Defense attorney Anne Watson has a lot of admirers.
They mail her poetry and drawings of doves, crosses, roses and teddy bears, many thanking her for standing up for them in their darkest days. The Hall County jail is the return address on many of the letters.
Some letters express gratitude. Some express other feelings for the petite, velvet-voiced lawyer.
“Some are so poignant and genuine and sweet, and they thank me for changing their lives,” said Watson, who has two scrapbooks filled with the missives. Looking at one drawing of a rose and ornate letters spelling out “I miss you,” Watson remarks, “some of them go a little too far.”
Watson is a veteran of the judicial system who has seen it from almost every perspective. She worked as a prosecutor for Andy Fuller when he was Hall County’s district attorney and now works as the circuit’s chief assistant public defender, assigned to represent criminal defendants in Judge Fuller’s courtroom.
She has taught law at Montana State University and served as a family law judge and an associate magistrate judge.
She’s even been a defendant — in a civil case. Testifying in court gave her an appreciation for the difficulty of the process that has stayed with her more than 20 years later.
About the only thing she hasn’t done in a courtroom is serve on a jury.
“I’ve never been called,” she laments. “I want to get in that jury room.”
Watson, a native of Charlotte, N.C., who grew up in Atlanta, has ties to Gainesville dating to the mid-1980s, when she went to work for Fuller at the suggestion of current district attorney Lee Darragh.
She later served as an associate magistrate, once marrying a couple, at the bride’s insistence, at the Hall County jail. Less than a year later, when Watson had returned to private practice, the same woman approached her about handling her divorce. Watson declined.
“I didn’t feel comfortable doing that,” she said.
Her love of the outdoors and an urge to escape what she saw as increasing commercialism led her to move with her then-husband to Bozeman, Mont., in 1992, where they opened a law office. She later joined the faculty of Montana State University, teaching there for four years.
She made the decision to move back to Gainesville in 2005, when she got a call “out of the blue” from the Hall County Public Defender Brad Morris, who was recruiting lawyers for his newly created office.
The chance to be closer to her parents, and an opportunity to help mentor young lawyers joining the staff fresh out of law school, proved too much to pass up.
She kept her home in Montana and racks up frequent flyer miles returning to spend vacations in Big Sky country, where she takes part in her hobbies of cross-country skiing and hiking and spends time with her sons, ages 16 and 24.
Watson says her job as public defender is rewarding, even if the acquittals come few and far between, and 70 percent of the cases she handles end in guilty pleas.
Watson feels privileged to represent the underprivileged in criminal cases.
“We’re all God’s children, and we all deserve the same standard of justice,” Watson said. “I really believe we are all a mixture of good and bad, and even the worst of us has something good in them.”
Watson, just like her courtroom adversaries on the prosecution side, is a government employee. She sees her role as keeping the judicial system balanced.
“You have to have an aggressive prosecution and an aggressive defense,” she said. “If you don’t have that, you’re going to have an excess on one side, which is never good.”
Among the diplomas and photographs hanging on Watson’s office wall is framed artwork from her former clients and copies of verdict forms in cases that ended in acquittal.
The acquittals are “the reward for all of the other losses,” she said. “Seeing the client’s relief and gratitude is magnificent. But I always know that for every time that happens there are five others that didn’t get it that way.”
Watson compared it to author Rudyard Kipling’s advice to treat triumph and despair the same.
“I can see that,” Watson said. “In my joy at getting my client justice, I can never forget the injustices that have occurred before or will occur after.”