Donald V. Watkins
Watkins Released From Prison!
Updated: Oct 11, 2022
By Donald V. Watkins
August 25, 2022
An Editorial Opinion
On August 28, 2019, I walked into the Federal Prison Camp at Talladega as Inmate No. 36223-001. I was the camp's only political prisoner. Today, I walked out of the Federal Prison Camp at La Tuna in Anthony, New Mexico as a free man.
My experience as Inmate No. 36223-001 was a long and hard one, but it was nothing compared to the hell that George Jones and I experienced when we desegregated the University of Alabama's law school from 1970 to 1973. The presence of God was with me on both journeys.
I left about 200 fellow inmates at La Tuna who took very good care of me throughout my stay. They came from all ethnic backgrounds and walks of life. I drew upon their strength as much as they drew upon mine.
As I departed La Tuna, I silently celebrated the 45 inmates I had freed during my three-years in captivity. At least five of these inmates were completely innocent of the criminal charges against them. Each one of the innocent inmates was a living example of the systemic failure of the federal criminal justice system.
In each case involving the innocent defendants, the trial judge, prosecutor, and court-appointed lawyer were all paid from the same source (the U.S. Treasury).. The prosecutors had regular ex parte contact with the federal magistrates and trial judges, prior to and after the defendant's indictment. From the outset, the outcome in these cases was "rigged" in favor of the prosecution.
These cases highlight the most glaring flaw in the American criminal justice system. Federal judges routinely shower prosecutors with gratuitous favoritism, while cleverly working to gut the constitutional rights of defendants for ideological and partisan reasons.
I believe my "emancipation" work for these 45 prisoners establishes a new record in American jurisprudence for a single lawyer during a three-year period. I also proudly hold the record for defeating 85 felony counts in a single-defendant criminal case (i.e., USA v. Richard Scrushy, 2003-2005).
I use the term "emancipation" to describe my work because state and federal inmates are legally and technically "slaves" under the Slavery Exception Clause of the Thirteenth Amendment to the United States Constitution. If there is any question about the status of prisoners in the United States, it was laid to rest in Ruffin v. Commonwealth, 62 Va. 790 (1871), when the Virginia Supreme Court affirmed their status as "slaves." Sadly, America is the only country in the Western Hemisphere that authorizes slavery in its constitution and practices it regularly in penal colonies.
My tour of duty in prison passed quickly because I was busy, day and night, helping scores of deserving inmates secure the justice that eluded them from those who pretend to be the official guardians of justice in the federal system. In retrospect, this was my finest hour as a lawyer.
The friendship bonds I formed with fellow inmates and staff members in prison will last a lifetime. My interaction with these inmates and staff members also increased my sphere of knowledge and influence on America's diverse ethnic, cultural, and political landscape.
The Politicization of Injustice
As an attorney who has been on the frontlines of the fight for the fair administration of justice for 48 years, I have seen case after case where federal judges with lifetime appointments in office have failed to administer fair justice. I have seen them use all of their brainpower to find new and creative ways to administer injustice with pride. The victims of this judicial abuse are usually people of color, poor people, gay people, Muslims, and women.
The politicization of the federal criminal justice system is one of the reasons public respect for and confidence in the federal courts, from the U.S. Supreme Court down to trial courts, is at an all-time low. Today, less than 1 out of 5 Americans respect federal judges. Tragically, the federal judiciary has transformed itself from a revered institution of government into a den of mostly robe-wearing, political hustlers who pretend to be judges and justices. Supreme Court Justice Clarence Thomas' vote appears to be "for sale" to any right-wing advocacy group that is willing to hire his wife as a "consultant."
In the Deep South, many federal judges have become more dangerous to our individual rights and freedoms than the Proud Boys, the Oath Keepers, the Ku Klux Klan, and the White Citizens Council. I have seen their brand of injustice on an up-close and personal basis. Today, injustice is the rule of law, and not an exception to the rule.
As a lawyer who has witnessed and experienced nearly a half century of suffering in the "halls of justice," I must fight against this injustice with every fiber in my body, everyday. Unfortunately, most of today's criminal lawyers do not have the knowledge, skills, ability, and backbone necessary to neutralize the myriad of ways the federal criminal justice system allows prosecutors to cheat their way to victory in cases involving people of color and other "undesirables."
