January 10, 2017 • Posted In Criminal Defense
The following is an article written by Amy Williams, a client whose case was recently won. In it, she provides a candid perspective on what it is like to live through a criminal trial, and its impact on not just herself, but those around her as well.
It’s funny the path your life may have to take in order to move you in the right direction. For some, it may be conquering an illness that gives perspective, or witnessing something tragic that causes you to pause and reconsider. My path was a bit different. The FDIC and the FBI ruined my career, dragged my name through the mud and subjected me to seven years of a living hell, wondering if I’d go to prison for something I didn’t do. Being on trial because of false accusations was the worst thing I’ve ever experienced. And yet, it was also one of the best things to ever happen to me. The wrongs I faced ultimately saved me. Here’s how it happened.
In 2004, I was a hot shot with over two decades’ experience in the mortgage and hard money lending sector and had just opened my own business, United International Mortgage Corporation (UIM). My company’s focus was loaning to builders and with construction booming at that time, I did pretty well for myself. But as you’re well aware, the economy took a nose-dive shortly thereafter. Like so many other businesses, I wasn’t able to pay my creditors because my clients couldn’t pay me. Because of this, my company folded in 2008.
As an honest and honorable person, I felt ashamed that I couldn’t fulfill my end of my business agreements, but then things went from bad to worse. One of my creditors had a good political link and alerted the FBI to look into my company. As it turned out, and unbeknownst to me, one of my employees had become involved in criminal activity, which prompted the FBI to start investigating me. I was then indicted for bank fraud, with allegations that I took money off the company’s line of credit for a specific builder and instead used it for different purposes.
This simply wasn’t true. The charges were 100 percent erroneous and I stood my ground proclaiming my innocence. But I wasn’t in control of the situation; those indicting me were. I was offered plea deals, but taking them implied wrongdoing on my part, and I did nothing wrong. “Innocent until proven guilty” meant nothing to those investigating me.
I was raised to always do right by others even if they don’t do right by you, so this experience was far outside anything I could have imagined. Coming from a good lineage of faith, honesty and hard work, for this to happen to me was an “Are you serious?” sort of ordeal. However, my family flocked to my side and we all embraced it, with everyone even going so far as to drop off of social media so that there was no confusion or arguing. We didn’t stick our heads in the sand and we openly talked about the possibility that the jury wouldn’t see it our way. If I was sent to prison, I might not be able to attend my parents’ funeral someday. Do you know how difficult that is to accept? That you would have to hear of your mother or father’s passing and not be able to say a proper good-bye? It’s gut wrenching to even ponder, believe me.
When all of this started, I hired the best counsel I could find. But as you can imagine, the “best” often comes with an incredibly high price tag. As the government continued to drag its feet with no concern for the expense these false charges were causing me, I was ultimately forced to drop my hired attorney and turn to having counsel appointed by the court. He was horrible. He never returned my phone calls, just had a box of files on my case in his office and that was it. Needless to say, I began to have my doubts that my innocence would ever be proven. But then he moved out of state and I was assigned new representation. While I was relieved that he no longer held my fate in his hands, I was not looking forward to having to go through the process of having a new attorney for the third time. But as luck would have it, it was the positive turning point my situation needed.
When I met up with my new counsel, Sandy Wallack, my first impression was that he was an incredible listener and a truth speaker. Since he’s a defense attorney, I figured everyone goes into his office and says “I didn’t do it!” So I had to be able to communicate to him that I really, truly did not do anything. He was incredibly compassionate and empathetic, paying attention to every word and detail. Most importantly, he was a straight talker. Sandy never gave me false hope and even so, he supported my decision when I refused to plead out. He allowed emotions to come out without making me feel like I was falling to pieces.
The funny thing was, this wasn’t really that big or bad of a case as far as the government was concerned. My case was sloppily handled and kept getting pushed to the back burner, because I was chump change. It just sat around in the queue so long that the U.S. attorneys who were originally on the case retired. After several years, another U.S. attorney who was assigned the case looked at it with the FDIC agent and decided to indict. In discovery, they provided us with everything they’d ever gotten, including hundreds of thousands of documents from banks that had since gone under. They essentially just threw everything in a file and told us to go fish. New indictments were handed down changing the charges and adding new charges, basically sending us back to the start. If the consequences weren’t so dire, their bureaucratic ridiculousness would have been comical.
At the same time Sandy was working with me, he was also representing a woman in the Atlanta Public Schools cheating trial, Ms. Dessa Curb. One day, my daughter-in-law called me and told me to turn on the news. Of the 12 individuals on trial, only one was acquitted of all charges: Ms. Curb. I started crying. I knew what she was going through, how it felt to have all eyes on you, judging you, and I understood the relief she must be feeling. I felt her victory like I had walked it with her and Sandy, so it felt like my victory too.
And then it was finally my turn. With the trial date came the realization that seven years of torment were going to come to a head and be resolved in just a few short days. I was scared to death, not going to lie. I had never been to a trial, only ever had a single ticket all my life, so I had no idea what to expect. My emotions were a pendulum swinging from confidence to “Oh my god!” and back again. Sandy was an absolute godsend during this tumultuous time. He explained jury selection, opening remarks, the possible schedule, everything.
