Court upholds sentencing for leader of national white supremacist group

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Published: Nov. 17, 2023 at 2:52 PM EST
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TUSCOLA CO., Mich. (WNEM) – The Michigan Court of Appeals has upheld the original sentencing of the leader of a national white supremacist group after the Tuscola County Circuit Court granted a motion for resentencing in May.

Justen Watkins, a 26-year-old Bad Axe man and the leader of national white supremacist group The Base, had his original sentencing upheld on Thursday, Nov. 16, the Michigan Attorney General’s Office (AG) said.

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 AG’s office said, adding the group also traffics in Nazi ideology and extreme anti-Semitism.

In October 2020, Watkins was charged in connection to a December 2019 incident where a family in Dexter was terrorized at their home. He used intimidation tactics and posted messages to other members of The Base targeting the home.

Related: AG: Leader of “The Base” sentenced on multiple felony charges

The AG’s office said 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 were filed in the Tuscola County District Court against Watkins for 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
  • One count of felony firearm, a two-year felony

In April 2022, Watkins pleaded guilty to conspiracy to train for a civil disorder and felony firearm. As part of the plea agreement, Watkins would be sentenced to 32 months to four years in prison, followed by another two year sentence.

Months later, Watkins filed motions in Tuscola County Circuit Court to withdraw his plea, to change the presentence investigation report, and for resentencing, the AG’s office said, adding the court granted the resentencing motion in May 2023 when it ruled ambiguity existed in the agreement that led to the sentencing.

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, according to the AG’s office. On June 30, the Michigan Supreme Court, in lieu of granting leave to appeal, remanded the case back to the Court of Appeals for consideration.

Arguments were held in the Michigan Court of Appeals on Tuesday, Nov. 7. On Nov. 16, the Court of Appeals’ opinion determined the plea agreement and 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, the AG’s office said.

This ruling reversed the order of the Tuscola County Circuit Court granting resentencing, and upheld the original sentencing from April 2022.

“I am relieved to see this sentence upheld for the leader of a domestic hate group here in our State,” AG Dana Nessel said. “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.”

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