Artwork for podcast The Alamo Hour
Mikal Watts, Trial Lawyer, Criminal Justice Reformer and Safety Advocate
Episode 1124th April 2020 • The Alamo Hour • Justin Hill
00:00:00 00:57:40

Share Episode


On the 10th Anniversary of the BP Blowout in the Gulf of Mexico, Mikal Watts joins us to discuss a disaster that changed his life. He discusses his path working on some of the biggest cases in American history to becoming the target of a massive federal indictment. Against all advice, Mikal defended himself and beat the charges. Listen to his incredible stories.


Justin Hill: [unintelligible 00:00:02] Welcome to the Alamo Hour. This is Episode 11 and I've got Mikal Watts on the podcast today. Mikal is a trial lawyer over the past 25 or so years, I'm guessing now, Mikal.

Mikal: More like 30.

Justin Hill: 30. Well, you got out early. Mikal's been at the forefront in many areas of litigation on a national stage for Firestone. All the stuff you see on TV. Have you been hurt by this drug? He's been involved in a lot of those. He's really been one of the few players on a national level for a long time regarding a lot of national torts. For our city, that means a lot of things. We've got one of the biggest lawyers in America here, officing here with us protecting our rights and I wanted to get him on here to talk about a few things.

It's really important timing and I bugged him about the important timing. Atlantic monthly just did an article on Mikal. It's a 10-year anniversary of the BP blow out, which we're going to get into this, but that had so many implications on you as a human, you as a lawyer and everything else. We're going to talk about that but I wanted to get you on here to talk about being a lawyer on some of the biggest stages, to talk about being indicted by the feds, talk about what you learned in those scenarios and then what you're doing now. I always start these, a little color commentary. I didn't prompt you on this, but it's a little top 10 list I like to go through and get some of your feelings and views on San Antonio. Okay?

Mikal: All right.

Justin Hill: Thank you for being here.

Mikal: Sure.

Justin Hill: I also want to throw in, the reason I live in San Antonio is Mikal Watts. I cold called him coming out of law school and said I want a job and he gave me a job and said which city? He had six offices and I said, "You pick." He picks San Antonio so you're the reason I live here.

Mikal: Well, with a haircut like mine where you're completely bald, I needed some lawyers without here and you had a pretty good resume but man, what a great lawyer.

Justin Hill: You have matching hair now though.

Mikal: Exactly.

Justin Hill: You used to have a little.

Mikal: All I can do is just grew up the beard now and be Justin.

Justin Hill: All right. How long have you lived in San Antonio?

Mikal: Moved here in 2006 so I'm going on 15 years, 14 years.

Justin Hill: All right. I moved here in '07 and you had just moved here, you and your wife and kids and set up shop. Right now, we're in sort of COVID-19 shutdown, so it's a funny question but at our house right now, we're doing our best to support local and help some of our small businesses and help some of our small restaurants. What restaurants are you reaching out to try to help?

Mikal: It's really not restaurants. It's an epic joke in my law firm that we go to Papa Nacho's in Leon Springs four times a week because I like the margaritas and so I'm just terrified that they're going to shut down. I have lunch there every day.

Justin Hill: Are they open?

Mikal: They are open for takeout and we go in there and I ordered the same Chicken Diablo and [unintelligible 00:03:03] and soda and Frank orders some Papa Nacho's salad and a [unintelligible 00:03:09].

Justin Hill: They have margaritas to go.

Mikal: They do.

Justin Hill: Well, thanks for not bringing a jug of them down here.

Mikal: I've got many political differences with Greg Abbott, but the most brilliant thing he's ever done is when he said, "We're going to shut down, but we're going to let restaurants do their deal and by the way, you can take alcohol home from them." I was like, "We're in."

Justin Hill: That's just a mess. There's so many laws they got to jump through and they're just everybody's ignoring it, which I appreciate. I ask everybody this question. I think it's a fun question. You've got people that come to town and they say, "I'm new to San Antonio, [unintelligible 00:03:41] the river walk in the Alamo." Then I always say there's the PhD tourist places. The, hey, you've done all that, you really got to go see these hidden gems in San Antonio. For me, it's the Japanese tea garden, the rest of the missions, the Botanical garden. Those are some of those things, "Okay. You've done all the other stuff. You go check these things out." What are your hidden gems that you tell people, “Go check these things out?"

Mikal: When we moved to San Antonio, there's nothing more fun than going to have a lunch coma at some of the famous touristy spots.

Justin Hill: Sure. Mi Tierra.

Mikal: Mi Tierra. Literally we would come down here and my wife we'd get a hotel room downtown and stay on the river walk. I think we were vacationing and literally, we'd go in and have lunch and a couple of too many margaritas and sleep the afternoon away. We nicknamed it the lunch coma. I love that. I like hanging out at the Pearl. I think it's pretty cool. Then I think some of the restaurants. Some of the museums that we've got I think The Witte is a cool place to hang around.

Justin Hill: Underrated.

Mikal: Yes. I like take kids there. That's fun. Then I spent a lot of time outside the dominion where I live and so a lot of stuff at 1604 [inaudible 00:04:53] stuff in the room and then when you out there, frankly as you go West, Hill Country gets really cool in a hurry.

Justin Hill: I heard the Hill Country was Kerrville and then somebody finally took me to Rock Springs and I thought, "Wow, this is just so different."

Mikal: It's pretty funny. A couple of years ago, I'm working on these California fire cases, and an entire town burned down in 2018 and so we set up an office there to go help these people out. There was no housing and there was nowhere for my staff to stay so I bought a travel trailer. We moved it out there and of course like a dumb ass, I paid $85,000 for this travel trailer thinking everybody would live there, but there was nowhere to hook it into. There was no sewage, no electricity so it was a waste but my son has taken it over and he's in college right now, but he's living in this travel trailer.

I said, "Brandon, where are you going to stay?" He goes to, "All the travel trailers are picked out." Nothing in San Antonio and not even in Boerne so he finds this place way on the other side of Boerne and I go visit him. Real nice place, a bunch of winter Texans up there but it happens to be in Welfare up on the hill, to which my joke to Brandon, this is great, I've got a son living on welfare. It's a cool spot out there.

Justin Hill: Welfare right next to comfort, which has been fun for me.

Mikal: You've Popos one of the most fattening excellent restaurants. That's one of the special spots in San Antonio as well.

