• Donald V. Watkins

U.S. v. Watkins: The Color of Injustice in Alabama

Updated: Sep 4

By: Donald V. Watkins

Copyrighted and Published on July 17, 2022


An Editorial Opinion


People of interracial goodwill often ask me to help them understand how systemic racism works in Alabama. I will use my own case to breakdown a real-life example of systemic racism within the criminal justice system.


I chose this example because the business transactions that formed the basis for the criminal allegations against me were first reviewed by career federal prosecutors in New Jersey who specialized in major economic crimes, who did not know me, and who had no pre-existing biases against me. After a full review of the underlying allegations and pertinent evidence over a six-month period in 2015 and early 2016, these unbiased federal prosecutors cleared me of all wrongdoing and wished me well in business.


For reasons they have never explained, Alabama-based federal judges and prosecutors have never acknowledged or publicly discussed this baseline event. In my view, this event serves as a yardstick by which we should measure the conduct of Alabama-based law enforcement and judicial officials.


Nearly two years after I was cleared of any wrongdoing by New Jersey federal prosecutors, Birmingham federal prosecutors clamored for my case. These prosecutors wanted an opportunity to nail me to the cross even if they had to manufacture a criminal case to do so. This is exactly what they did.


To succeed, these federal prosecutors needed a friendly judicial forum that would allow them to divorce the business transactions in question from the existing contractual obligations between the individuals they labeled as "victims" and myself. They found one at the federal courthouse in Birmingham, Alabama. They also needed to divert the public's attention from the fact that the "victims" were "accredited investors" who were represented by lawyers and Wall Street financial advisors in the transactions at the center of the case.


Southern-Style Justice


From my indictment in November 2018 to my sentencing in July 2019, my case was assigned to a white U.S. Magistrate, who was a former federal prosecutor in Birmingham. My trial judge was also the Chief U.S. District Judge in Birmingham. She was appointed to the federal bench by Republican President George W. Bush. She, too, is white. These two judges controlled what I could and could not present as evidence in the case. They also held closed-door "star chamber" proceedings in the case on legal matters that are still sealed even though the trial has been over for more than three years.


The U.S. Attorney and First Assistant U.S. Attorney in my case were Jay Town and Lloyd Peeples, respectively. Both men are white. Prior to his appointment as U.S. Attorney, Town was an "attack ad" political operative for U.S. Senator Richard Shelby (R-Alabama), who is white. President Donald J. Trump appointed Town to the U.S. Attorney's job on Shelby's recommendation. Lloyd Peeples is a homegrown racist and failed pizza restaurant operator who needed a job. Town gave him one.


On April 26, 2022, a three-judge panel of the 11th Circuit Court of Appeals held oral arguments in Montgomery, Alabama in the appeal of my conviction on wire, mail, and bank fraud charges. This panel consisted of Judges Gerald Tjoflat, Ed Carnes, and Kevin Newsom, all of whom are white. All of these men were appointed to the federal bench by Republican presidents. Judges Carnes and Newsom are based in Alabama.


On Friday, July 15, 2022, the three-judge panel issued an opinion written by Judge Tjoflat that upheld the convictions in my case. Click here to read the opinion.


By way of background, the 11th Circuit Court of Appeals hears federal civil and criminal cases arising out of Alabama, Georgia, and Florida. It is the most conservative federal appellate court in the nation. There are 12 judges on the 11th Circuit Court of Appeals and 9 "senior" (or semi-retired) judges on this Court. All of these judges are white, except for one. To put this skewed racial composition in perspective, blacks make up more than 25% of the aggregate population in the three states that are served by the 11th Circuit Court of Appeals.


Who Are the Three Appellate Judges in My Case?


Judge Tjoflat, who is 93-years-old, wrote the July 15, 2022 opinion affirming the criminal conviction in my case. Tjoflat was appointed to the federal bench by President Gerald Ford. He was serving as Acting Chief Justice of the 11th Circuit Court of Appeals when Chief U.S. District Court Judge Mark E. Fuller (Montgomery) beat his wife in an Atlanta hotel room in on August 9, 2014 to the point that she had to be hospitalized. A drunken Fuller was arrested at the scene. Fuller is another white Republican judicial nominee.


I broke the news of Fuller's Atlanta arrest and detailed his serial wife-beating conduct. I also published Fuller's mugshot and detailed his history of beating his first and second wives, his history of drug abuse during court trials, and his notorious reputation for engaging in sex with a female law clerk and a courtroom bailiff.


Despite Fuller's utter unfitness to continue serving as a federal judge after his arrest, Judge Tjoflat tried to save Fuller's job by claiming that the workload among federal district judges in Montgomery was too great for Fuller to resign. In a press statement issued on August 12, 2014, Judge Tjoflat was quoted as saying: "Judge Fuller recognizes that he needs to deal with these serious issues quickly so when he returns [to the bench] there is as little disruption to his cases as possible."


On August 25, 2014, I responded to Judge Tjoflat's media comment by filing a complaint with U.S. Supreme Court Chief Justice John G. Roberts, Jr., about Fuller's wife-beating conduct and Judge Tjoflat's attempt to downplay it. I also kept the spotlight on Fuller's misconduct on the federal bench for well over a year.


In the end, Mark Fuller was forced to resign his judgeship after a Judicial Inquiry Commission determined that he had lied to investigators about: (a) his abusive behavior towards his wives, (b) his reported sexual relations with his female law clerk and another courthouse staffer, and (c) his reported "pill-popping" conduct during trials. Fuller's resignation occurred shortly before Congress commenced impeachment proceedings against him.


