Mitch Stone and Kelly Mathis have known each other for more than two decades.
When Mathis was among 57 people arrested in what prosecutors called a $300 million gambling ring operated by Allied Veterans of the World, Stone didn’t hesitate to become his defense attorney.
Representing Mathis was something Stone said he had spent his career preparing for.
Mathis was found guilty of 103 gambling-related charges by a jury in October 2013, but appealed.
In October, the 5th District Court of Appeal tossed out the convictions, saying Mathis’ defense team was not allowed to present key evidence at the trial. A new trial was ordered.
The Florida Attorney General’s Office is appealing that decision to the Florida Supreme Court.
Stone answered questions about the case, what it means to the legal profession and what it’s meant to him.
How well did you know Kelly Mathis before the Allied Veterans of the World case? What did you know about his reputation as a lawyer?
I had known Kelly for over 20 years mainly through The Jacksonville Bar Association.
We had both been involved in various committees and he selected me to chair the criminal law section when he became president.
I knew Kelly was smart, organized and extremely thorough. I always considered him very professional and an excellent business law attorney. He was also a tenacious litigator.
He had a good reputation as a lawyer and I believe he was well-liked. He had to be to be elected president of the JBA.
I’m sure there are some who may not agree with me or who may not have appreciated his style of advocacy, but I don’t think anyone would question his intellect and ability as a lawyer.
What was your reaction when you heard he had been arrested?
I was shocked. I knew his client list included those in the gaming industry since I had been involved in some cases that involved other clients he had also represented.
Because of that, I was privy to some of the research and analysis that was involved here and I understood legally why there was a difference between gaming, sweepstakes and gambling.
I never expected or considered that Kelly, as a lawyer, would be targeted as a conspirator in an illegal gambling prosecution based on his representation of and advocacy for his clients.
Kelly was always very professional about running his practice and firm and I knew he would not ever have crossed that line.
What went into your decision to become his defense attorney? Did you ever hesitate to take the case?
I never hesitated to take the case — not for a minute. I went into high gear immediately.
This was a friend, a colleague and now a client who I knew and respected.
Representing Kelly, who was most likely going to trial, was something that I had spent my entire career preparing for.
I have tried over 150 criminal jury trials in state and federal court. I was ready for this challenge.
Representing a client who was being targeted for doing his job as a lawyer effectively was important to me in many ways.
Explain the process of how the team assembled its defense case. What were the critical points you thought were necessary to win at trial?
First, we had to understand what it was the prosecution was basing the case on.
Although we were aligned with all the other defendants as far as the illegal gambling allegations were concerned, our representation of Kelly also included the fact that he was not part of the business.
Therefore in our view, he could not be guilty of underlying conduct even if the other defendants were.
Our defense included proof that he should not be prosecuted for representing the clients who were running the business that was deemed illegal by the state.
I knew we would end up in a jury trial unless the judge granted our motion to dismiss. I knew that was a long shot due to the profile of this case and the manner in which motions were being decided.
The other defendants had different objectives than Kelly. Therefore the entire defense team had to work around those differences.
The others could and did enter into plea agreements with the state to avoid trial, get some forfeited money returned and avoid incarceration and, in most cases, avoid convictions.
However, the entire group of defense lawyers worked together for several months to analyze the legal issues, prepare for and take the depositions of the key witnesses and file motions that related to the legal challenges to the gambling charges.
When the judge repeatedly refused to allow theory of defense elements in the case, how concerned were you about how it might impact the jury’s verdict? Were you confident those decisions would assist in an appeal?
I was concerned when the judge initially ruled against us on the pretrial motion the state had filed, which effectively gutted our defense.
I had spent seven months identifying witnesses from law enforcement, government agencies, the legal community and experts proving Kelly’s legal analysis was sound and accepted.
I had legislation, regulation and administrative rules that were created and enacted for this exact business model.
If it was indeed illegal, then a lot more people who were in power would have to explain why they believed it was legal.
Kelly was a lawyer who was hired to analyze the law and advise his clients and represent their interests. That is what he did.
I was confident that if a jury heard the evidence we had amassed he would be found not guilty.
However, when the alternative theory of prosecution was explained — that being the state was not saying he was guilty because of his legal analysis and representation, rather they intended to prove he was actually part of the business and the business was conducting an illegal gambling operation — I was confident we would prevail since there was no legal or factual basis to prove that theory of prosecution as far as Kelly was concerned.
We had plenty of witnesses and evidence proving he was not part of the business. That is the truth.
When the trial court permitted the state to switch their theory at trial and argue that Kelly’s legal analysis was baseless and had resulted in the illegal conduct, we could not respond with the wealth of evidence that existed.
Of course, I was concerned that the jury would get the wrong impression and convict and that’s exactly what happened.
Fortunately, the appellate court understood that we were precluded from presenting our defense and reversed for that reason.
Have you defended other lawyers before? Is it a different process when your client is a lawyer? Do they help — and specifically did Kelly Mathis help — with legal strategy in the case?
I have defended lawyers in cases ranging from theft of trust account money, bank fraud, real estate fraud, DUI, drug cases and domestic battery.
It is usually helpful to have a lawyer as a client since they understand the challenges we face and can assist in the preparation of the case and analysis of the legal issues.
Kelly was extremely helpful since he was one of the most knowledgeable lawyers in the area of gaming, sweepstakes and gambling.
He had spent years researching and analyzing cases from all over the country so when we had to understand a particular nuance in the law he could break it down for us and explain it.
He was also a litigator, so at trial we had another lawyer at the table to assist in trial strategy decisions as well as procedural and legal challenges we faced along the way.
What did you learn about Kelly Mathis, personally and professionally, during the time you have spent on his case?
Essentially working with a client almost every day for seven months during the pretrial preparation and then living in the same house throughout the month-long trial, you get to know a lot about them.
There were some things we had to discuss that pertained to his personal life and his professional life. Those are privileged communications.
However, I will say my belief in his ethical and professional conduct was confirmed.
He is a good person and he cares very much about his family, his reputation, his personal life and his professional life.
What did you learn about yourself, personally and professionally, during that same time?
Too much to report here. This case was extremely important to me and it was all consuming. It affected my life personally and professionally and still does today. I have learned a lot.
Describe the support you’ve received from fellow lawyers not only in Jacksonville but across the country and what it’s meant.
Incredible support from every lawyer I have spoken to about the case in Jacksonville.
We also received an amazing amount of support from lawyers around the state and country.
Most are incensed by what happened and we had a lot of offers to assist in various ways by offering kind words to keep us going, to helping our legal team with strategy and legal decisions, to testifying in court.
What else do you want to share about the case, the impact in the legal community and how it’s impacted you as an attorney?
This case is not over and we have a lot of work to do. We are preparing for a second trial.
Before that occurs, the Florida Supreme Court will next decide whether the 5th District Court of Appeal was correct. We think so.
We are hopeful that if the decision stands and a new trial is set, that the state will take another look at it and realize that Kelly should not be prosecuted.