My Finest Hour As A Lawyer
By: Donald V. Watkins
Copyrighted and Published on April 3, 2022
An Editorial Opinion
I enjoyed a wonderful career as a lawyer before entering the federal prison system as an inmate on August 28, 2019. I thought my legal career was over when I became an inmate, but soon discovered that this would not be the case. Instead, my "finest hour" as a lawyer began on that paradigm-shifting day.
Because none of my free-world clients in criminal cases were convicted of the crimes for which they were charged, I did not have a working knowledge of how rigged the modern-day federal criminal justice system is until two events occurred: (a) President Donald J. Trump declared that the system was "rigged," and (b) I was "railroaded" in my own criminal case.
Over the past four decades, federal judges, whom the Founding Fathers thought would be impartial referees who would safeguard individual rights in federal court proceedings, have morphed into teammates for federal prosecutors. Whether they are motivated by fear, or personal ambition for higher judgeships, or political ideology, most federal judges do exactly what they are told to do by federal prosecutors. They willingly give prosecutors breaks in court that they would never give to defense counsel.
Of course, the federal judges are paid from the same source that pays federal prosecutors -- the U.S. Treasury. When a criminal defendant has a court-appointed lawyer, all three parties in the criminal proceedings are paid from federal funds. This payment arrangement does not bode well for promoting fairness and justice in federal courtrooms.
In many cases, when federal judges are cornered by legal precedents and forced to rule against prosecutors, they often apologize to them for doing so. Frequently, federal judges feel the need to carry the government's case for weak and inept federal prosecutors who could never win their cases on a level playing field.
The biggest tragedy I have witnessed in the federal criminal justice system since entering prison is the catastrophic failure of the criminal defense bar to fight for their clients. This is true whether these attorneys are retained or court-appointed.
For the most part, criminal defense lawyers only "represent" their clients, which means they sit idlily by their clients during the court proceedings and explain how and why the system is railroading them. Fortunately, I was trained to go to war for my clients with a "take-no-prisoners" attitude. Losing was not an acceptable option.
Between the pro-prosecution federal judges, their openly pampered prosecutors, and the growing pool of scared, weak, and ineffective defense lawyers, a criminal defendant often has no realistic chance to experience true justice in the federal criminal system. The system is simply too rigged for a just result to occur.
The rare exception to the rigged system occurs when the criminal suspect is a rich and powerful white male, or a Wall Street corporation that is "too big to prosecute." Defendants in this category are "modern-day untouchables."
The public witnessed recent examples of this exception when Wells Fargo Bank acknowledged in 2020 that its senior management executives committed two million separate acts of bank fraud between 2012 and 2016 and none of the scores of white bank executives involved in the bank fraud was prosecuted. Instead, Well Fargo was allowed to pay a $4 billion civil fine (which was pocket-change for the Bank) and keep on conducting business as usual.
The same prosecutorial forgiveness was exercised when major Wall Street banks caused $13 trillion in lost American wealth during the Great Recession of 2008 and not a single bank CEO or executive officer was prosecuted for any crime associated with the collapse of the entire American economy. Of course, all of the culprits were rich and powerful white men.
Helping Deserving Federal Inmates
In Johnson v. Avery, 393 U.S. 483, 489 (1969), the U.S. Supreme Court ruled that prison officials cannot actively interfere with an inmate assisting others with the preparation of court documents. As such, federal regulations like 28 C.F.R., Section 543.11(f)(1) and Federal Bureau of Prisons (BOP) Program Statement 1315.07 expressly authorize an inmate to assist another inmate in the same institution with legal research and the preparation of legal documents for the submission to a court or other judicial bodies. However, because an inmate may not conduct a business, he cannot receive any form of compensation for his services.
Since entering the federal prison system, I have been able to use my 48 years of specialized legal knowledge, training, and trial experience to free nearly three dozen deserving inmates that the rigged federal criminal justice system has railroaded. Nearly all of these inmates were convicted on non-violent drug-related charges. A few of them were physicians of color who were swept up in federal healthcare fraud investigations in which their white physician colleagues received the benefit of prosecutorial discretion and were not charged.
I could have freed more inmates by now, but BOP officials repeatedly place me in the "Hole" whenever they noticed that a lot of inmates in my housing unit were filing the correct legal documents that resulted in their freedom.
I have been placed in the "Hole" three times for a total of 12 months, which represents nearly half the time I have spent in prison. On two of these occasions, no charges were lodged against me. On the third occasion a correctional officer at FCI Talladega "planted" a phone charger in my locker at the direction of his superiors in order to frame me. BOP officials used this incident to harshly punish me.
Undeterred, I promptly resumed my efforts to help deserving inmates win their freedom each time I was released from the "Hole."
All of the inmates I have helped to free were the victims of the rigged federal criminal justice system. They were also the victims of egregious acts of legal malpractice that were committed by their defense counsel. A few of them were totally innocent of the charges for which they were convicted and imprisoned, but nobody in the federal criminal justice system cared about their plight.
The court transcripts in these men's cases pretty much read the same: A federal judge was carrying the criminal case for weak and inept federal prosecutors who followed a pre-programmed script in each case. In some of the cases, trial judges closed their eyes to perjured law enforcement testimony that was plainly contradicted by tangible evidence in the case. In these cases, the defense counsel did not perform even the minimal tasks that law students learn in Criminal Law and Criminal Procedure classes.
In many of the cases I have reviewed, these defense lawyers, whether retained or appointed, had never won a case in a jury trial. However, they have mastered the art of "surrendering" their clients in a rigged system, without a fight.
The Battlefield of Injustice
When I am assisting deserving inmates inside the federal prison system, I feel like a medic on a battlefield. There are wounded men all over the place. The line of inmates who are seeking my help is long every day. They are members of every race and culture. The common thread that binds these men together is the way in which they were railroad in federal court by judges who served as fluffers and advocates for prosecutors.
I give first priority to inmates who have pressing timelines to get their legal documents filed. My second priority goes to inmates who are actually innocent of the charges for which they have been imprisoned. My third priority goes to the inmates who were the victims of colossal legal malpractice.
I do not accept any form of payment or anything of value for helping these men. Each man gets my full and undivided attention and the same level of high-quality professional services.
My approach to the fair administration of justice has made me extremely popular within the inmate population in each federal prison facility where I have been housed. The accumulated goodwill from this work is immeasurable and it reaches beyond the confines of a prison environment.
Each time one of these men is freed from prison, we celebrate his fresh start in life. When our celebration is over, I return to my work on the next deserving inmate's case.
I thank God each day for blessing me with the gift of love for humanity. This gift fuels my fight for the fair administration of justice. I can see and feel the positive impact of my work in real-time.
The federal prison system is an institution of slavery that is expressly authorized in the Thirteenth Amendment to the U.S. Constitution. Most federal prosecutors and judges feed this institution of slavery with little regard for the fair administration of justice.
Judges who do not impose stiff penalties upon federal prisoners may find themselves subjected to verbal floggings by Republican right-wing zealots in Washington much like the unrelenting flogging that was administered to Supreme Court nominee Ketanji Brown-Jackson on national TV during her confirmation hearings last month.
I have handled and won a lot of landmark cases in my legal career. However, nothing feels better than freeing an innocent man from the iron shackles of prison slavery. This is especially true whenever I free inmates of color who are trapped in a rigged criminal justice system that routinely gives many whites who committed the same offenses a prosecutorial pass solely because they are rich, powerful, and Caucasian, or because they are "too big to prosecute."