, Illinois from 1966 to 1970. My SIU years were filled with boundless multiculturalism. I thrived in SIU’s fully integrated and highly competitive university environment of 25,000 students.
When I arrived on campus at UA for law school, I knew right away that I was in for a different experience. Remember, this was a year before there were any black athletes at UA, and only a small number of black undergraduate students were matriculating on campus.
The warmth and camaraderie I experienced at SIU was absent at UA. I was one of two black students in my freshman class of 150 law students. The other black student was George Jones from Miles College in Birmingham. I was attending the law school on a desegregation scholarship from the NAACP in New York.
Our class was divided alphabetically into two sections. George was placed in one section and I was in the other one. I often refer to my law school days at UA from 1970 to 1973 as the longest and loneliest three years of my life.
One of my classmates was John David Whetstone. He was my moot court partner during our second year of law school. I had studied David’s classroom performance during my entire freshman year. This guy was tough, smart, disciplined, and extremely mature. David was really good on his feet and had a thundering voice with a strong Southern drawl.
David was a 1963 graduate of Greenville High School, who served in the Air Force after high school. He was honorably discharged as a sergeant in 1968. David had worked his way through the University of West Florida and law school at UA using the G.I. Bill.
As I entered my second year, I needed a moot court partner. I figured nobody was going to choose me, so I decided to approach David. The way he carried himself suggested to me that David had been exposed to black people and he had no problem treating them with dignity and respect.
I approached David in the fall of 1971 and told him that I had studied his performance as a law student. He seemed startled. I also told David that I thought he was “good enough to be my moot court partner” and I stuck my hand out to shake his hand. He paused for a moment, smiled, and said “okay”, as he shook my hand in return. That handshake meant the world to me. It was the start of an unbreakable and lifelong friendship between David and me.
David and I competed ferociously in the moot court competition. All year long, we outscored and eliminated all of the teams we faced. I enjoyed being David’s teammate. He could research cases and write briefs very well; he would argue points of law with passion; and he rolled over opponents with ease. David was a warrior and he was fighting side-by-side with me.
In March of 1972, David and I had eliminated all of our competitors through the end of the semi-final round. We were slated to represent our class section as “finalists” in the annual Law Day competition against the team of George L. Galbraith and George W. Ashbee. This prestigious event would be held on Saturday, April 8, 1972, in front of a large crowd of students, faculty, and parents. Three distinguished Alabama judges would decide the Law Day winner.
This was a huge event for any law student. I was very proud of what David and I had accomplished. I called my parents and told them we had made it into the Law Day final round of competition. My mother started crying because she knew how isolated and lonely my law school experience had been. My father, who was President of Alabama State University, was excited that David and I might win it all. I could feel my parents’ pride and excitement beaming through the phone.
Our celebration was short-lived. After winning our semi-final round, the student Moot Court Committee met secretly and changed the original criteria for advancing in the moot court competition. After making this change, the Committee designated the team we had just defeated as the “finalists” who would compete in the Law Day event against Galbraith and Ashbee.
I was shocked, angry and hurt beyond words. I told David that we could not let this unfair treatment go unchallenged and that I needed him to stand and fight with me on this issue. Suddenly, I watched the Air Force sergeant and patriot emerge in David. He snapped to attention, shook my hand, and told me we were in this fight together.
On April 7, 1972, David and I filed a written challenge with Dean Thomas W. Christopher protesting our unfair elimination as finalists for Law Day. Dean Christopher wrote us a letter on the same day stating that he would investigate this matter. He also assured us that the Law Day competition on April 8th would be subject to the outcome of his investigation.
I did not go to the Law Day competition on April 8th. Instead, I sat inside my car outside of the law school building -- Farrah Hall -- and cried uncontrollably while the event was taking place. The person who found me in my car and consoled me that day was Mr. Ramus Rhodes, the janitor at the law school. He was my friend, confidant, academic coach, and mentor. He knew I was devasted. This was one of those days when Mr. Rhodes had to carry me because I did not have the strength to carry myself.
On April 18, 1972, following an April 12th hearing before a five-person hearing panel of four professors and one outside attorney, Dean Christopher issued his decision. Calling the Moot Court Committee’s action “an error in judgment”, Dean Christopher took the following administrative actions: (1) he declared that David and I should have been selected as finalists using the criteria established at the beginning of the competition; (2) he announced to the entire student body and the Moot Court Board that we should have been selected to compete in the Law Day competition as finalists; (3) he wrote a personal letter to our parents to explain how well David and I had performed in the overall competition and stated in his letter that, “but for an error in judgment by the student Moot Court Committee, [David and I] would have been in the final argument itself”; (4) he ordered prize monies paid to David and me as if we were finalists; (5) he ordered a match between the winners of the Law Day round and our team; (6) he took full responsibility, as dean of the law school, for this “error in judgment”; and (7) he personally thanked David and me for our “constructive and fair attitudes in the resolution of this matter”.
David and I pondered Dean Christopher’s offer of a match between the team of Galbraith/Ashbee and us. We decided that Galbraith/Ashbee had done nothing wrong in this matter. They were two innocent competitors who had fairly won the Law Day round of competition against a team we had defeated. David and I decided that we would not take away the victory Galbraith/Ashbee had won in front of their parents and the crowd that had gathered to watch their winning performance. We did not have it in our hearts to subject Galbraith/Ashbee to the emotional pain that had been inflicted upon us. With that in mind, we waived our right to this matchup and allowed Dean Christopher to declare the Galbraith/Ashbee team the “winners” of the 1972 Moot Court Competition.
David graduated in January 1973. I graduated in May of that year. David enjoyed a long and distinguished career as an assistant district attorney and later as the district attorney for Baldwin County, Alabama. As was the situation in law school, David was the consummate professional as a career prosecutor. He is the yardstick by which I measure all prosecutors. To this day, I have not met a federal or state prosecutor whose integrity matches David’s.
God works in mysterious ways. I never thought my first case would be my own and that I would have to represent myself. My father taught me as a child that a man who will not fight for himself or his family, will not fight for others. David and I put it all on the line to fight against a painful injustice. In the process, we earned the respect of our dean, student peers, faculty and staff members, and larger communities.
Out of a heartbreaking experience in law school came a friendship bond with John David Whetstone that has stood the test of time. In 2012, while going through one of my mother’s scrapbooks, I found Dean Christopher’s letter to my parents and a copy of his ruling in our moot court case. I immediately called David to reminisce about our moot court experience 40 years earlier. David asked me to send him a copy for his family. I told David it was important that his children and grandchildren know our story and also know that he had tremendous courage when it was needed and counted. In my book, John David Whetstone has earned a permanent place on the right side of history.
As for me, my friendship with David is one more example of why I never judge anyone on the basis of his/her race, gender, age, political affiliation, sexual orientation, or any other artificial factor. I judge every individual solely on the content of his/her character. And, in many cases, a person’s true character is revealed only when he/she is faced with adversity.
As life would have it, my legal career started with my own case in law school. In that case, I defeated an awful injustice without causing harm to two innocent students. After I defeat the federal prosecutors in my current case, I will likely walk away from the gladiator arena for the last time with an inner peace that I gave it my best for 45 years and that thousands of ordinary Americans are in a much better place today because I fought and bled for their dignity and legal rights in the arena.
This is what makes these two cases the “bookends” of my legal career.
PHOTO: Farrah Hall on the campus of The University of Alabama is where I argued and won my first case in 1972. It was the start of an exciting and fulfilling 45-year legal career. As fate would have it, my first case was my own.