Justin Hill: I've never been to Papa Nachos either. I don't know if I'll get there in [crosstalk].

Mikal: [unintelligible 00:06:19] in Papa Nachos, the chicken fried steak at Popos, you're living large.

Justin Hill: I asked you this when I was a baby lawyer and I remember your answer, I want to ask you now. Who's the best lawyer you ever saw in trial that made you think just, wow, you're good?

Mikal: Man. I got to tell you, lots of fabulous trial lawyers hit big verdicts like that, but I think the best lawyer I've ever seen is Rusty Hardin.

Justin Hill: That's a new answer.

Mikal: Yes. My daughter, when I was going through the criminal indictment that we're going to talk about, she had a friend named Eugenio Duran, who's a kid that has clerked for me here and great friend of the family and he was tight with the Clemens boys who both played baseball at the University of Texas. One of the Clemens boys, Casey reached out to Eugenio and said, "Hey I heard what's happening to your dad. I'm the only person in America that knows what you're about to go through." They became our dear friends and they watched out for my daughter and [unintelligible 00:07:16]. The Clemens boys, I would charge through a wall for them. I think they're wonderful.

In that sense, I got to know Rusty Hardin. I think the whole world thought that Roger Clemens was crazy testifying the way that he did and that maybe he was in trouble and then one great trial lawyer and one great cross-examination completely shredded that prosecution for the farce that it was.

Justin Hill: Sure.

Mikal: I think Rusty Hardin is as good as it gets.

Justin Hill: A good friend of mine, Derek Hollingsworth, did a lot of the work on that case too. I got some of the inside track, but yes, Rusty, you have not taken up his fancy suits though.

Mikal: No. I'm not really a fancy suits kind of guy, but I'm suing Princess Cruises line over this COVID-19 thing and I've got a bunch of cases and Rusty just signed up one of the death cases and he calls me out of the blue. Of course, I just remember the exhilaration of knowing that I'm going to get to work up a case with Rusty Hardin. That's the fun thing about what I do is working up cases with great lawyers. I don't consider that a measuring stick of who's better, who's this or that but getting to work with great warriors is a thrill, and Rusty is certainly one.

Justin Hill: I will say that about you, I'm not going to say, no ego, you've got an incredible success, but you are always very happy to work with other lawyers and learn from them and I've tried to implement that in my life.

Mikal: That's why they call it practicing law. All we do is plagiarize and rip off other people's techniques.

Justin Hill: Hopefully, we can let them do it for us if we got something on us.

Mikal: I'm 30 years in and I'm still learning.

Justin Hill: Even now when I reach out to your friend Mikal, everybody helps me with whatever I need.

Mikal: Of course, they better.

Justin Hill: I know too much about you as opposed to some of my guests but things I want to ask you, this is mine, I'm going to be selfish. How does faith guide your work as an attorney and a trial lawyer? You're very faithful man and we are an industry that is too often put in a pigeonhole of being greedy or just crappy people generally is how people try to portray us. How does faith guide you? How does it affect your motivations and what do you think are the most important things that help you get through day to day as a trial lawyer with your faith?

Mikal: When I got married, I really lacked faith, but I married a woman who is incredibly faithful and my wife runs a prayer ministry for folks that have been put through trauma, I'm going to put it politely, and she steered me that way. In 1995 at Promise Keepers Rally at the Texas Stadium in Dallas where the Cowboys play accepted Jesus Christ, my Lord, and savior. It's an important part of my life. I don't judge people and I don't impose my faith on other people, but I do believe in a certain ethos. You don't cheat on your wife, you don't cheat on your partners, you don't steal, you don't lie, try to be honest. Then the other thing I would say is to who much is given, much is expected. Both back in 2008, and again this quarter. We got a lot of people here in San Antonio that are hurting through no fault of their own. I will never forget after Lehman brothers fell off in 2008, just looking at the guys that were begging on the street corners. They looked like me and you Justin. They were guys with families and kids who lost their jobs through- in that case, a bunch of criminal activity from bankers, in this case, because of a virus. I think we all as citizens of San Antonio, our first and highest obligation is to our fellow citizens. I don't know whether you saw it, but a few weeks ago Express-News had that picture of thousands of cars [crosstalk] San Antonio food bank and I've never been more motivated by a picture in my life, and so I've tried to cause all the trial lawyers to step up and to help. There were people right here in our community through no fault of their own that are going to go hungry, they're going to run out of money, they're going to run out of food, and we got to help them. That's not necessarily faith led although it's certainly indicative of what the gospel teaches us. It's damn sure something we ought to be doing.

Justin Hill: Sure. The moral compass. Whether it's faith or inherent. It's all part of [unintelligible 00:11:41].

Mikal: There's a bunch of people particularly on the south side of this town, on the east side of this town that are going to get harder, get hit harder by this thing than I am. I think you're an absolute jackass if you can't look 10 miles away and see that people are hungry, and try to do something about it.

Justin Hill: I think everybody appreciated that you made a very large donation at the food bank. We've tried to help as we can, and we're helping with giving refurbished laptops to a GED program. It transcends all things not just food. People need to be educated, and people need to be able to have something when this ends which I'm very optimistic it's going to end. [unintelligible 00:12:20] people said it's not going to end. [crosstalk]

Mikal: Of course, it's going to end at some day, but I'm really worried that A, that we're reopening to soon and we're going to have a second phase. I'm a big history buff, and I believe that we study history to avoid the mistakes of the past. If you look at what happened in 1918 with what they call the Spanish flu, which by the way didn't originate from Spain.

Justin Hill: It started in Kansas. [chuckles]

Mikal: Yes, it did start in Kansas with the United States military. The bottom line is all the military powers of World War 1 had censorship rules, so you couldn't write about anything that would reflect poorly on the military. Spain was neutral in World War 1, so its doctors were the only ones writing about the flu that was ravaging everybody, so it was nicknamed the Spanish flu. The point that I was making is, is that in the spring of 1918, of course it was a bad flu. It didn't kill everybody, but it's highly infectious, and then it mutated. Everybody took it easy, it mutated, and then by the fall when flu season started. It killed 150,000 Americans in one month. I'm very concerned that in the name of reopening the economy for either presidential aspirations, or for just economic good intentions that we're going to create a second round of this in the fall that's going to be far more damaging.