The "Way Maker" Made a Way Out of No Way
There is a powerful song that I listened to often during my imprisonment. It is titled "Way Maker," by REVERE, Darlene Zschech (Australia) and William McDowell (United States)(11:40 minute extended version). This beautiful and inspirational song describes how God is our Way Maker, miracle worker, promise keeper, and light in the darkness. I bear witness to the power of God in this regard.
When I visited Nelson Mandela's small prison cell on Robben Island in 2012, I asked God to give me the strength He gave to Mandela during his 27 years in prison when it was my time to be imprisoned by the guardians of white supremacy in Alabama. The Way Maker answered this prayer when my time came in 2019.
When local Birmingham bigot and federal prosecutor Lloyd Peeples asked the Court to sentence me to 18 years in prison for conduct that career federal prosecutors in New Jersey reviewed in 2015-16 and concluded was NOT a crime, the Way Maker said, "No." Instead, the Court imposed a 5 year sentence. Recent changes in the law allowed me to exit prison after only three years of incarceration.
God kept his promise when he gave me the strength to get through my ordeal, while helping to free 45 deserving inmates in the process. This is why the Way Maker is my promise keeper.
During my three years of imprisonment, I watched the Way Maker work his miracles for me. He protected me from a litany of acts by rogue prison officials that were calculated to expose me to an increased risk of physical harm and/or death. The Way Maker also protected me from the deadly coronavirus that swept through three of the prisons where I was held.
The Way Maker was my light in the darkness. He was working on my behalf when I could not feel it and could not see it. He never stopped working.
The Way Maker touched the hearts that needed to be touched. He healed every heart that needed to be healed. He turned the lives around that needed to be turned around.
Today, the Way Maker escorted me from the "Lion's Den."
I learned several important lessons along this journey. First, I learned that freedom is never free. It is often paid for in the blood, sweat, and tears of "the least of these, my brethren" whose constitutional rights are trampled in the ordinary course of life by those who occupy the "pharaoh" positions in our society.
Second, I learned that, in war, the most committed adversary always wins. And, victory is rarely won in the first round of battle. Often, it takes decades of struggle to achieve total victory. For example, in the famous case of the nine "Scottsboro Boys," it took 45 years (from 1931 to 1976) for the "Boys" to achieve vindication, and only one of the "Boys" lived long enough to "smell the roses" of victory.
Third, I learned that the sun always shines on the other side of midnight. All of us can reach this destination if we navigate by the Way Maker's light in the darkness. Without the Way Maker's light, I don't know how anyone can get to the other side of midnight.
Fourth, I learned that everybody who is your color is not your kind. This lesson is self-explanatory.
As I start the next chapter in my life, I want to thank my thousands of readers around the world who accompanied me on my three-year journey to the other side of midnight. The renegades who hijacked the Birmingham federal criminal justice system in my case did everything within their power to break the bond of friendship and respect between us, but all of their efforts failed.
I do not view my imprisonment as a badge of shame. Many of my personal heroes were branded by the government as "criminals," starting with Jesus Christ, who was charged, tried, convicted, tortured, and executed for crimes he did not commit. Because of their work to liberate oppressed peoples around the world, political prisoners like Mahatma Gandhi, Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., Dr. Ralph David Abernathy, Rev. Fred Shuttlesworth, Nelson Mandela, Walter Sisulu, Govan Mbeki, Toivo ja Toivo, Sam Nujoma, and Robert Mugabe spent far more time in jail cells than I did. These men were called "troublemakers," "thugs," "filthy beast," "animals," "scoundrels" and "common criminals" by the colonial powers of their times. Their suffering was far greater than mine.
Thank you for standing steadfast by my side during the past three years! You never abandoned or betrayed me. I value your friendship and love, always and forever!
Once again, I am taking my place on the frontlines of the raging nationwide battles for truth and justice in a very divided America. With the Way Maker as my protector, I will go forward with an abundance of love in my heart, a determination to conquer the injustices that plague the federal criminal justice system, and an unwavering commitment to improve the quality of life for all of God's children.
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