Fund Launched to Bring
Peter Watts to Aussiecon 4

Cat Sparks is raising money to bring Canadian SF author Peter Watts to Aussiecon. Cat gives full details on Talking Squid:

To that end, with Peter’s permission, I’m conducting a raffle to raise money for his airfare and accommodation. First prize is tuckerisation in his next novel State of Grace. Peter says, “Make sure that all entrants realize that their namesakes will most likely come to a really painful and unpleasant end. And they may not be especially cuddly as characters before then…”

[Via Australian SF Bullsheet #100.]

Peter Watts Receives Suspended Sentence

On April 26 Canadian author Peter Watts was sentenced to a 60-day jail term suspended upon payment of court assessments — $68 state minimum costs, $60 victim rights, $1000 court costs and $500 fines, according to the St. Clair County Court database.

This past March 19 a jury found Watts guilty of violating Michigan state law Section 750.81d “Assaulting, battering, resisting, obstructing, opposing person performing duty.”

Watts had gone into the morning prepared for the worst after seeing the prosecutor’s sentencing recommendation. According to the Port Huron Times Herald:   

Information [in] his online court record shows the recommended sentence is 180 days in jail with credit for one day served and 60 days suspended upon payment of $1,600 in fines and costs. A jury found Watts guilty of refusing to comply with orders during a random inspection at the bridge. An officer testified at trial that Watts tried to choke him.

Watts posted his reaction over the weekend before heading for Port Huron for this morning’s hearing:

After receiving some very positive indications from the Prosecution earlier this week — she wasn’t going to push for jail time, she doubted the judge would hand any out, the guy writing the presentencing recommendations was “very mild” — I’ve just been hit with a presentencing report that recommends jail time. Four to six months of it….

Of course, in a rational system this would have ended the moment the Feds decided not to press charges. In this system, there’s now a significant chance that I go into Port Huron on the 26th and simply don’t come out again. I’ve therefore been running around for the past couple of days making arrangements for the paying of bills and the feeding of cats should I go dark.

Fortunately, he has avoided the worst case scenario and hopefully is on his way home.

Watts Case Footnote

Late last week I wrote that the news coverage of Peter Watts trial didn’t explain clearly why the prosecutor was requesting an enhanced sentence under the habitual offender statute. So I sent an e-mail to the contact person at the St. Clair County courts and received this answer:

Habitual offender relates to previous convictions. It is not clear from the court record whether this will apply in the Peter Watts case but it will be clarified by the time of sentencing. 

Peter Watts by now has addressed this on his blog, but at the time I sent in my question I never expected anyone in his situation to be so forthcoming.

Looking Down the Road

The Port Huron Times Herald story about Peter Watts’ conviction begins with the following lead:

Toronto author Peter Watts has been found guilty of assaulting, resisting and obstructing a U.S. Customs and Border Protection officer.

Watts calls this a mistake — saying he was not convicted of assault. Indeed, one of the jurors has written to tell Watts he felt obligated to vote for a conviction on grounds of resisting and obstruction, but says Watts was not guilty of assault.

I wondered if a look at the statute would reconcile both viewpoints. By that I mean — What if the newspaper reporter’s phrasing is legally correct, just less insightful than the juror’s explanation?

The St. Clair county court records and the Michigan code are all available online. Watts was charged under this section of Michigan law:

Section 750.81d: Assaulting, battering, resisting, obstructing, opposing person performing duty; felony; penalty; other violations; consecutive terms; definitions.

(1) Except as provided in subsections (2), (3), and (4), an individual who assaults, batters, wounds, resists, obstructs, opposes, or endangers a person who the individual knows or has reason to know is performing his or her duties is guilty of a felony punishable by imprisonment for not more than 2 years or a fine of not more than $2,000.00, or both.

Section 750.81d(1) deals collectively with seven distinctly different actions, five of which are in the title of the statute. So a jury that found someone guilty of any one of these actions might be said to have convicted him of violating the law against “assaulting, battering, resisting, obstructing or opposing” a person performing his or her duties.