Once the trial was underway, the courtroom dynamics quickly became surreal. A former colleague, who perhaps had actually committed criminal acts, had been given immunity by the U.S. Attorney’s office to testify against me. The government had interviewed her multiple times, with each version radically different from the last. When she was on the stand it was quite the show – too bad there wasn’t a camera! The jurors were shaking their heads at her and looking at the prosecution like “Really? This is your ace in the pocket?” Sandy just let her talk so that it was all on record. Watching him really was amazing. He doesn’t get up and hit the podium or get in your face. He’s very consistent, maintaining a steady voice and a very even keel.
There was a former colleague, an alleged co-conspirator according to the government, who also testified for the prosecution. He actually lost his voice he got so scared on the stand. So Sandy point blank asked him if I ever did anything illegal, and he confirmed that I hadn’t. While all this was taking place I turned and looked at the FBI agents who had worked so hard to put me away, in my head screaming at them, “You put me through all this because of these witnesses!” I’m guessing they understood what my eyes were saying and their conscience finally got the best of them, because they had to turn away; they couldn’t even look me in the eye.
As dramatic as this may sound, watching Sandy defend me was like watching Gregory Peck’s performance as Atticus Finch – calm, pointed, clear and a brilliant strategist. He brought out the truth from the prosecution’s witnesses in such a way they didn’t even realize they had just told on themselves for lying. The prosecution would just let their witnesses say their versions of the story without even trying to get to the truth. When Sandy would stand, the jury would visibly straighten up and listen. They would lean in and even smile when he would get the witnesses to accidentally admit they were lying under oath. They knew that he knew what he was doing.
During deliberations, I paced up and down the sidewalk, and I prayed like I’ve never prayed before. When Sandy called and said it was time to hear the verdict, I literally thought I was about to pass out. My legs felt like noodles. I told my partner, a nurse, that I might faint, but all she said was “We’ve got this.” I asked Sandy if I could hold his hand and he said of course. It was so comforting. The other hand went over my mouth. This was it, this was my fate. And then I heard the verdict on the first count: Not Guilty.
As the foreman went through each count, I squeezed Sandy’s hand harder each time a Not Guilty was pronounced. I’m a bit surprised I didn’t break a few of his fingers, honestly. At that last Not Guilty, I laid my head down on the desk and instantly felt like the largest elephant ever was taken off my back. That burden was no more, seven years gone in a split second. After you’ve carried this weight day in and day out, it’s the weirdest feeling for it to suddenly not be there. The freedom that I never thought I would feel again just overwhelmed my body. I wanted to hug the jury but I couldn’t, so I just looked at them and mouthed “Thank you” to all of them.
Since then, I’ve had to retool my emotions, my brain, my thought patterns, everything. Even in my personal relationships I’ve had to make adjustments. For so long every thought, emotion and action was first run through a filter of “Will I be here next year?” This will be the first Christmas in seven years where I won’t have to worry about that. Now, I have to learn how to deal with not having to deal with the case anymore, if that makes sense.
The experience revealed to me the importance of being ever present and cherishing what I have in front of me. Before, my life was about banking, securing the next deal, getting the newest car and the big fancy house. I thrived in the world of consumerism. I now see it for what it really is, another form of prison. You always want the next best thing, but it will never be enough because something better will come along soon that will make you crave it instead. When you live under what I did, you’re just happy you’re not looking at the world through a set of bars.
Every single day, before my feet hit the ground, I thank God for giving me that new day and I thank him for Sandy Wallack. Seriously, I really do. At one point, Sandy informed me that in something like 90 percent of cases prosecuted by the government, the verdict does not go in the defendant’s favor. If I told you that you had a 90 percent chance of dying if you got in a car, would you get in it? These were the odds I was facing, even given my innocence. Sandy defied those odds not once but twice, first for Ms. Curb and then shortly thereafter for me. At my bleakest moment, I was sent a David to the government’s Goliath, someone who believed in me completely and stopped at nothing to bring my innocence to light. I will never be able to thank him enough.
I’m grateful for the new birth that this journey forced for me. I’m grateful for every meal I eat, grateful for my family and friends and grateful I’m able to just sit in a rocking chair with a glass of wine. Those seven years were a sentence in and of themselves, whether the government knows it or not. You can’t enjoy life living under that kind of stress. This experience has awakened my soul to being alive and not just existing. During this ordeal, I had friends who distanced themselves from me, those in the banking world who worried about their association with me. And then I had my real friends, those who believed in me and the journey I was meant to be on, those who promised to stick with me and visit with me should the jury not see my innocence. They taught me what it means to be a good, true friend. That’s a lesson I learned the hard way, but one I am glad to have under my belt.
In the end, I left my hometown and was forced out of the banking industry. Now I work at a farm in South Georgia doing manual labor in a field day in and day out, and I absolutely love it. My life has been transformed into something I didn’t know it needed to be and the process clarified things that needed clarity, though I didn’t know it at the outset. The whole situation was ridiculous and expensive, both from my pocket’s perspective and from the taxpayers’ side (we’re talking hundreds of thousands of dollars that could have gone to help others in the community). The case should NEVER have happened, but I don’t begrudge it or bemoan having endured it. I hate what they did, but what they did has actually helped me. They destroyed my previous life, but I have a new, amazing life that I wouldn’t have discovered otherwise. When horrible things happen, we have an opportunity to let the experience better us, so that we are able to help someone else along the way. That is the path my life has taken. I won this case in more ways than one.