Justin Hill: I think everybody's in agreement that there is going to be multiple rounds of this. It's just how well can we manage it.

Mikal: It doesn't have to be. We got to do the right thing. I'm a huge fan of the mayor, but I personally-- I don't lobby the mayor very often. I remember about six weeks before fiesta, he still hadn't called it, and he didn't want to call it. I called him up and I said, "Mayor, you cannot take this chance." I said, "If you create this huge pandemic of people dying of coronavirus because we wanted to watch a bunch of people in a parade?" All you got to do is look what happened New Orleans. I was in New Orleans. I was supposed to try a case in early March, and I was in New Orleans the week before Mardi Gras and it had one case in the entire state. Then some dumb ass made the decision to hold Mardi Gras, and now they're the third or fourth largest state, and it's all because of that event. These people that say God will protect us and everything's great. God gives us free will, and we can make smart decisions or stupid decisions. I encourage everybody here in San Antonio and elsewhere, let's be smart about this. Let's wear the masks, let's stay isolated to the extent we can, and learn about Zoom so that you're not psychological isolated. Talk to people over the computer, but do not put yourself in a position where you're spreading this virus because you're not only affecting yourself, you're affecting all your neighbors, and your friends, and your loved ones. My biggest problem is I have a 22-year-old son that thinks he's bulletproof same way you and I did. If he goes and gets infected and brings it back around my mother who's 73. That's not good.

Justin Hill: Knock on wood, San Antonio's kept a lid on it a little bit so far, and I hope that keeps up. I had an epidemiologist on air, and she talked about the warm and cold, and does that affect. She said, "It might just be because more people are indoors when it's cold." There are a lot of unknowns as to how this is going to work. Another unknown is you're a huge Spurs fan. This is how it goes. It's up and [unintelligible 00:15:38] Mikal. You're a huge Spurs fan. If the season is called, should this count as a year of the Spurs missing the playoffs?

Mikal: I love that. I'm the world's biggest Spurs fan. I've had front-row sits forever. This is going to be the year that we're going to miss the playoffs, and now there's no playoffs. The streak is alive.

Justin Hill: Does it count?

Mikal: No, it doesn't count. The Spurs are the best run organization in the world. As far as I'm concerned, it counts about as much as Phil Jackson's asterisk next to the 1999 championship. Nobody's going to care. There were no playoffs, so we didn't miss it. Streak alive.

Justin Hill: I've known you for the whole time I've lived here and been a really working lawyer and I don't know the answer to this. Is there anything outside of the law that you have a weird passion about? Right now, I've got a big passion about doing this podcast. Are you a woodworker? I think you're a reader. What are your big passions outside of the law?

Mikal: I'm a big sports fan. I do love that. I love to go fishing out of my fishing cabin which is [unintelligible 00:16:38] but I'm not really good at getting down there. My son's down there right now. He's probably socially distancing by himself and slaying the red fish. I wish I was down providing [crosstalk]

Justin Hill: He's down there solo?

Mikal: He's down there with a buddy. I figure it's the safest place he could be, away from everybody else and he wants to go catch a bunch of fish [crosstalk]

Justin Hill: In the middle of nowhere.

Mikal: Let's go.

Justin Hill: Here's an important one. Which Baylor lawyer do you prefer more, Me or Hunter? [laughs]

Mikal: So many good choices. The truth of the matter is, and I've told you this I like hiring lawyers out of Baylor because they have a really good [unintelligible 00:17:16] program. They teach much more practically. Teach lawyers how to be lawyers. My daughter's at the University of Texas. I love my time there, but it's more theoretical. They may have kids-- It's the hardest law school in the state to get to, but it's much more theoretical. It's how to be a law professor instead of how to be lawyer. I had no problem hiring lawyers out of Baylor. Frankly, as between you and Hunter. I'm two for two in terms of really good lawyers who know how to talk, know how to be a decent people, know how to be a [unintelligible 00:17:53].

Justin Hill: Hunter listens to this so I had to throw a jab at him in this.

Mikal: Hunter's my man. My partner, my friend, and I miss him. Hunter, if you're listening. Come have a cold beer with me.

Justin Hill: He did throw a France Independence Day party last year that I went to. I don't know why or what connection that is, but he said, "I'm throwing up a skill day party." So, I went. It was fun. It was great. [crosstalk]

Mikal: All I could say is Hunter's snappy dress, it didn't come from Mikal Watts. That is a pretty boy from the standpoint of good dressing, and fabulous shoes, and crazy socks. I don't know where he got that. Not from me.

Justin Hill: Do you do any fiesta stuff?

Mikal: It's funny. We were going to hold a big fiesta party this year. We had it planned, and we were inviting a hundred lawyers, something like that.

Justin Hill: That's weird. Mine, must have got lost in the mail.

Mikal: No. I don't think the invites ever went out because they were about to and I told Frank, "Are you crazy?" Of course, I was talking to the mayor already about cancelling the whole thing, and he wasn't taking it seriously. Frank and I had a completely different initial reaction to it, and I think it's because I've spent so much time out in San Francisco. Literally, in early March, I was out there working on the [unintelligible 00:19:06], and I took a BART train, Bay Area Rapid Transit and it was empty. That city is constantly flooded, and it was like deserted. I went back and I said, "Frank, I know you don't believe me, but this is going to get bad. This state's about to shut down." He goes, "No way." They're talking about this invite to the fiesta party sponsored by [unintelligible 00:19:28]. I said, "It's never going to happen, watch" Of course, it did.

Justin Hill: In November though.

Mikal: What's in November?

Justin Hill: [unintelligible 00:19:36]

Mikal: Yes. I think there's a shot that we'll open in November.

Justin Hill: You're going to going to get a Justin Hill podcast fiesta medal, the [unintelligible 00:19:44] fiesta medal as a parting gift.

Mikal: I love it.

Justin Hill: We're going to get into [unintelligible 00:19:j48]. What do you love most about women in San Antonio?

Mikal: To me, it's the best small big town in America. What I mean by that is, is that when I was in Corpus Christi, it was politically divided and people-- and there were a lot of [unintelligible 00:20:02] about if it wasn't my deal, I didn't want anybody else to have it. From the very minute, I moved to San Antonio in August of 2006, whenever there was a new commercial success that came to the town, some deal, what I learned is nobody cared whose deal it was. It was better for the city. There's this collegiality, there's just this street a core to this town that is very unique.

