By Curtis Bunn, Urban News Service
Delma Jackson’s New Year’s morning started with a shocking photo on her cell phone—an image of a man’s beaten, bloodied, swollen face. He was so badly disfigured she initially could not tell it was her husband. Miguel Jackson was an inmate at a south Georgia prison, when prison guards beat him with a claw hammer in December of 2011, an attack that was captured on video. Horrified, Jackson called the prison for answers. She got none. She wasn’t even sure if her husband was alive or dead.
She paged through the phone book to find a lawyer who would get both justice and answers. Attorney after attorney turned down her case. “No one would touch it,” Jackson said. “I had the photos to show, but no one would help…except Mario.”
Mario Williams is an Atlanta-based civil rights attorney who took a winding road to become one of the nation’s foremost legal advocates for those in need. The bulk of his cases focus on civil rights violations, police misconduct, prisoners’ rights, and wrongful incarcerations. A tall, jovial man who likes horror movies and rollercoasters, Williams is the legal advocate of last resort for those too poor or too unconnected to attract government agency or big law firm.
Now, Williams is preparing to lead an unprecedented $20 million legal campaign to investigate and uncover the ties of political and business leaders to white supremacist groups. He wants to dig up their secret rivers of money and shame them into cutting off the extremists. Pretty heady stuff for a guy who initially wanted to be an environmental lawyer.
Libre by Nexus, a Verona, Virginia-based firm that guarantees bail bonds for immigrants to win their release and to reunite them with their families, is where the $20 million war chest is coming from. The for-profit company, founded by Michael Donovan and Richard Moore in 2012, gives away millions of dollars each year to fund free legal aid. Each of these men were jailed in their college days and remember how hard it often is for prisoners to get a fair shake. Libre by Nexus tagged Williams, an African American, to be the point man in its probe of white supremacists.
“Mario is fearless in advocating for those without a voice,” said Donovan. “A lot of idealists learn of the (civil rights) abuses and it shocks them so much they can’t do anything. With Mario, he is personally offended and it fuels him to act. He didn’t lose his ideology and that’s hard to find in an attorney.”
Donovan added his company is targeting and funding the suits against “white supremacist organizations that masquerades as militias when they are really reformed hate groups like the KKK.” The goal is to find the funders of these extremist groups “that advocate violence” and sue them into submission. “When they advocate violence, like in the case of Charlottesville, (Virginia)” Donovan said, “they must be held accountable.”
This fires up Williams. “This is big stuff. Huge,” he said. “I am excited and proud to be a part of an effort that is looking to make sweeping changes in racial injustices and attitudes.”
Williams’ odyssey began in the unlikeliest of places: the poor towns of Central America, where he served in the Peace Corps teaching environmentalist practices to villages in the 1990’s. There he saw the real price paid by the poor and the powerless. He graduated from Morehouse College in Atlanta. Giving up his early career plans to become an environmental attorney Williams said he was inspired by his professors and fellow students to consider working in the human rights arena. “Much of the major civil rights events took place right in Atlanta,” he said. “Martin Luther King went to Morehouse. It was in the air.”
That led him to the Peace Corps—and the experiences that changed his life. In Honduras and other Latin American countries, Williams spent three years helping to bring clean water to some of the world’s poorest people by putting his hands to work as much as his mind. He helped build many down-flow gravity water systems and effective filtration tanks in the hills of remote villages. The systems produced clean, drinkable water, saving countless lives.
“It was a human rights violation that they did not have potable water,” Williams said. “Kids were dying, people were getting sick because of the water. In the U.S. we just turn on the faucet and we have water ready to drink. We take it for granted. It’s not like that in many parts of the world.”
It was after that experience is when his desire to be a servant got real.
He went to Lewis and Clark, earned his law degree, passed the Georgia state bar exam, and worked in Santiago, Chile for seven years, where he helped reshape environmental codes.
In Atlanta, he has been named one of the top-rated civil rights attorneys and been selected as one of that city’s “Super Lawyers,” but the “Super Lawyer” will take calls and cases from nearly any one, without ego or formality. Cases like those of Delma Jackson’s husband.
“Mario was right on it,” Jackson recalled. “We met him on a Monday, showed him the photos and gave him the background on my husband and he knew exactly what do, what motions to file. Tuesday he was down there at the prison. Wednesday we met with him again.” She went on to add, “There have been so many elements to my husband’s case, including being sentenced for 50 years for an armed robbery in 1996 when he was 20 years old. Fifty years. Mario has been there every step of the way. There are a lot of injustices out there. We need more people like Mario. He’s been so committed, it’s amazing. He’s like family now.”
No charges were brought against the prison guards, despite Williams’ best efforts. The case is now in summary judgment as Williams continues to seek justice. “One issue I began to have is ‘How do you sleep at night?’” he said from his desk at his downtown Atlanta law office. “I have seen so much denial of human rights in Central America and sadly, denial of civil rights of non-white people here in America. It’s simply not right. The abuse of power of (law enforcement and correction officers) is rampant. So I chose to do for others. Doing this work means something to me, everyday fighting for people’s rights and for justice.”
Williams and his wife, Julie, are partners in the Atlanta law firm Williams Oinonen, LLC, which specializes in civil rights, business and government law. They share the same vision. In other words, they fight the good fight.
“Emotionally, it gives me a sense of completeness,” Williams said. “There is something very rewarding in battling for rights for people or protecting people’s rights. It means something to me emotionally on a daily basis. It is a real responsibility knowing people rely on me to make systemic changes and I enjoy it because it means so much.”
The satisfaction that comes from winning cases doesn’t last long. After, he won a jury award of $350,000 for the family of Terrance Dean, an imprisoned black man who was brutally beaten by guards, Williams said he was elated and happy for the family…for about an hour. Then, he said, it is “on to the next (case).”
An Atlanta attorney connected Williams with Donovan when Libre by Nexus had some legal issues. Williams appreciated the fact that the company liberally finances its own law firm, Nexus Derechos, to tackles human rights abuses, civil rights violations, prisoners’ rights, police misconduct and international law petitions. Williams now heads the firm in addition to his own.
“I’m a put your money where your mouth is guy,” Williams said. “(Donovan) is willing to fund justice and human and constitutional rights. He and Richard (Moore, co-founder) really believe in this mission and when you have the financial resources and support you can do strong work.”
Moore appreciates Williams’ combative sense of justice. “To walk into a room and meet a client and commit to walk alongside him in his legal journey…Mario has a passion and commitment to fix the wrongs of people he doesn’t know. His track record proves it.”