San Antonio attorney Mikal Watts is about to place the biggest bet of his legal career. That’s saying a lot for a high flyer who is no stranger to controversy or the spotlight. He’s hosted President Obama at his Dominion estate for a high dollar political fundraiser, and he’s won hundreds of millions of dollars in class action lawsuit victories.
Watts, a nationally-recognized plaintiffs attorney, is about to change hats and go to work as defense attorney in a high profile criminal fraud trial that opens Monday in a Gulfport, Miss. federal court. Watts also happens to be the lead defendant. A successful lawyer who can afford to hire the best criminal defense lawyers money can buy is instead placing his fate in his own hands.
Watts is breaking a cardinal rule in the legal profession. The annals of criminal trials are rich with examples of self-representation ending badly.
“A man who is his own lawyer has a fool for a client.” So goes the old adage. So why is Watts, a multimillionaire who now faces criminal charges that could ruin him professionally and lead to a prison sentence if convicted, defending himself?
Is Mikal Watts on the verge of self-destruction, or he is capable of what many say is the near impossible?
“No one can really say,” said one prominent San Antonio lawyer who declined to be quoted by name. “I admire his determination to take on the federal government and Big Oil, mano a mano, but it’s irrational. Is it ego, delusion, anger? If he wins in a massive case of this scale, it will be a first.”
Said one other lawyer who knows Watts: “If this trial were happening in San Antonio, the courtroom would be packed with lawyers watching the drama, most predicting a bad outcome for Mikal. If he somehow prevails, he’ll be on every front page.”
Yet a third San Antonio lawyer said he might be tempted to fly to Mississippi to attend closing arguments in a trial that is expected to last at last six weeks: “He probably thinks the jurors will be inclined to give him the benefit of the doubt since he was representing the little guy against BP, a big corporation that is responsible for the worst oil spill in history down there.”
Watts told the legal news website Law360 in January that he believes he is the best man to persuade a jury, which will be selected this week from a pool of 80 prescreened citizens. Opening arguments are expected by midweek.
“I think the jury hearing from me every day will allow me to better present my defense rather than sitting in a chair for five and a half weeks before I get to testify,” Watts said in an email response to Law360. “At its core, a trial is a trial is a trial. My job is to get the truth out and I intend to do so.”
In a written exchange with the Rivard Report on Saturday, Watts expanded on his reasoning.
“I choose to represent myself because it is my constitutional right to do so, and I believe that I will be the best suited to prove to the jury that I am innocent of all charges in the indictment,” Watts wrote.
Watts signaled an aggressive defense last year following his October 2015 indictment with the release of this video later that same month challenging the government’s case. In the video, Watts asserts that British Petroleum was retaliating against him for his aggressive defense of coastal fishing families economically affected by the massive Deepwater Horizon oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico about 42 miles off the Louisiana coast in 2010.
Eleven workers on BP’s offshore oil rig disappeared and were never found, and five million barrels of crude oil poured into Gulf waters, on to environmentally sensitive shorelines and into coastal estuaries. Emergency workers struggled for 97 days to cap the well. It’s considered the worst oil spill in U.S. history and is said to have cost BP more than $62 billion in losses.
Watts and six co-defendants were indicted on 95 charges of conspiracy, wire and mail fraud, and identity theft in the aftermath of the oil spill. The other defendants include his brother David Watts and Wynter Lee, both employed by his law firm; BP claim field representatives Hector Eloy Guerra of Weslaco and Gregory Warren of Lafayette, La.; and Thi Houng “Kristy” Le and her sister-in-law, Thi Hoang “Abby” Nguyen, both of Grand Bay, Ala. Warren and Le set up a BP claims office in the Biloxi area.
BP officials said the company agreed to pay $2.3 billion in compensation for property and economic losses based on records submitted by Watts and his firm, part of a larger $9 billion settlement that covered such losses by business and individuals in multiple Gulf Coast states.
BP filed a civil lawsuit against Watts and his law firm in December 2013, asserting that half of the thousands of names submitted for claims were fictitious or falsely made. That suit stayed while a criminal investigation into the same charges was underway. That investigation culminated in the October indictments.
Watts is expected to present a defense that shows individuals working in the field gathering claims for other law firms eventually bundled into the Watts law firm’s claims were responsible for any phony claims and that he and his firm were victimized by such misrepresentations.
U.S. District Judge Louis Guirola Jr. approved Watts’ request to serve as his own legal counsel after Watts agreed to drop plans to have attorney Robert McDuff, who represented him at some of the pretrial hearings, serve as a backup attorney. That means Watts cannot shift mid-trial if he senses that then jury is reacting negatively to his own self-representation.
Guirola also agreed to allow Watts to present a narrative defense from the witness stand, meaning he definitely will testify and intends to do so in an unconventional fashion, offering jurors and the public an extended explanation and defense of his law firm’s work in making the multi-billion dollar claims against BP.
It’s a bizarre case with at least two strange twists. One, of course, is Watts decision to represent himself. The other was the sudden, unexplained decision byAssistant U.S. Attorney John Dowdy of Jackson, Miss. to resign as lead prosecutor in mid-May after spending five years building the case against Watts and his six co-defendants who are being tried separately.
Dowdy, a veteran 28-year career prosecutor, stepped down from the case and resigned from the U.S. Attorney’s office two months before the trial was set to begin. His abrupt weekend resignation has never been convincingly explained, although the manner in which it occurred suggests it was not planned.
“This is a move I had been contemplating for about three or four months,” Dowdy told the Biloxi Sun Herald. “I just felt like it was the right time for me to make a move. I’ve got a couple of ventures I’m looking at. In the meantime, I’m trying to kick back and determine what move is best for me and figure out what the next chapter of my life holds.”
Dowdy’s explanation has left those close to the case unconvinced. While tens of thousands of claims were made in the wake of the 201o oil spill, it appears that the government’s case is built on 41 unidentified people included in the claims without their knowledge and falsely identified as seafood workers who suffered a loss of employment and income after the spill.
The government alleges Watts and his firm submitted the names of more than 40,000 victims in the consolidated BP case being managed by U.S. District Judge Carl Barbier in New Orleans, and that only a handful were found to be eligible.
Watts will have to persuade jurors that others are responsible for any fraudulent claims, and that there was no way for his law firm to have known the claims were made falsely.
In our written exchange, I asked if Watts could cite a single example of a major case in which a lawyer named as a defendant successfully defended himself before a jury?
Naturally, Watts did. It was famed lawyer Clarence Darrow, charged in a 1911 bribery case in which Darrow was said to have bribed two jurors in a criminal case against a labor boss he was defending.
There’s a book about the case, The People vs. Clarence Darrow, written by Geoffrey Cowan. Historians say Darrow was probably guilty as charged, but after an eloquent and emotional closing argument, Cowan wrote, it took jurors less than 40 minutes to return a verdict of not guilty.
Top image: San Antonio lawyer Mikal Watts, on the eve of his federal trial where he will act as his own legal counsel, at work in a Gulfport MS conference room. Photo courtesy of Mikal Watts.