I've always said the other thing about San Antonio is, it lives its life inside the hash marks. When I got here, about half the judges were Democrat, half the judge Republican. The Democrats weren't crazy far left. The Republicans weren't crazy far right. It wasn't about political ideology. It was about what was good for the city and I like that a ton. I like the fact that it's a can-do city. It's the only city that I know in America that consistently votes for bomb campaigns to use the collective purchasing power of the city to do good work, to do things like extending the Riverwalk [crosstalk] all this stuff. Roads, what a constant-- What a crazy idea that we would have good roads.

I go back to my hometown of Corpus and the roads are just like something out of a 1950s rural area and that's nuts. You got to continue to invest in your infrastructure. I think that's the best thing about San Antonio. My impression is the developers got ahead of the investment in terms of the infrastructure and all that 2811604 staff was just a mess. I think we're catching up. It's a great city. I'm proud to be a member of it.

Justin Hill: Well, I'm glad you're here and I'm glad you get to talk about it.

Mikal: I'd like to say, I'm not from here, but I got here as soon as I could.

Justin Hill: Well, same for me and I ain't going to leave.

Mikal: No way.

Justin Hill: I told you beforehand, I want to talk to you about multiple things. Well, I know you've been in one podcast, how many podcasts have you done?

Mikal: This is my second or third.

Justin Hill: Well, the one I listened to is real lawyer based. I want to talk about that, but I want to talk about that in terms of people. You're one the people that lives in San Antonio, I want to expose San Antonio to some of our more unique citizens. I want to talk to you about some things. I called [unintelligible 00:22:09] coming out of law school because when I was doing my research, I could go work at a silk stocking, a big building law firm that had no identity, or I could go work for the guy who was taking on car manufacturers.

I had a very personal relationship with that issue, and I thought, "Hell, I'm just going to call him and see what happens." You had spent a lot of your early career taking on car manufacturers for what are called crashworthiness claims. Those are the cars are going to get in wrecks. You know they're going to get in wrecks, so make them safe as possible to handle those wrecks. You had done Ford Chrysler Liftgate by the time I worked for you as a variant of Ford Firestone.

I want to talk to you, you've just done so many important pieces of litigation in American history, especially in the last 30 years. Let's talk about some of the cases that have been the most important to you personally, and I mean, personally. When I work for you, I got to work on that bus case. It was so important to me personally from learning my clients, learning the law, gaining confidence, there were just so many parts of that case that were so important to me becoming the lawyer that I am today. Talk to me about some of the cases that were really important to you personally.

Mikal: The cool thing about the law is you can take the poorest among us and take on the richest among us at a courtroom and you're equal. All you need is a lawyer that will fight for you. With respect to the car stuff, I was fortunate enough to go work for a guy named David Perry, who made his fame in the Pinto post-collegiate fuel fed fire litigation. That's really all I did the first five years is represent people whose family members were burned alive in rear-end collisions. It was just outrageous because the carmakers put the fuel tank behind the rear axle and you'd have a rear-end collision and go up in flames it was stupid.

We got that fixed, all the fuel tanks were put in safe locations, and then we did side impact. All the doors now have bars that go along to provide a little bit more rigidity. We did a frontal impact, and we did roof crush. We went all around the car. Now, most cars have six, seven, eight airbags in them. It's really hard to die in a car wreck unless you're completely drunk or unbelted. I'm proud of that. We put ourselves out of business. Cars are more expensive, and I get that criticism, but the bottom line is they're safe. By and large, I got out of the car, automotive products stuff, with some exceptions about 10 years ago.

I remember in about 2008, I turned to my partners, I said, we need to get a new gig because the cars-- we've complained about everything we could possibly complain about, our lawsuits have caused those to be put in the car and they're safe, and I'm real proud of that. You could go through your car, any car, and I could show you 15 safety features that weren't there when I started that are there now because of lawsuits by me and other good lawyers across the United States. That forced the car companies to make it safe so that when we have a crash. It's not a death sentence.

Justin Hill: Even I do that, and I know 5% of what you know, and I look at a car and think of all those things. Outside of the crashworthiness. Talk to me about just some of the individual pieces of litigation. I'm going to be selfish about it a little bit, maybe not some of the mass actions, but some of the individual cases where you represented, because if you've read king of torts, there's the guy who's the one-off guy, there's the guy who's the mass guy, you've been both. You were the guy who represented individuals, and now you do a lot of mass work as well. Talk to me about some of the individual cases that really affected you as a person and made you a different lawyer.

Mikal: Sure. When I was a young lawyer, I represented a kid named Reuben Contreras, who was from Beeville, Texas, and he came into Corpus Christi where I was from and played Calallen high school JV game and in the fourth quarter [unintelligible 00:25:53] neck, broke his neck in a football tackle. What we learned is he had a crazy heavy helmet called the BIKE AiR Power Football Helmet and it was a complete marketing gimmick that we would blow up and create these cushions and would protect you from head injuries. I wore one in high school probably two, it was a complete marketing scam. It didn't prevent head injuries, but it added a ton of weight.

Generally, you've had underdeveloped kids, that in the fourth quarter, would get tired and they would lower their neck through no fault of their own, and put the head and the neck and the body into alignment, it looked like a spear and they'd break their neck. My favorite case ever is I got that kid Reuben contributes a ton of money but about six weeks later, I got a call from a lawyer in Austin. Two years minus that day before some kid in Lubbock named Jerome Moore had broken his neck and they said, "Hey, this has been through seven law firms. Will you take a look at this?" I said, "Sure. When did it happen?" I realized I had 12 hours to file a lawsuit. Unfortunately, I had the template but I don't usually file lawsuits without thoroughly investigating it but I said, "You know what, there's a quadriplegic I haven't met yet in Lubbock, Texas, who's counting on me."

I filed this lawsuit sight unseen and then I flew to Lubbock and met with him. He was dying. He was literally in the project, section eight housing, no medical care because it was running out and he was a quadriplegic who was going to die very quickly. We stabilized him. We worked on the case for two years, we got him a result of many millions of dollars. The most satisfying thing that I've ever had is he's the world's biggest Cowboys fan as am I. I bought him a big-screen TV, which is as good as you can do. He is now a mid-40 guy who's a quadriplegic that goes into the trauma centers and counsels other quadriplegics. I know that but for his lawyer, he would have been dead at the age of 16. Now, he is counseling a whole bunch of people and keeping them from dying from what is the most serious injury that I can imagine in quadriplegia. That's my favorite case ever.

