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.
If you’ve been keeping up with the news on the tragic shooting death of Diane McIver, you know there’s quite a bit of speculation as to whether her death was truly an accident. It’s easy to get caught up in the media accounts, and with multiple cable shows sensationalizing how one disgruntled spouse was out to get the other, it’s not surprising people are jumping to conclusions.
However, I would caution you to not pass judgement too quickly. In my recent interview with CBS46 News, I point out that the information released publicly often doesn’t include everything that has been uncovered by the investigation. So before declaring a verdict in the role of arm chair judge, keep in mind that accidents do happen, even tragic ones.
With twenty years experience in real estate and mortgages, Amy Williams opened up her own business, United International Mortgage Corporation (UIM), in 2004. Like many businesses during the real estate boom and subsequent economic crisis of the mid-2000s, her company thrived before closing its doors in 2008.
Shortly thereafter, the FBI and the FDIC notified Ms. Williams that she was being investigated for federal crimes. Sanford (Sandy) Wallack began representing Ms. Williams in 2010. In July 2013, Ms. Williams was indicted for multiple counts of bank fraud and conspiracy to commit bank fraud, pursuant to 18 U.S.C. § 1344(1) and (2), related to First Coweta Bank.
The U.S. Attorney’s Office superseded the indictment in September 2015 and again in November 2015, adding additional charges related to Southern Community Bank. The new allegations were that Ms. Williams directed the use of funds disbursed from lines of credit that UIM held with both banks for unauthorized purposes.
After a five-day jury trial held in the Gainesville division in the Northern District of Georgia, Ms. Williams was acquitted of all charges.
In May 1999, Shaun Metoyer was convicted after a jury trial for multiple counts of armed robbery and related offenses in Augusta-Richmond County. Metoyer was sentenced to consecutive life sentences.
The Georgia Court of Appeals affirmed his convictions in 2006, but in 2015, Metoyer, now represented by Sanford (Sandy) Wallack, had his convictions overturned through the grant of his petition for writ of habeas corpus. In a 50-page order, the Coffee County Superior Court found that Metoyer received ineffective assistance of appellate counsel (primarily based upon ineffective assistance of trial counsel during the original trial).
The habeas court’s order was appealed by the Attorney General’s Office on behalf of the Warden to the Georgia Supreme Court. On July 5, 2016, the Georgia Supreme Court affirmed the grant of Metoyer’s petition for habeas corpus (Case No. 16A0070).
Metoyer was represented by Sanford (Sandy) Wallack for purposes of his petition for writ habeas corpus and the Warden’s appeal thereof to the Georgia Supreme Court.
As a criminal defense attorney, my greatest rewards come through my clients; sharing in their joy and relief when their cases end as they had hoped brings intense satisfaction. Occasionally, however, I am honored to receive another kind of award.
I’m proud to announce that Wallack Law has is the recipient of Laws.com website’s Top Criminal Law Firm Award, as shown by the new badge you may have noticed on our website. This award recognizes the firm’s contribution to the legal society and our exceptional expertise in criminal defense law. I am honored and grateful to receive it. It’s exciting to be recognized in this way, and I look forward to earning what it represents by continuing to help clients in every way I can.
Do you have a right to have your attorney of choice represent you? May it even be beneficial for individual defendants in the same case to rely on the same attorney? In some instances, yes. I have joined other defense counsel in filing an appeal from Fulton County Superior Court to protect and enforce that right. See more here: http://www.ajc.com/gallery/news/aps-thursday-court-hearings/g9Rc/#3372919
Time and again, I hear this familiar refrain from clients: “The officer did not read me my Miranda rights so they have to dismiss my case, right?” Unfortunately, a failure to advise an individual of his Miranda rights will not cause an automatic dismissal of charges.
In Miranda v. Arizona, the United States Supreme Court held that the admission of an elicited incriminating statement by a suspect not informed of certain rights violates the Fifth and the Sixth Amendment right to counsel. What this means is that any statement made by an individual in response to police questioning once that person is in custody cannot be used against that individual unless that individual was advised of certain constitutional rights.
We are all familiar with those rights required to be given – known as Miranda rights – from television and movies: “You have the right to remain silent. Anything you say can and will be used against you in a court of law. You have the right to an attorney. If you cannot afford an attorney, one will be provided for you. Do you understand the rights I have just read to you?” While Miranda remains a landmark ruling, its effect is larger in media than reality.
In order for Miranda to apply, two factors must be satisfied. First, the individual must be in custody. Being in custody is not limited to being locked up in jail, but rather, is construed more broadly. Second, the individual’s statements must be in response to questioning by a police officer. Miranda warnings are not required, for example, where an individual blurts out information spontaneously.
It would be a violation of rights if a law enforcement officer does not give Miranda warnings to someone in custody, questions that individual, and that individual makes statements to the officer. The exclusive remedy for such a Miranda violation is that the court may exclude the individual’s statements at his trial.
It is important to remember that statements you make before being in custody as well as statements made that are not in response to police questioning are generally admissible in the absence of Miranda warnings.
Recently, I represented two clients who each contacted me because they had received calls from a law enforcement agency requesting they come in for an interview. Both clients were wise enough to immediately contact and retain defense counsel. Ultimately, for one client, we met with an officer, for the other client we did not. Both clients achieved the same result: neither was arrested or charged.
So what do you do if you get a phone call from a police officer requesting or directing you go to the police department to talk?
You immediately contact and retain criminal defense counsel. Why hire criminal defense counsel, you may ask, particularly if you have not done anything wrong? An incredulous agent with the Georgia Bureau of Investigation once asked me that very question during a client’s interview. There are multiple reasons why it is important to hire defense counsel and foolish not to, but all of them boil down to protecting yourself and your rights. Having a lawyer is not an admission of guilt.
Defense counsel can advise you of your rights and potential consequences, including collateral consequences you may not be aware of. An attorney also acts as a buffer by interacting with the officer directly so you do not have to and, thus, can protect you from a police officer who might otherwise attempt to intimidate you into or while meeting with him.
Defense counsel can prepare you for the type of questions you might have to answer if you meet with the officer and assist you in determining whether to answer particular questions while meeting with the officer. Defense counsel can also help you decide whether and when to halt a meeting with the officer. Finally, defense counsel serves as a witness to what is said by the officer and by you during a meeting should there be a difference of opinion later.
The deeper issue, once you have retained defense counsel, is whether you and your attorney agree to speak with the police officer.
From a legal standpoint, you have a constitutional right to decline a police officer’s request or demand for a meeting. The U.S. Supreme Court held in Ohio v. Reiner, 532 U.S. 17, 21 (2001), that the Fifth Amendment privilege against self-incrimination is intended to protect the innocent as well as the guilty. The Supreme Court stated that “one of the Fifth Amendment’s basic functions is to protect innocent men [and therefore women] who otherwise might be ensnared by ambiguous circumstances” and, further, recognized that truthful responses of an innocent person, just like those of a wrongdoer, may provide law enforcement with what may be viewed as incriminating evidence and/or “a link in the chain of evidence.”
From a practical standpoint, there are generally both pros and cons to meeting with a police officer, even for someone who is innocent. My advice to a client about whether to agree to be interviewed by a police officer is made only after reviewing relevant facts and circumstances with the client and weighing the potential benefits and consequences of meeting with the officer. Often my advice rests on whether the client’s goal is to avoid being arrested or to avoid being convicted.
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