Hard Luck, Hard Time

Donald Thweatt was once ready to fight for his country. Now he's fighting for his freedom.

Donald Thweatt wanted to tell his side of the story.

Time and again during the two-day trial, he passed notes to his attorney, Allen Harris. "Put me on the stand, Al," he wrote in oversized letters. Things were going well, and Harris had no intention of letting his client testify. Eventually, though, he relented, figuring everything would be fine if his client simply told the truth. And he did, telling jurors he was the real victim. "He did a wonderful job," Harris recalls.

Thweatt also smelled victory. "Al, before they deliberate, I'm already sure of my faith in the Lord and my subjective observation of your legal prowess," he wrote in another note. "They will find me innocent! Amen." In the end, Thweatt was proved right. Not guilty, the St. Louis County jury decreed.

Thweatt (foreground) playing soldier at age 5.
Thweatt (foreground) playing soldier at age 5.
Thweatt (foreground) playing soldier at age 5.
Thweatt (foreground) playing soldier at age 5.

Thweatt stood up and cried, "Hallelujah! Praise the Lord!" Judge Sandra Farragut-Hemphill told him to be quiet. For once, Thweatt did what he was told. He sat down and shut up.

But this was no small victory, considering that the accusers -- and alleged victims -- are correctional officers at the St. Louis County Jail. Thweatt's Feb. 22 acquittal on misdemeanor assault charges against a guard marked the second time he had beaten the rap in as many months. In January, a judge tossed a felony assault charge out of court. In that case, the alleged victim was a nurse at the St. Louis Veterans Affairs Medical Center, at Jefferson Barracks, who sustained a broken leg while helping restrain Thweatt, a man at once seriously scary and pitiful as a result of a brain injury that's left him a ward of the state and all alone in the world.

Thweatt still faces two counts of misdemeanor assault stemming from an alleged attack on two jail guards. But Thweatt isn't particularly worried. For one thing, he says he didn't do it. For another, the maximum penalty on each charge is 15 days.

Thweatt has been in jail for 15 months. How he got there and what it has taken to get him out forces a sad smile from Harris.

"He's a handful, but he's not a criminal," the lawyer says. "It's really a pathetic case. It's one of those I could get a jury crying.

"You don't get many of those."

Donald Thweatt always loved a uniform. When he was 4, he insisted on wearing a suit and bow tie to preschool. The youngest of five children, he was the general in backyard games of war with his brothers at the South St. Louis home where he grew up. "He was giving them orders and they'd be listening," recalls his father, Norman. "He was decked out in his military helmet and all that."

Thweatt made up his mind what he wanted to do at a young age and stuck to it. He joined the Civil Air Patrol in his early teens, quickly rising to a leadership position and helping with search-and-rescue operations. It was the same way after he graduated from Cleveland High School and joined the National Guard. He became an officer and transferred to the Army Reserve, where he soon made first lieutenant and convinced two uncles to enlist. "He was always leader of the squad," his dad says.

He could bench-press nearly 300 pounds and do 200 pushups. By the time he was in his mid-20s, he had carved a career, married his high-school sweetheart and fathered a son. He was on the promotion list for captain. He held a diploma in computer science from St. Louis Community College and ran his own computer-consulting business while working full-time for a mortgage company.

"He was a good guy," recalls his father. "He was in pursuit of the dream, you know. He was very motivated. He was buying a home and he had two cars and he had a supervisory job in Chesterfield in a data-processing department -- he had several people under him. People liked him. He was the picture of health. He had no medical problems. He weighed something under 200 pounds, and all muscle."

Then Donald Thweatt was called up for Operation Desert Shield. And so he kissed his wife goodbye and headed to Tobyhanna Army Depot in Pennsylvania, as ordered.

Thweatt doesn't remember much about the accident on Aug. 5, 1990. He insists he was attacked by a group of enlisted men acting under orders from jealous officers who were angry that he had been picked for a choice command assignment. Far-fetched, perhaps, but one thing is certain: Thweatt's life would never be the same.

"It was a Sunday, and they had been to recreation," says his father, who tells the story he's read from Army reports. "I guess they were doing some drinking at the PX. It was after dark when they left. There were several [soldiers] in a Chevy Lumina van with a sliding door on it. They were riding back to the billet. They were going down this gravel road in Pennsylvania -- it's kind of hilly. It was a warm night, and they had the sliding door propped open. Don was on the center seat, right next to the sliding-door area. They came up to this T intersection. When the driver hit the brakes, he slid over the road and went off to the side a little bit before he regained control. In the meantime, the sliding door came sliding forward, and, with the left turn of the vehicle, Don had leaned that way. The sliding door hit him on the head, on the right temple. He said something like 'Damn, that hurt.'" And the men continued on their way.

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