Justin Hill: Life expectancy for people that have quadriplegia if you don't have the best medical care is not good.

Mikal: Yes, but that's the difference. My second favorite case is a lady that I was hired in 2000. It was the start of the Ford Firestone. Firestone tires had a bunch of bad tires that, frankly, were ordered by Ford to take out a bunch of structures to lower the center of gravity of Ford explorers. What she had was a crappy tire that came apart in the heat. Then you had an explorer that was too top-heavy that rolled over very easily.

Donna Bailey, who was from my hometown of Corpus Christi, there was a tire de-thread, the Ford Explorer rolled over, the roof crushed in on her, she was a ventilator-dependent quadriplegic. I shouldn't say it was because she's still alive. We settled her case in 2001 for a confidential amount, but the bottom line is an extraordinary amount of money. I say that not to brag but we got her enough money to take care of for the rest of her life 24 hours a day. She has round the clock nursing care and she's still alive.

Justin Hill: I want to share a story you told me about her. You ran into her at a restaurant years later and she was enjoying her life having margaritas,

Mikal: She's awesome. She is the most positive attitude person. She literally for 20 years has lived out of a ventilator, but she's still alive because she has a zest for life. She has care and she deserves everything she does. She's taken her care providers on vacations to Cozumel. She goes out.

Justin Hill: Good for her.

Mikal: Yes, she has a social life. She's the strongest person I've ever met.

Justin Hill: For so many people that have less hardship who have a hard time getting up. It's good to see people like that who've got the hardest of the hardships who are getting out.

Mikal: For 20 years. She hadn't breathed by herself, but she's living more life than most of us do because she's got a heart of gold.

Justin Hill: Good for her.

Mikal: I'm proud to keep her alive.

Justin Hill: Yes, that's one thing that I think people don't understand that when people get good lawyers and get good representation, it changes their lives a lot of times and yes, we make money but the important part is Donna Bailey is out having margaritas even though she's a ventilated quad and not in a nursing home.

Mikal: Or dead.

Justin Hill: Yes, or dead. As it relates to those cases because I want to talk to you about personally because I know some of the cases you've done and how they've literally changed the way we live our day to day lives. We talked about Donna Bailey, we talked about Jerome Moore. How did they change you as a lawyer? How did they change the way you approach the practice of law?

Mikal: Well, what you realize is practicing law is not just about money. You as a trial lawyer you can be the difference between life and death, you can be the difference between it happening again and it never happening again. I do a lot of pharmaceutical defect cases where drugs that are rushed to the market harm people. One of my favorite clients is a lady by the name of Margarita Sanchez. She's since passed away, but her liver was destroyed by a bad drug called Resolent. I tried her case in 2002 or 2003. We got to the extraordinary result and again, enough money to take care of her, but the drug was pulled, which is great.

What my favorite thing is and now that I'm an old folk, I tend to get into cases where you can make a difference, not only to the plaintiff, but to everybody else. For example, back in the Firestone cases, a lady by the name of Vickie Hendricks, her 18-year-old boy died in one of these rollovers. We're at a mediation and of course, I'm not known for demanding an insufficient amount of money. I'm pretty bold, but this lady looked at me, she goes, "I'm never settling this case. I don't care how much money until they recall this tire." I looked at her, I said, "Ma'am, look, this is a civil justice system. The most I can get you is the money. They're never going to recall this tire." She goes, "Well, I'm not settling the case." We blew up the mediation and by the time we got done, there were $17 million tires recalled because of Vicky Hendricks, which is awesome.

Justin Hill: Good for her.

Mikal: Then in terms of everyday people I think it's important for lawyers to have a pro bono case, a case you're doing for free at all times. One of my favorite clients ever is a lady by the name of Kelly Knight. Lot of you guys know Tom Henry. He had rejected her case, not being critical of him about three days before her statute of limitations ran. She wheeled herself into my office crying on the day of her statute of limitations, which was two years after the date when she was rendered a paraplegic.

When I heard her story her boyfriend was one of these guys that beats up people. Got mad at her and threw her off of the second-floor balcony, which fractured her spine, rendering her a lifetime paraplegic. I took her case pro bono; said I wouldn't charge her. We tried the case against this bastard that threw her over and she won a $144 million judgment.

Justin Hill: When was this?

Mikal: 2002 or three? She never recovered a dollar. The guy's been sitting in prison for a while and he's got a judgment we're still chasing. She'll never get a dollar but having three of her peers tell her that this man needed to be punished because he had a good lawyer that got him out of a lot of criminal stuff was the most rewarding client day of my life. She was so thankful. Still a friend of hers on Facebook, but I'm thinking about those ladies and there was no bigger bill Cosby fan than Mikal Watts. I think he's the funniest guy I've ever seen. The story about telling these kids that in his day, he walked to school six miles uphill both ways.

He was so talented, but he was also a serial rapist that used drugs to incapacitate women. He deserved what he got in the same way that Harvey Weinstein deserve what he got. I can't look myself in the eye as somebody who has a wife that had an experience that was difficult, a daughter who I'm trying to raise as a strong woman. I think the law in defense of women's rights is important. Then the other area that obviously is very personal to me now is the rights of criminals or suspected criminals in our criminal justice system. I try to keep one of those cases. Go on pro bono. Let me just tell you a story. Back in about 2006, I got a call-

Justin Hill: Focus right here.

Mikal: -from a federal judge.

Justin Hill: You can pull it down.

Mikal: It was Jenn Jack in Corpus Christi, Texas and she said, "Hey, I'm appointing you to represent so-and-so." I was like, "Ugh." We've all gotten that call where a judge says, "You're going to do it." You can't say no. I was upset about that but anyway, the case turned out it was a guy who was serving life in prison. His name was Ciro Domus. He was convicted of in effect, rape, although he didn't do it. He was in the car as an accessory to rape when somebody was burglarizing a house and whoever his high school buddy was, raped this lady. They were both convicted of rape and this guy that was sitting in the car outside was, was sentenced to life in prison.

