Joe Perkins wins defamation lawsuit Donald Watkins
A Tuscaloosa political consultant won a $1.5 million judgment in a defamation lawsuit against a Birmingham attorney now serving federal prison time in a separate criminal case.
Joe Perkins, who owns Montgomery-based Matrix LLC, sued Donald Watkins in 2017, alleging Watkins spread a “series of malicious and harmful lies” about him on social media in the aftermath of the Megan Rondini case.
Rondini, then a 20-year-old University of Alabama student, alleged in 2015 she was raped by T.J. Bunn, a member of a prominent Tuscaloosa family. Bunn denied the rape allegation, and investigators said they didn’t have evidence to prove a crime occurred. Rondini later moved home to Texas, where she died by suicide.
In a series of social media posts, Watkins was outwardly critical toward Bunn and alleged several institutions were in a conspiracy to cover up Bunn’s alleged crime. The attorney often wrote long, blog-type posts on his public Facebook page, alleging Bunn escaped prosecution because of his wealth and family connections.
In 2017, Watkins began claiming Perkins and Matrix were behind a smear campaign to discredit him and Rondini’s allegations. Watkins alleged Matrix hired a hacker to delete followers from his Facebook page, in addition to suggesting Perkins collaborated with The Tuscaloosa News to cover up the Rondini case.
Former News Publisher James Rainey, who testified in the defamation lawsuit, called Watkins’ allegations “total fabrications.”
“Watkins never identified his ‘anonymous source,’ nor provided any verifiable evidence that the ‘source’ even existed,” Perkins’ lawyer Cason Kirby said in a statement. “We demanded Watkins retract his false statements, but he refused, so we sued him for five claims of defamation.”
Tuscaloosa County Circuit Judge Allen May Jr. ruled in favor of Perkins in May, granting summary judgment in five defamation counts. May wrote in his ruling that Watkins failed to provide any evidence for his claims and ordered him to pay $1.5 million in damages in a final judgment on Aug. 20.
Watkins is now serving a federal prison sentence for an investment fraud scheme in an unrelated case. Watkins, incarcerated at a Texas prison according to federal prison records, is slated to be released in January 2024.
The aftermath of the Rondini case continues to play out in Alabama courts. A wrongful death lawsuit filed by Rondini’s parents against Bunn was allowed to proceed by the Alabama Supreme Court last week, and is expected to go to trial in September in federal court.
A separate lawsuit, filed by Tuscaloosa law enforcement officers against the national news organization BuzzFeed, was ordered into mediation talks earlier this month. Two officers filed a libel lawsuit against the website over a 2017 story about Rondini’s case.
Contact Montgomery Advertiser reporter Melissa Brown at 334-240-0132 or firstname.lastname@example.org.