Intended Civil Disorder Charge Used for First Time in Michigan History
LANSING – Yesterday, the Michigan Court of Appeals upheld the original sentence handed down to Justen Watkins, 26, of Bad Axe, the leader of national white supremacist group The Base, announced Michigan Attorney General Dana Nessel. The Court of Appeals’ opinion determined that the plea agreement and subsequent sentence evaluation by the Circuit Court were not ambiguous and Watkins’ plea to Conspiring to Train for a Civil Disorder and Felony Firearm was not involuntarily made, and thus reversed a May 2023 order of the Tuscola County Circuit Court that granted Watkins’ motion for resentencing. Watkins’ sentences of 32 months-4 years’ incarceration for Conspiring to Train for a Civil Disorder and a mandatory consecutive two years’ incarceration for Felony Firearm were thus left intact.
“I am relieved to see this sentence upheld for the leader of a domestic hate group here in our State,” said Nessel. “This organization goes far beyond speech in training for violence to advance their racist agenda. Securing this conviction to train for civil disorder established an historic precedent in the Michigan court system. My office will continue to prosecute hate crimes and domestic terrorism to the fullest extent of the law, as we did here in historic fashion.”
In October 2020, Justen Watkins, the leader of The Base – a national white supremacist group that advocates for violence against the government – was charged in connection to a December 2019 incident in which a Dexter family was terrorized at their home. Watkins used intimidation tactics and posted messages to other members of The Base targeting the home.
The agencies involved in that investigation later discovered Watkins and two other members of The Base had entered two vacant properties formerly operated by the Michigan Department of Corrections (MDOC) in Caro to assess the properties for The Base’s paramilitary firearms training exercises, which the group called “hate camps”.
The following charges, co-prosecuted with Tuscola County Prosecutor Mark Reene, were filed in the Tuscola County District Court against Watkins related to the activity at the MDOC property:
- one count of larceny in a building, a four-year felony;
- one count of gang membership, a 20-year felony;
- one count of conspiracy to train with firearms for a civil disorder, four-year felony; and
- one count of felony firearm, a two-year felony.
On April 11, 2022, Watkins pled guilty to Conspiracy to Train for a Civil Disorder and Felony Firearm in a plea agreement stipulating Watkins to serve 32-months to 4-years’ incarceration, and a second consecutive sentence of two years.
Watkins admitted in his plea to visiting the MDOC facility and conducting firearms training at the site with several others. He was then sentenced in accordance with the plea agreement.
Months later, Watkins filed motions in the Tuscola County Circuit Court to withdraw his plea, to change the presentence investigation report, and for resentencing. The Court granted the resentencing motion in May of this year when the Court ruled ambiguity existed in the agreement that led to the sentencing. The trial court did not rule on Watkins’ other motions.
Following the Michigan Court of Appeals’ denial of the People’s application for leave to appeal, the People filed an emergency application for leave to appeal in the Michigan Supreme Court. On June 30, 2023, the Michigan Supreme Court, in lieu of granting leave to appeal, remanded this case back to the Court of Appeals for consideration.
Oral arguments were held in the Michigan Court of Appeals on Tuesday, November 7, 2023. On November 16, 2023, the Court of Appeals reversed the order of the Tuscola County Circuit Court granting resentencing, thus upholding the sentence as imposed pursuant to the plea agreement.
Founded in 2018, The Base – which is the literal translation of “Al-Qaeda” in English – is a white supremacy gang that openly advocates for violence and criminal acts against the U.S. and purports to be training for a race war to establish white ethnonationalist rule in areas of the U.S., including Michigan’s Upper Peninsula. The group also traffics in Nazi ideology and extreme anti-Semitism.