While he was in the Beeville Penitentiary, he apparently turned in some guy that was bringing drugs into the prison. Turned out the guy was bringing drugs into the prison at the behest of the warden. He followed what's called a 1983 case, a civil rights case, because he got stabbed 17 times for being a snitch. The federal judge, Jenn Jack got so pissed off with the attorney general of the State of Texas for the way they were acting, she said, "I'm going to hire the best lawyer I know to defend this guy." She calls me up. We ended up; we try his case. It took me three days. We got an actual damages verdict, punitive damage verdict for a guy serving life in prison, a warden.

Justin Hill: When was this?

Mikal: It was probably 2006. The fifth circuit takes it away, turned into a complete waste of time, I thought. Then after my criminal law experience, I get a call and it's from Ciro Domus. I'm like, "Well, how can he be out? He's serving life in prison." He served 25 years and was let out on parole. Bottom line is that I went to meet Ciro in Houston and they were trying to register him as a sex offender even though he was sitting in the car outside. I took on his case pro bono, took me five hearings. We won against the Bureau of Prisons or the bureau of whatever. He's not registered as a sex offender because he never was. The guy got married, he told me during the last three and he goes, "You know why I know so much about the law?" I said, "No." He goes, "Because those three days you spent with me in 2006," he goes, "I was a little [unintelligible 00:36:51]. All I did was care about the gang life." He said, "I got rid of that. I went to high school while I was in prison. I went to college while I was in prison and I got a paralegal license."

Justin Hill: Good for him.

Mikal: Ciro Domus married somebody who stood by him and now lives in San Antonio, Texas, and a paralegal in this town and as good a guy as anybody you've ever met but he had a lawyer that stuck up for him. Now he's a contributing member of this town who nobody should be worried about. He got completely shafted by a bad lawyer when he was 17 years old, sitting out in a car. My point is our criminal justice is full of people like that. I don't care whether you're 17-year-old pump named Ciro Domus or you're a state Senator named Carlos Uresti, who some guy decided he's going to take a scalp. I have as you know, sincere doubts that my friend Carlos Uresti who's serving 12 years in a federal penitentiary deserves to spend a day there. What everybody needs is a lawyer. I agreed to be his lawyer for free and was disqualified, which breaks my heart, but two good men that should've never been put through the criminal justice system.

Justin Hill: Well, I think that's important to talk about cause if somebody Googles Michael Watts, some of the articles that pop up are going to be you're a representation of senator Carlos Uresti. Also, to give some color to this, you didn't just represent Carlos, you go visit him in prison. Now you stay in touch with him. He's a friend of yours. You did your best and the judge disqualified you. Why did you agree to take on Carlos's case?

Mikal: After my case and we haven't said it yet, but I got indicted for 95 counts of conspiracy, identity theft, aggravated identity theft, mail fraud, wire fraud involving the BP litigation. Didn't do it, was very confusing, very discombobulating, very upsetting that you're tried in the court of public opinion. You're convicted in the court of public opinion before you ever have your day in court. Everybody just thinks you're screwed because otherwise, why would they come after you?

In 2013, my offices were raided right here in San Antonio and I became a pariah for two and a half, three years. Then when we didn't think anything was going to happen because we didn't do it. US Senator from Wisconsin, Ron Johnson, the head of the Homeland Security's committee, thought it was part of his charge to tell the attorney general of the United States, "Hey, Mikal Watts is a big contributor to Democrats, had Obama at his house, is a ready for Hillary guy, gives a lot of money. That's why you're not indicting him. You shouldn't indict him." This was right after Loretta Lynch was on the airplane with Bill Clinton, so she recused herself.

Some local United States attorney from Mississippi trying to make a name for himself, says," I'm going to induct this big trial lawyer. I'm going to take him down." All of a sudden, I'm indicted. You are tried and convicted in the court of public opinion, and when you finally get your day in court, it was nonsense. We didn't do it. Represented myself against the might and the weight to the United States government and it was a debacle for them. It wasn't even a fair fight, I know I'm supposed to about how I beat Clarence Deroid-

Justin Hill: [laughs]

Mikal: -himself but it was a joke.

Justin Hill: Let's go back a second if you don't mind. Look, I worked for you and I think I left in October I think the raids happened in February. We heard bits and pieces. I do agree with you, it becomes this weird public opinion thing where you get this weird mix mash of people who want you to win, and he's the best and then people are like, "Yes, he's terrible." It really was strange just because I knew you personally to hear the hubbub. Look man, what was the personal experience of being indicted by the feds?

Mikal: It was devastating. Number one, you realize that you have a lot fewer friends, true friends, than you thought you had-

Justin Hill: Sure.

Mikal: -but you have a lot better friends than you thought you had. In other words, while you think you're friends with 500 people you're really friends with five or six. Those five or six rise up and those are the guys that you're going to run through a wall with. We did that and then one of the great things that I'm proud of is that I had 130 people that worked for me at the time, not one of them left. Our friend hunter left the farm but in a completely amicable fashion-

Justin Hill: Sure.

Mikal: We're very good friends to this day and I'm really proud of that.

Justin Hill: It was leave and separate apart.

Mikal: Yes [unintelligible 00:41:24] a great lawyer, going to do his own thing, but the point is that people stood by me, and that was rewarding. Then when you finally get your day in court, I thought it was going to be just complete and total nationally covered exoneration. 35 members of the press are there for an opening statement and they all go home. It's just bizarre so what really happens is people think, oh, that rich guy got off, but they don't understand that the charges themselves were nonsense. It's one of the reasons that I did something crazy during that trial.

I hired a film crew We shot 700 hours of video every night in the car to and from courthouses, interviewed ourselves because I want to do a video documentary on Netflix to show people what it's like for an American citizen to be falsely indicted by its government and to tell the story because if you don't tell the story, it will happen again and again. We're writing books, we're doing a movie, and we're going to tell the story, and we're going to advocate for criminal justice reform because what they did was outrageous.

Justin Hill: Just to provide some background, this is the 10th anniversary of the BP explosion. I'll post the Atlantic article. You don't have any problem with me posting [unintelligible 00:42:38]. It gives a background of what happened and what the next thing was. BP explosion happened, you represented a bunch of fishermen and then it turned out that the people that were helping you sign up cases were not doing that, but they were taking your money. Indicted for representing people that turned out to not be real clients.

