HUNTSVILLE, Ala. (AP) — A former Alabama deputy accused of beating a motorist pleaded guilty to lying about the confrontation Wednesday, but his admission didn't shed any light on the slaying of a friend of the victim who campaigned against police brutality after the assault.
Justin Adam Watson, 30, was accused of stopping handyman Robert Bryant while on duty for the Madison County Sheriff's Department and assaulting him in August 2012. The men got into a bar dispute weeks earlier, but Watson admitted to lying about that during a hearing in state court.
Bryant previously received a $625,000 county settlement over the assault in a federal lawsuit filed against Watson and eight other officers, including Sheriff Blake Dorning. Watson was the only officer charged criminally in the case, and he previously had pleaded not guilty.
But in the change-of-plea hearing Wednesday, Watson admitted to the federal obstruction charge. The maximum sentence is 20 years in prison, but federal guidelines recommend less than 3.5 years. The final decision is up to U.S. District Judge Karon Bowdre.
In the plea deal, prosecutors dismissed four other civil rights and obstruction charges, including one that accused Watson of holding a gun to the head of another officer to keep him quiet about the assault.
During the hearing, neither federal prosecutors nor the defense mentioned Jason Klonowski, who supported Bryant and campaigned against police brutality after the assault. His body, with gunshots to the head, was found propped up in a chair outside his rural home in 2013.
No one has been charged in Klonowski's slaying, which authorities described as a murder. Denise Brown, a neighbor of Klonowski who found his body, suspects the killing was linked to the man's support of Bryant, who lives in Tennessee.
"I've just got my fingers crossed that maybe since he's pleaded guilty it will open up some doors," Brown said after the hearing.
Lisa Richardson, Bryant's girlfriend, said she and Bryant hoped other officers would be charged in the attack.
"They got one. There's five more to go," said Richardson, wearing a "Support Robert Bryant" T-shirt outside the courthouse.
Evidence showed Watson and Bryant scuffled in a bar in July 2012 after Watson thought he heard Bryant say something about his fiance. Federal prosecutor Christopher Perras told the judge Watson then spent weeks searching for Bryant in an apparent quest for revenge.
Finally, while on duty, Watson waited for Bryant outside the bar and followed him before stopping him on a roadside. Watson hit the man with his fists and nightstick and choked him, and then falsely claimed Bryant had attacked him, evidence showed.
During a subsequent hearing on state charges filed against Bryant, Watson falsely told a judge he didn't know Bryant before the roadside confrontation in an effort to throw off investigators, Perras said.
State charges against Bryant were later dismissed, and Watson resigned. He was indicted last year.
The judge said she would schedule a sentencing hearing later. Besides the jail time, Watson could be fined a maximum of $250,000.