As seen in the article by Heidi Hagemeier, Staff Writer
Bozeman Daily Chronicle
The plaques on the wall are carefully arranged. Newspaper clippings, mounted and framed, line another portion of the office. And when Chuck Watson speaks in his slow, Southern voice, his words are meticulously chosen.
Watson is just as deliberate in the courtroom. A criminal defense attorney with a panache for getting as much as he can out of a jury, prosecutor, or reporter, Watson has a knack for attracting high-profile court cases. And he consistently comes out on top, which has earned him grudging respect among friends and foes alike.
“Chuck Watson gets a good deal for most of his clients. It’s frustrating, but if I were in trouble, he’d be the first person I’d call,” said one officer, echoing the sentiment of a number of public officials.
As one of southwest Montana’s most prolific criminal lawyers, Watson has defended people accused of everything from embezzlement and cattle rustling to sexual assault and murder, including death penalty cases. He also takes civil work.
He tosses out in casual conversation names of celebrities and other prominent clients: Peter Fonda, the Church Universal and Triumphant and West Yellowstone murderer Larry Moore, the first person in Montana to be convicted on DNA evidence, are just a few.
His clients also include numerous public officials.
Watson has defended six law enforcement officers against criminal charges. The most recent example is Gary Welsand, a former Gallatin County sheriff’s detective accused of attempting to molest a girl and abusing his position.
Through plea negotiations, Welsand admitted in April to three of the six charges he faced. None of his guilty pleas were for sex charges.
Watson settled Welsand’s case outside the courtroom, but took charges against Park County Sheriff Charley Johnson to a jury.
Johnson, sheriff for more than a decade, faced two counts of misdemeanor sexual assault and one of official misconduct toward his female clerk. After five days of hearing from a state prosecutor and from Watson, the jury found Johnson innocent on all counts.
The contrast between how Watson handled the two cases – and the publicity surrounding them – also reflects the diversity in his style.
For Welsand, Watson asked judges to keep basic information from the public, such as what the detective allegedly did to merit the charges. He often turned away press inquiries, or if he did respond, it was under his own terms.
“I just don’t want the public to judge a good man by one mistake,” Watson said of Welsand. “I don’t care if I’m going to get criticized personally for that position.”
An entirely different modus operandi prevailed in the Johnson case.
Watson and his co-counsel, Larry Jent, spoke frankly to the media about Johnson’s side of the story, denying any sexual harassment by the sheriff.
So much was said that in a rare move, the state prosecutor asked the judge to censure the defense attorneys. The judge issued a warning.
It’s this sort of aggressiveness and variance of approach that has made Watson successful, and has made other attorneys take notice.
“I think you just have to recognize that Chuck is a very good lawyer and Chuck will take advantage of everything and anything for the advantage of his client within the bounds of the law,” Gallatin County Attorney Marty Lambert said.
In any case, Watson often jousts with prosecutors in cases that dominate public debate and media space.
“It’s a personality thing,” said Bozeman attorney Brian Fay. “He is probably the best at manipulating the press for his benefit of anyone in this town. He’s also a good lawyer.”
Herman A. Watson III picked up the nickname “Chuck” as a child in Bridgeport, Alabama. He grew up watching his father first prosecuting criminals, and then defending them when he opened his practice.
The experience left Watson convinced that lawyers could be a positive force in society.
“When I was a kid, I thought lawyers were people that just got dressed up and went down to the courthouse to raise hell,” Watson said, chuckling.
Watson said he also learned as a youth about being a lawyer through football. “Being from Alabama, the religion I first learned at my father’s knee was football,” he said. “You’ve got to get an inch wherever you can get an inch. That inch you gave away early in the game may keep you from the touchdown.”
Family is important to Watson, and he touts the achievements of his father, siblings, and children. He especially talks of his grandfather, who went from being a 21-year-old sharecropper with a seventh-grade education to graduating from college and becoming a school principal.