Mikal: Some of them were but the bottom line is I got stolen from and the guys of stole from me made-up social security numbers and the like, stole social security numbers. Everybody just assumed that I was involved, which I wasn't

Justin Hill: Yes, the Atlantic article did a really good job of lining out how much money they took from you. The guys that ended up going to prison enriched themselves personally from your pocket to the tune of a couple million bucks.

Mikal: More like 10. Yes.

Justin Hill: [laughs]

Mikal: It was fun, you get to get robbed of $10 million and you get indicted by your government for being stolen from.

Justin Hill: Yes, so the raids happen then a big break-in time, then the indictment happens. Once you got indicted, what was sort of the-- Because I know it was all hands-on deck. How did you proceed to take on the feds? Because early on you were represented so before that, what was your strategy and how did you plan to go about it? Obviously you didn't do it, you were acquitted, but the full force and might of the federal government coming after you is a pretty heavy thing and you've got to really batten down and figure out how you want to go about it.

Mikal: The entire United States Secret Service-- I always thought they just defended the president, but they also do financial crimes and they are sorry. They interviewed over 1600 people, they spent over 10-

Justin Hill: Wait they investigated 1600 people on your case?

Mikal: Yes. They spent over $10 million trying to get Mikal Watts. The bottom line is it takes one opportunistic federal prosecutor in this case, the guy's name was John Dowdy. His family came from political this and that, he's in Mississippi, I'm sure he wanted to be governor. He's got a safe target, a trial lawyer from out of state. President Obama had been at my house for a fundraiser in the summer of 2012 and those guys were just fixated on the idea that I was an Obama guy. What they did is they raided my offices, they lied to witnesses, they told people I had stolen their money when I didn't have any money, the settlement hadn't even happened yet.

They played all sorts of games. In the Federal rules of procedure, they got to tell you what their trial exhibits are going to be. Instead of telling me what they're going to be, they dump 42 boxes and four million pages of documents and say go find them. Fortunately, I had the resources to do it I had 18 people working around the clock. They say, "Oh, yes, we're going to use them all." Then over a five-week trial over 152, exhibits used but I had to spend nine months, millions of dollars reading through a bunch of junk. Then they withheld a bunch of stuff. There's a doctrine in the law known as Brady, where they have to provide you with exculpatory information.

They withheld all that. They played all sorts of games that were just outrageous. It's hard to imagine that here in the United States that happens, but I am convinced that while the prisons have plenty of people that are guilty, they're also full of people that either got screwed by the government or just didn't have the resources to fight a considerable might of the government.

Justin Hill: Yes, I don't think people realize how much latitude a federal prosecutor is given to do what they want to do. If they decided they want to go after somebody they get an investigatory arm, they get a budget, and they get to do it.

Mikal: Yes, and then most of them have judges that completely just look the other way. Some judges get after them but my judge, we complained. It was like, we weren't even there. He was a former prosecutor, but to be fair, once that trial started, he gave me a fair trial. I thank the Lord every day for Louis Gurrolla because, for five and a half weeks, he treated me with dignity during that trial. I wrote him a letter afterwards to tell him that.

Justin Hill: Did he respond?

Mikal: No, but I did hear that-

Justin Hill: He got it.

Mikal: He got it, he was pleased to get it. He's a he's an honorable guy.

Justin Hill: Let's talk about some of the games they played. they had to give you their trial exhibits 30 days before a trial is that correct?

Mikal: They were supposed to, but they said basically it's four million pages of documents, [inaudible 00:46:53] 152 documents in the evidence was ridiculous.

Justin Hill: There's no recourse for that, that's the crazy thing. They also indicted your brother, they indicted some people from your law firm, and they moved venue on you.

Mikal: Yes, so what they try to do is they try to indict everybody in your family so you'll fold. One of the hardest conversations I've ever had was telling my big brother who did nothing wrong, who was indicted solely for the offense of being Mikal Watts' brother that I'm not going to fold and I'm sorry that you're having to go through this, but you're going to have to ride the rail with me. That sucked because he didn't do anything wrong. One of my paralegals who did nothing more than send a file, a computer file that I told her to send to a law firm in Chicago was indicted.

They were just trying to put pressure on people to roll over and help them prove a false case against Mikal Watts. To their great credit all of my employee's, former employees, really stood tall and told the truth,

Justin Hill: I don't really know what I'm allowed to ask and not ask? There's a lot of hubbub. Did they ever try to cut a deal with you or try to get [crosstalk]

Mikal: That's why I give my wife a lot of credit. My wife is a black and white, right or wrong person. I never even meant to ask. With 95 counts and aggravated identity theft, that is a mandatory two-year concurrent sentence, if they ran the table on me, I was jail for the rest of my life. That's the other problem. People hear about a 98% conviction rate once because a whole bunch of people fold because they're out of money, their money is seized, they got co-employees rolling on them left and right, because they're fearful. My wife said we're not pleading anything.

You didn't do it. I know you didn't do it and so you're literally riding the rail knowing that if you're wrong, you go to jail for the rest of your life. I had great faith. I've been in front of so many juries, juries they get it right. There is no better BS detector ever invented in 24 eyes if your fellow citizens looking at evidence. In this case, you asked about games that they were playing. The bottom line is I was indicted by a grand jury in Jackson, Mississippi, which is a heavily democratic area, which is where the prosecutors got too cute. They knew I was a big, ready for Hillary Obama giver her a big democratic giver.

I think they made the judgment, we got to get it the hell out of Jackson, so they indicted me and placed it in front of a federal judge in Gulfport, which is the most republican county in the state of Mississippi.

Justin Hill: When I worked for you I had a case in Gulfport.

Mikal: Yes, Gulfport's great to have a case, but the bottom line is they were playing games, and it's one of the great testaments of the American jury system that I had a jury of 11 of 12. consistent Republican primary voters. All you had to do was Google Mikal Watts to see l was on the other side. These people sat there for four and a half weeks, looked at all the evidence, did the right thing, rendered their verdict, convicted the people that did it, and then a lot of them are going to be in the documentary. Four or five of them are Facebook friends. [crosstalk] those guys-- they're the best people ever. Joey McQueen, a bunch of folks they're just my dearest friends now. They were my liberators, but we have no shared political ideology. We all know-- they're big Trumpists and I tease them about it, but I love them, and I'll be at their funerals. I just think it's the greatest thing in the world about America regardless of what your political ideology is. My experience has been when you bring jurors in and you present facts to them, to a tee they rise to the occasion they try to do the right thing.

