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.
San Antonio plaintiff’s attorney Mikal Watts defied conventional wisdom twice in the days and weeks leading up the federal fraud trial in which Watts and six co-defendants faced charges of falsifying thousands of victim claims in the aftermath of the 2010 British Petroleum oil spill in the Gulf Of Mexico.
Watts decided to represent himself at the trial rather than hire a leading criminal defense attorney, and he made it clear that he would take the witness stand and testify in his own defense.
Watts did put on his own defense, but in the end, he decided not to take the stand. Instead, he opted to spend only four days mounting his own defense before resting Friday and asking U.S. District Judge Louis Guirola Jr. for a directed verdict.
A trial that both sides predicted would last six to eight weeks is now expected to conclude with closing arguments next week.
Week four began with Assistant U.S. Attorney Jerry Rushing resting the prosecution’s case Monday afternoon, only to be warned by Judge Guirola that his case remained unfinished. Rushing returned Tuesday morning, presented a few more exhibits, made a motion to drop five of the 73 counts, and then rested.
Judge Guirola dismissed 22 of the original 95 counts of the indictment the first day of trial.
Watts, his brother David Watts, Wynter Lee, Eloy Guerra, Gregory P. Warren, Thi Houng “Kristy” Le, and Thi Hoang “Abbie” Nguyen still face charges of conspireing to falsify thousands of claimants to collect millions of dollars from BP.
Eleven workers on BP’s offshore oil rig were killed and five million barrels of crude oil poured into the Gulf of Mexico, making the Deepwater Horizon oil spill the worst environmental disaster in U.S. history. The spill is said to have cost BP more than $62 billion in losses.
Watts was part of a larger team of lawyers set to try the civil lawsuit against BP on behalf of tens of thousands of individuals and businesses financially harmed by the oil spill. Watts conducted numerous key pre-trial depositions of senior BP executives.
In response, BP accused Watts of submitting phony claims in 2013 in order to get appointed to a lucrative position on the BP Plaintiff’s Steering Committee.
On the eve of the BP civil trial, 80 U.S. Secret Service agents raided Watts’ San Antonio law offices, forcing him to withdraw from the trial team. The trial was postponed for years until Watts was indicted in October 2015.
After three weeks of testimony from nearly 80 government witnesses, it was Watts’ turn to make an opening statement in what was his first ever attempt to serve as a criminal defense attorney.
“I want my reputation back,” Watts told jurors. “And the evidence that I’m going to give you will help me do that.
“I invested two years of my life to find justice for those ?fine men and all the people that lost their businesses as a result of the oil spill caused by BP and others.”
Watts summarized his defense with ten reasons he believes demonstrate his innocence. He walked the jury through his firm’s mass tort experience and practices. He also explained how a case in progress works its way through his law firm, citing his firm’s “paperless” office system, the BP case victim outreach the firm conducted, money the Watts firm provided for BP work, Watts’ duty of communication and meeting deadlines, the BP client due diligence committed by Watts Guerra Craft, Watts’ extensive work during the BP case, the mass damages settlement and fee distribution process, and what the BP client data shows.
Then he and San Antonio criminal defense attorney Mike McCrum, who represents David Watts, Mikal’s brother and law firm employee, began calling their own witnesses.
Three days and 25 witnesses later, Watts rested his case on Friday just before noon, much to the jury’s delight.
“I left 22 witnesses on the cutting room floor, if you will, including me,” Watts said. “So I did not testify, and although it broke my heart, I looked at my outline and realized (what) we put into evidence with respect to every single thing that I was going to say.”
The next four defendants in line – David Watts, Wynter Lee, who works in in the Watts law firm, and Eloy Guerra – rested without putting on further evidence or witnesses. Greg Warren, who has a prior felony conviction, also rested without putting on any further evidence.
Mikal Watts, acting on his own behalf, McCrum, acting on behalf of David Watts, and attorneys representing Lee, Guerra, and Warren all made motions for acquittal of all charges.
Judge Guirola said he would take all motions under advisement with the exception of Warren, whose motion was immediately denied. He is expected to rule on the motions early next week.
Both “Kristi” Le and “Abbie” Nguyen are expected to present a few defense witnesses on Monday.
The combined defense efforts should be completed no later than Tuesday morning. Judge Guirola is likely to tell the jury to come back on Wednesday for closing arguments. Jury deliberation could begin as early as Friday.
Top image: (left to right) Nueces County-Court-at-Law Judge Terry Shamsie, Mikal Watts, his mother State District Judge Sandra Watts of Corpus Christi, criminal defense attorney Mike McCrum, and Texas political consultant Christian Archer leave the courthouse in Gulfport, Miss. Photo by Desi Canela.