Watson went to the same college as his grandfather, Berry College, where he majored in philosophy and English. The fields are a continuing interest for him, and at times he jumps into a professorial role, discussing Descartes’ thesis of human existence or quoting Shakespeare.
After completing a law degree at another small, private Georgia school, Watson worked as a prosecutor. It didn’t suit him.
“You have to answer to too many people,” he said, listing off the attorneys, judges, cops, victims and members of the public a prosecutor is beholden to.
Less than a year after becoming a prosecutor, he quit, turning to defense work.
He worked for others for about a decade in Georgia. Then the Watsons decided to move to Montana and hang out their own shingle.
“My doctor told me I only had 50 more years to live, so I moved to Montana,” the 43-year-old said, jokingly.
Watson is not afraid to be bold.
Since his arrival in 1992, his name has been connected with some of the area’s biggest court cases. The next is in January – after residing for more than two years in jail, Thomas Alan Park will face a Park County jury on a deliberate homicide charge.
Park County Attorney Tara DePuy is seeking the death penalty.
Watson and his co-counsel, Daniel Buckley, have filed more than 90 motions in the case and taken one issue to the Montana Supreme Court.
In that instance, an organization Watson founded three weeks before, the Montana Association of Criminal Defense Lawyers, filed a brief with the Supreme Court mirroring his position in the Park case.
“The ultimate penalty means they’re going to get the ultimate defense,” Buckley said. “They’re trying to kill our client.”
Watson selected Buckley to work with him in the Park case and considers him a local lawyer with promise. It’s the first time Buckley has worked extensively with Watson.
“It’s sometimes difficult to know where he’s coming from,” Buckley said, describing Watson as a deep thinker and Southern gentleman. “He practices criminal defense in a way I don’t see a lot of other lawyers doing criminal law.”
Watson does this, Buckley said, by setting pragmatic goals for a case early. He doesn’t approach a case in a formulaic way.
In the Park case, Watson has been both open and closed about the crime. At one point, he tried to exclude the public from all pretrial proceedings.
Buckley said he generally agrees with Watson’s method of coping with public vs. private issues – let people know there is more than the prosecutor’s side to the story, otherwise they will get the unconscious impression the suspect is guilty.
“Chuck has the ability to massage that attention to make it the best for the client,” Buckley said.
Watson’s court maneuvers, whether it be his case motions or statements to the press, have drawn mixed reviews at times from other attorneys.
In Montana, a small community when it comes to attorneys, some will criticize in soft tones but few will be forthright.
“It bothers some prosecutors,” said Lambert, who has been on opposite sides of the courtroom many times with Watson. “Some say his ego is out there all the time – I don’t think so, because I think he’s confident in what he does.”
Lambert and Madison County Attorney Bob Zenker called Watson a tactician, utilizing every angle and making calculated moves.
Despite disagreeing with him on many occasions, both respect Watson.
“He has a reason for everything he does, and you have to pay attention to that because it reveals his strategy,” Lambert said.
Other defense attorneys say Watson is a good example of a lawyer who fulfills his mandate-zealously defending his client.
Fay said defense attorneys are key to defending the Bill of Rights – they act as watchdogs to potential abuses by law enforcement and prosecutors.
And Buckley said the public should recognize that defense attorneys are key in reaching justice.
“People can gripe all they want until they’re charged with a crime,” Buckley said. “Then who are they going to call?”
Watson often sees his work in this big picture sense.
Well-read and constantly researching, he can talk at length about how many people the United State put in jail, their access to treatment and how this compares to other countries. He discusses the role of politicians in criminal justice, and how, in this opinion, it can corrupt American freedoms.
He plans to stay in Bozeman for now, and to continue focusing on criminal law, even though civil work can be more lucrative.
Criminal justice is obviously his passion. He discusses lawyers and trials of the past century like some people toss out baseball statistics or television anecdotes.
When the subject turns to the trial of famous Vietnam War protesters the Chicago Seven, Watson peers across his desk.
“You know,” he says, his Southern voice all sincerity, “I would have tried that case differently.”