But the reporter (or copyeditor) has taken a cafeteria approach, selecting just a few of the listed items. So it doesn’t read like a paraphrase of the statute — it reads like an assertion about the jury’s factual findings that led to Watts’ conviction. And since the jurors were willing to talk out of court the reporter had as much opportunity as the defendant to get the most insightful possible story. I don’t score the lead’s accuracy very highly.

On another topic… For the past two days I have searched for information about how frequently people convicted under this law avoid a prison sentence. I located the Michigan Department of Correction statistical report for 2008 (PDF file): it shows 42% of the people convicted under Section 750.81d just received probation, and another 8% received delayed or suspended sentences (or were dealt with under terms of a youth offender statute).

Everything ultimately comes down to the details in individual cases, of course.

Watts Trial FAQ

All the nagging questions left over from the trial are answered in Peter Watts’ latest post DVD Extras and Director Commentary. Was the video shown? What was on it? What did the jurors say in their public statements and in conversation with the author after the trial? Is there an appeal coming? A countersuit? How many have contributed to pay the legal costs? Most important, how is he standing up under the incredible strain?

[Thanks to David Klaus for the link.]

Jury Finds Watts Guilty

The jury returned a guilty verdict in the Peter Watts case on March 19 reports the Port Huron Times Standard:

Toronto author Peter Watts has been found guilty of assaulting, resisting and obstructing a U.S. Customs and Border Protection officer.

Jurors returned the verdict today in St. Clair County Circuit Judge James Adair’s courtroom. He faces up to two years in prison when sentenced April 26.

Court records show that in the meantime the judge has continued Watts’ bond and he remains free pending sentencing. His case has been referred to the probation department for a report. And the court will review the prosecution’s request for an enhanced sentence under Michigan’s habitual offender statute.

According to the Michigan Department of Corrections, “in Michigan anyone convicted of more than one felony can have his or her sentence lengthened if requested by the prosecutor and agreed to by the court. Prisoners serving under the habitual offender statute cannot be paroled prior to their calendar minimum.”

The news coverage from the case hasn’t made it clear whether this law is being invoked based on the multiple felony charges from the border-crossing case or a previous conviction.

Peter Watts has posted detailed comments about the trial and verdict on his blog. He analyzes the statute the jury had to work with and the factual questions they had to resolve, then concludes:

Whether that’s actual noncompliance or simply slow compliance is, I suspect, what the jury had to decide. That’s what they did, and while I think they made the wrong decision I’m obviously not the most impartial attendee at this party. I still maintain I did nothing wrong; but as far as I can tell the trial was fair, and I will abide by its outcome.

Update 3/19/2010: Added link to Peter Watts’ comments about the trial and verdict.

Jury Deliberating Watts Case, 3/18

Peter Watts’ case was submitted to the jury in mid-morning on March 18 following closing statements by defense and prosecution attorneys, reports the Port Huron Times Herald.

Watts himself testified on March 17 in the afternoon, as did the passenger in his car on the date of the border-crossing incident.

Watts said he was returning home to Toronto after helping a friend move. He had just paid his toll on the American side of the international bridge when he noticed a “flicker of motion” outside his car window. The motion, as other witnesses had testified, was a border officer attempting to wave his vehicle to a stop for a random inspection. Watts said the wave was “ambiguous.”

Watts said he stopped after his passenger, Marcus Kumala, told him to, and when he rolled down the window, the officer said: “‘When I go like this (Watts put up his hand), I’m not waving hello.'”

Watts said he responded “I guess we’re not in Canada, because in Canada that sometimes means hello.”

Times Herald reporter Lis Shepard’s article adds: Watts said he became irritated by the officers’ search of the car and bags in the back seat and got out of the vehicle because he wanted to know what was going on. Watts heard an officer twice order him to get back into the vehicle, but he didn’t immediately comply. An officer grabbed his arm and he pulled away in a “flinch response.” Watts said he was starting to get back in the vehicle when Officer Andrew Beaudry grabbed him and tore his shirt.

Watts said he was trying to comply with orders as things seemed to escalate.

“I was trying to get the hell back in the car,” he said. “It turns out I had company in the car.”

Watts said he remembers feeling leather in his hands, but doesn’t remember grabbing the officer and might have been trying to fend him off.

“My own recollection of this is kind of frenzied because I was under siege,” he said.

