GULFPORT -- San Antonio attorney Mikal Watts plans to represent himself in a massive BP fraud case that charges him and six associates with 95 felonies each.
U.S. District Judge Louis Guirola Jr. agreed at a pretrial conference in U.S. District Court on Tuesday to let Watts serve as his own attorney, a right provided under the U.S. Constitution. Guirola also agreed to delay the trial, originally set for February, until July 18 because of copious evidence the government gathered during a four-year investigation and plans to present at trial. Several defendants asked for the continuance, saying they need more time to prepare.
Watts was represented by Robert McDuff, a prominent Jackson attorney who specializes in criminal defense, but McDuff left the defense table and took a seat in the audience after Guirola agreed Watts could represent himself.
"I think it's in the best interest of my defense," Watts told the Sun Herald. "I think the jury hearing from me every day will allow me to better present my defense rather than sitting in a chair for 5½ weeks before I get to testify."
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Watts, who graduated from the University of Texas Law School when he was 21 years old, has worked as a civil attorney for 25 years. He has amassed millions representing injured clients, most notably in litigation against Bridgestone/Firestone Inc. and Ford Motor Co. He said he is not worried about his lack of experience in criminal cases.
"At its core," Watts said, "a trial is a trial is a trial. My job is to get the truth out and I intend to do so."
Assistant U.S. Attorney John Dowdy, lead prosecutor in the BP fraud case, said he expects the trial to take eight weeks. He told the judge that the government could call 375 to 400 witnesses. In addition, prosecutors plan to show the jury 1,000 to 1,500 exhibits.
The 95-count indictment stems from the work of Watts' firm on claims for damages over the 2010 BP oil catastrophe. Also indicted on charges of conspiracy, wire fraud, mail fraud, identity theft and aggravated identify theft were Mikal Watts' brother, David Watts, and Wynter Lee, both of whom work in his law firm; and BP claim field representatives Hector Eloy Guerra of Weslaco, Texas, Gregory Warren of Lafayette, La.; and Thi Houng "Kristy" Le and her sister-in-law, Thi Hoang "Abby" Nguyen, both of Grand Bay, Ala.
The government claims the defendants manufactured oil-spill victims to land Watts a spot on the lucrative BP litigation steering committee and inflate legal fees he might collect.
Watts wanted to go to trial in February because, he has said, he wants to clear his name. Watts mentioned at the hearing that he has 120 employees at his firm, Watts Guerra.
"It's a heck of an operation that requires me to be there," he told the judge. " . . . I want this over."