The second 11th Circuit Court of Appeals panel member on my criminal case -- Judge Ed Carnes -- was appointed to the federal bench by President George H. W. Bush. Carnes worked in the same courthouse with Mark Fuller. Like Judge Tjoflat, Judge Carnes has taken "senior" status. Despite his long tenure on the federal bench, Judge Carnes' judicial opinions have never been known to advance or protect the civil rights of black litigants.


Judge Kevin Newsom was appointed to the Court of Appeals by President Trump. Prior to his appointment, Judge Newsom served as a law clerk at the all-white, nine-judge Alabama Supreme Court (in a state that is 25% black). He is also a former solicitor general for the state of Alabama. Judge Newsom was the former head of the Birmingham-based Bradley Arant law firm's appellate practice.


Bradley Arant is the law firm that employed attorney Abdul Kallon prior to his appointment as a federal judge in Birmingham. Kallon is the former business partner of Jonathan Dunning, a successful black Birmingham businessman who was targeted by federal prosecutors in 2013, indicted in 2014, and tried and convicted in 2016 on specious "fraud" charges.


Judge Kallon unexpectedly resigned from the bench on April 6, 2022 in the wake of a reported outside federal investigation into the infamous North Birmingham Bribery Scandal, Investigation and Trial. Kallon was the trial judge in this bribery case. Jay Town was the U.S. Attorney who failed to prosecute a litany of major companies and top corporate executives who participated in the $360,000 bribery of state Rep. Oliver Robinson.


In writing his judicial opinion in my case, Judge Tjoflat failed to disclose his personal conflict of interest with me. Tjoflat also failed to mention the fact that I filed a 2014 complaint against him for the way in which he mishandled the Mark Fuller wife-beating scandal.


Excluding Defense Evidence


The three 11th Circuit judges upheld the trial judge's decision to exclude defense evidence that went to the heart of the case. Specifically, during my trial, I attempted to introduce the complete transactional file of the National Football League/St. Louis Rams purchase documents (from 2007 to 2010) as evidence that the energy company in which my investors purchased an economic interest had real monetary value. Goldman Sachs (New York City) represented the Rosenbloom family who were selling their 60% stake in the Rams. JP Morgan Chase (New York City) advised me in the monetarization transaction. Seymour Pierce, Ltd. (London), a 138-year-old investment banking firm specializing in the sale and purchase of major professional sports teams, arranged the necessary financing with Citibank (New York City) for my purchase of the Rams. Law firms in London, Los Angeles, Houston, Atlanta, and Kansas City represented me in the transaction.


Goldman Sachs' vetting process established that I was a qualified and capable buyer for the Rams. I progressed through each stage of the acquisition process. At the end of the process, the Rams organization presented me with the proposed purchase agreement, which was subject to Stan Kroenke exercising his first right to buy the Rosenbloom's 60% interest. Kroenke was a 40% limited partner in the Rams. At the last minute, Kroenke exercised his purchase right, thereby making him the 100% owner of the team.


Prosecutors objected to my introduction of this evidence on the grounds that it was "irrelevant, immaterial, and would only confuse the jury" in their "fraud" case. Peeples conceded (outside the presence of the jury) that the Rams purchase documents were genuine and that my interaction with Goldman Sachs, JP Morgan, and Seymour Pierce regarding the Rams purchase transaction was a real deal.


The trial judge sustained Peeple's objection and blocked this evidence from being presented to the jury. After the judge barred this evidence, prosecutors successfully argued to the jury that my energy company had no monetary value.


This excluded evidence was relevant and material because the handful of professional athletes who invested in my energy company did so primarily because they wanted to also participate with me as economic participants in the Rams transaction. Because I was leveraging energy company assets in which all of us held an economic interest in order to buy the team, these investors would have been entitled to receive an automatic and proportional economic interest in the Rams, as well.


Epilogue


I am a longtime civil rights activist and former Montgomery City Council member (1979 to 1983) whose departure from office in 1983 caused then-Montgomery mayor/former chairman of the Alabama Republican Party, Emory Folmar, to publicly declare that my departure from the council was "one of the greatest blessings since the Union troops went home in 1870."


Republican politicians in Alabama consistently target me for beatdowns because of my success in law, business, and life. They also hate my intelligence and outspokenness. They only like ingratiating, deferential "Negroes."


The major difference between the New Jersey federal prosecutors and the local Birmingham courthouse crowd was this: The New Jersey prosecutors reviewed the corporate governance agreements that set forth the rights and responsibilities of the contracting parties. They concluded that I had the exclusive right and lawful authority under these agreements to "determine what constituted valid business purposes for expending funds."


The Birmingham federal prosecutors and judges in my case never cited any action that I took as CEO of my company that was not expressly authorized under the governance agreements signed by the signatory parties. They simply ignored these agreements, without explanation. Likewise, they ignored existing federal bank regulations that expressly authorized the two transactions they claimed were bank fraud.


In short, I was railroaded at trial and in the Court of Appeals. Now you know why. Alabama is notorious for railroading black litigants.


Finally, in Alabama, most white judges seek to cloak the injustices they routinely mete out to black litigants in legitimacy by getting other white judges of a similar political and ideological persuasion to ratify and affirm their injustices. The attempt to sanitize systemic judicial racism in my case by using all-white peer-group affirmation is a time-honored tradition in Alabama.



IMAGE: 92 year old U.S. Circuit Judge United States Court of Appeals Eleventh Circuit, Gerald Bard Tjoflat

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