Justin Hill: I work for you so everybody in the legal world would ask me questions about your case like I knew anything about it. I didn't know anything about it, but I did know that if you pled to a felony even one felony you probably lose your law license.

Mikal: Absolutely.

Justin Hill: Did they offer anything? Did they ever get down to-

Mikal: I made it clear when I showed up, I looked the guy right in the eye, I said, "Don't even talk to me about plea bargains because I'm not pleading this shit." That's what I told him at his face. I said, "By the way, you're going to be embarrassed about these charges."

Justin Hill: I tell people, if you're not a lawyer you don't really understand. Representing yourself is the dumbest thing you can do in our industry. We joke.

Mikal: So says Abraham Lincoln.

Justin Hill: Yes, right. You have a fool for a client. You not only represented yourself, you were fully exonerated on by the time it went to trial, it was 60 felonies?

Mikal: 66 and so as my brother and so was Wynter Lee, my paralegal so 198 not guiltys in a row.

Justin Hill: You were a fully established as a legend in our profession prior to this and I just joke like that's a different echelon. Representing yourself against the feds on 66 felonies and walking it. You have to be a lawyer and be in the legal industry to understand the import of what that is. When you decided to represent yourself, everybody obviously told you you're an idiot to do that.

Mikal: They did. Look, to be honest, you could strike it up to some slick trial lawyer that talks his way out of a jam, but it really helped that we didn't do it. All the good lawyer in the world-- I tell people, great civil trial lawyers do not turn defeats into victories, they turn victories into big victories. In this case, I didn't win because I was the best lawyer in the courtroom, I won because we didn't do, and we proved it.

Justin Hill: I think it was important. You've made that reference multiple times and things I've heard you say in interviews, that representing yourself allowed you to talk directly to a jury.

Mikal: That's why I did it. It wasn't an ego play, it was a thought that if they saw me arguing my face every day, it would humanize me over the course of four and a half weeks. It turned out to be a good move. I wouldn't recommend it for a whole lot of people not because they're not Mikal Watts, it's just in that particular case, the theory was I committed fraud to get on a committee that I wouldn't otherwise be on. The prosecutors just didn't do their work. The bottom line is, is that that we showed that I've been on a bunch of those committees. We showed that I've run a bunch of those committees. The fact that that the jury saw that I was a real lawyer, that helped too.

Justin Hill: John Dowdy who indicts you, he decides to split right before you go to trial, right?

Mikal: Yes. He quit. I think what happened is, is that it's so typical for these guys to roll over everybody, indict the brother, indict the paralegal, get everybody all scared to death. They all plead because they can't afford to do it. I had to bankroll a lot of defenses, which [unintelligible 00:53:41] so that's unusual.

Justin Hill: Mike McCrum, a local lawyer?

Mikal: Oh my god. Michael McCrum was -- People said, "Watts' represented himself, that's bullshit." Mike McCrum told me everything. He was the boss. When I tried to do something, he just whacked me on the knuckles like one of those.

Justin Hill: Well, I don't say it's bullshit, but when people's like, "He represented--" He's also got Mike McCrum as one of the best in-

Mikal: Mike McCrum was my best choice. Bottom line he's one of the great criminal trial lawyers in Texas. The best thing that ever happened is I had a couple of friends who recommended him and he was in trial three days after my offices were raided then I went down and watched him in trial and he just eviscerated somebody on cross-examination. I was like, "That's my guy." Now he's my very good friend. If anybody got in a jam, I'd, tell, "Hire Mike McCrum."

Justin Hill: If he can afford it. [laughs]

Mikal: Well, he ain't cheap but he's worth it.

Justin Hill: Now you've taken up the mantle of criminal justice reform. A minute. Okay. You've taken up the mantle of criminal justice reform. What are some of the things you're doing to try to help the criminal justice system?

Mikal: Well, there's three things. The plan was that Hillary Clinton was going to win and then we do a bunch of criminal justice reform in 2017. Well, obviously Trump won. His son-in-law, Jared Kushner, his father was rightfully or wrongfully convicted, spent time in federal prison so there has been some good stuff. Trump passed what's called the First Step Act, which reduces some of these crazy sentences so that was good. By and large, we're writing a book, we're doing a film documentary, a presidential election that will be over. I'm working really hard to elect Joe Biden.

Justin Hill: When are the book and the movie coming up.

Mikal: The book's ready, the movie's not. We're working through it but the bottom line is, is you're not going to get a lot of what I call criminal procedural reform unless and until Joe Biden's elected president, which I think is about to happen.

Justin Hill: I think so too. Mikal, you've got a call to get on. Thank you for being here. Whenever the book or documentary comes out, will you come back on?'

Mikal: Absolutely.

Justin Hill: You going to have more [unintelligible 00:55:51]

Mikal: That sounds good.

Justin Hill: That about does it for this episode of the Alamo Hour. A huge thanks to Mikal Watts for coming here. Here's got a million things going on, the fires, the jewel cases, the COVID, princess, cruise line cases, all the major torts Watts is involved. His website's On our next episode, we're going to be talking with another local lawyer who's taken up the mantle of representing the underrepresented non-English speaking Spanish workers in town and around South Texas. It's going to be an interesting discussion to talk about a young immigrant who came up as a plaintiff's lawyer and now he's taken on the mantle of representing other immigrants. Our guest wish list continues. Mikal, if you can get coach Pop to come on here [unintelligible 00:56:39]

Mikal: [laughs] [unintelligible 00:56:40]

Justin Hill: [laughs] Guest wish list continues coach Pop, Robert Rivard coming on already. He's already agreed to that. Jackie Earle Haley, we'd love to get you on and Ron Nirenberg. I've reached out to you.

Mikal: My hero.

Justin Hill: He's doing a great job.

Mikal: Robert Rivard wrote about my trial.

Justin Hill: Yes, he was doing [unintelligible 00:56:57] right? Well, Robert's coming on early May. He's already agreed to do that. He was original wish list and maybe I'll ask him about it.

Mikal: There you go.

Justin Hill: That does it for this episode. Thank you, Mikal. This will be posted soon, and we'll see you next time.

Mikal: All right buddy. Thanks for having me on. Bye-bye.

[00:57:40] [END OF AUDIO]