Editor’s note: Desi Canela, a former Express-News journalist, is in Gulfport, Miss., for the federal fraud trial of San Antonio attorney Mikal Watts and six co-defendants. She is blogging as an unpaid observer who supports Watts and his team. Look for daily updates at www.mikalcwatts.com.
This article has been updated throughout.
San Antonio plaintiff’s attorney Mikal Watts, his brother David Watts, and three co-defendants were found not guilty by a federal jury in Gulfport, Miss. on Thursday.
A court clerk read the verdict, in which the jury unanimously found the three co-defendants not guilty of 66 charges of wire fraud, mail fraud, identity theft, and aggravated identity theft, shortly after noon. The jury deliberated just over four hours before reaching a verdict for all seven defendants.
Wynter Lee, Eloy Guerra, and Thi Hoang “Abbie” Nguyen were found not guilty; Gregory P. Warren and Thi Houng “Kristy” Le were found guilty of all 66 charges.
Against all advice, Mikal Watts chose to represent himself, and his legal victory is bound to add to his reputation as one of the best known and most successful plaintiff’s lawyers in the country. Mike McCrum, one of San Antonio’s best criminal defense lawyers, successfully represented Watts’ brother David. McCrum used evidence provided by government and defendant witnesses to prove his client was innocent of all charges.
“I chose to represent myself because it is my constitutional right to do so, and I believed that I was the best suited to prove to the jury that I am innocent of all charges in the indictment” Watts said.
The U.S. Attorney’s office spent four years building a case against Watts and six co-defendants, all of whom were indicted on 95 counts of fraud for allegedly falsifying more than 40,000 claims against British Petroleum (BP) in the wake of the 2010 Deepwater Horizon oil spill. John Dowdy, who formerly led the charge as lead prosecutor, abruptly resigned from the case two months before the trial was set up to open.
After the verdict, Watts chose to take the high road, giving high praise to federal prosecutors Gregg Kennedy and U.S. Assistant Attorney Jerry Rushing, who served as a last-minute substitute for Dowdy.
“Jerry Rushing, Gregg Kennedy, were upstanding, honorable prosecutors and while they were forced to try a case I believe they didn’t believe in,” Watts said, “they did a good job and they worked with our team to figure out what actually happened.
“They were the first prosecutors that cared to find out what actually happened and the evidence that both the prosecution and my team put on during the trial.”
Watts said both parties’ arguments in the case pointed very clearly to two things. First, Watts said, Warren stole $10 million dollars from Watts and his partners. Second, instead of admitting to the theft, Warren and Le chose to commit a massive fraud.
“They stole 15,000 Social Security numbers, and made up Social Security numbers for 7,000 people,” Watts said. “And so in an attempt to hide their theft of $10 million dollars, they committed identity theft on 22,000 people.
“(It’s probably) the largest fraud in the history of the American judicial system, and they deserve every guilty verdict that came their way today, and they deserve every year of incarceration that is also coming their way,” Watts continued.
Watts said he’s proud of the work his legal team did in Gulfport to exonerate his law firm and blasted BP, who has been convicted on three different occasions over the last 15 years.
“BP is one of the worst and they deserve every one of those $50 billion they had to pay for their conduct leading to the death of 11 good men in the Deepwater Horizon (environmental disaster),” he said.
Top image: (From left:) Judge Sandra Watts, Mikal Watts, and Judge Terry Shamsie walk into the courthouse in Gulfport, Miss. Photo by Desi Canela.