Update: 3/18/2010: Deliberations ended at 5:20 p.m. without a verdict. The jury is expected to resume work on March 19 at 9:00 a.m. According to the Have Satellite Truck, Will Travel blog, during the afternoon the jury requested to see the security camera video tape again, which was permitted. But the jury was not allowed to take the tape into the jury room to review and still-frame it, which the judge said would be conducting an investigation and the jury must make its decision based on evidence presented at trial. // Peter Watts’ first post on his blog since the trial began is brief and ends, “Nails are being bitten, ulcers are being eroded, and I am out of clean underwear.”

Watts Trial, 3/17 Update

The second day of Peter Watts’ trial began with three U.S. Customs and Border Protection officers testifying about stopping Watts’ car and allegations that he assaulted and resisted Officer Andrew Beaudry.

Watts’ attorney Douglas Mullkoff has said the defense will call two witnesses and that Watts plans to testify.

Late last night the Have Satellite Truck, Will Travel blogger, who attended the first day of Peter Watts’ trial (March 16), posted an account of the opening statements plus details of the first witness’s testimony unavailable elsewhere. He followed up with some editorial comments, the most significant being:

…There is a video tape. It was not shown today, but both sides alluded to it. Mullkoff stated that if the prosecution did not introduce it, he would. Watts himself told me the tape is not very good, that he was but a “few pixels” in the frame. And here I thought we’d spent millions putting cameras all over the border.

Watts Trial, 3/16 Afternoon

Opening statements and the testimony of the prosecution’s first witness completed the first day of Peter Watts’ trial reports the Port Huron Times Herald.

The Toronto sf author is charged with assaulting U.S. Customs and Border Protection officer Andrew Beaudry when stopped at the Blue Water Bridge while returning to Canada.

The prosecution began with a timeline of events leading up to the struggle between officers and Watts, when Watts allegedly tried to choke Beaudry.

Defense attorney Douglas Mullkoff told the jury Watts was repeatedly hit, then pepper-sprayed “because he didn’t move fast enough” and that he is not guilty of any crime.

The first prosecution witness, Customs and Border Protection Officer Julie Behrendt, said that Watts was the subject of a random stop, and that he didn’t comply with any commands until after he was pepper-sprayed.

When the trial resumes March 17 the prosecution is expected to call three more witnesses.

Watts Trial, Morning of the First Day

Peter Watts, struck and pepper-sprayed by authorities during a border-crossing incident on December 6, then charged with assaulting a police officer, went on trial March 16 in Michigan’s St. Clair County Circuit Court. (News reports quoted a Port Huron police spokesman calling the alleged assault victim a “customs officer,” however I’ve yet to find a source that answers my question whether this was a Port Huron police officer or a member of a US federal law enforcement agency.)

The blogger at Have Satellite Truck, Will Travel  attended the first day of the trial. The morning was devoted to jury selection:

The repeating theme through the prosecution’s jury questions centered around border and airport security. Each prospective member was asked whether or not they crossed the Blue Water Bridge and or dealt with airport security and how that juror felt about the experience.

The defense’s repeating theme was asking anyone that crossed that bridge if they’ve ever been stopped by American officials on the American side of the line after they paid their toll. He asked most of the jurors one other thing that made sense to clarify their understanding of innocent until proven guilty. “With what you know about Mr. Watts right now would you vote not guilty?” All of them replied “yes.”

At this writing he hasn’t posted about afternoon, when the trial was expected to begin. There will be coverage by the Port Huron Times Herald as well, which so far has posted just a few lines about the morning.

Incidentally, St. Clair County court records show that when Watts was originally charged the prosecutor filed notice that he would seek “sentence enhancement” on grounds that Watts was allegedly a habitual offender:

The Michigan habitual offender statutes provide that individuals convicted of ‘a felony, an attempt to commit a felony, or both,’ who subsequently commit another felony, are subject to sentence enhancement.

However, I read the online records as saying the court granted a motion to quash this allegation in a preliminary hearing.

Watts reported earlier in the month there had also been a bench warrant issued by the judge for his arrest on March 5 when neither he nor his lawyer knew they were expected to appear in court, but the warrant has been withdrawn. It never ends, does it.