The Cell Broker
THE RECORDER – No. 179, Monday, September 16, 2002
By Jason Hoppin, Recorder Staff Writer
Alan Ellis has carved a niche practice helping the guilty mitigate their sentences – and find the right federal prison
SAUSALITO – Before you walk a federal judge’s gangplank, Alan Ellis thinks you should walk his first.
It’s a bit friendlier. It leads to Ellis’ houseboat-slash-office on Sausalito Bay, where, for a premium fee, the Philadelphia native will try to ease the hard time you could be in for.
All Ellis’ clients are defendants, but he hasn’t tried a case in 20 years. In fact, a good deal of them have already been found guilty.
Ellis is one of the nation’s preeminent post-conviction specialists, a lawyer who mitigates tough sentences with a thorough knowledge of the sentencing guidelines and federal prison system. His client list has included the famous and infamous, from Anthony Tennant, the former head of Christie’s auction house to so-called American Taliban John Walker Lindh.
“My name is written on the bathroom wall of all the federal prisons in America,” Ellis says.
Business leaders should probably start passing his name around at high-level meetings, too. With all the hubbub about cracking down on corporate crooks, Ellis’ roster of clients – now about 80 – could start to strain under the demand.
At $425, his hourly fee assures a certain quality of client. Most are of the white-collar variety, he says, with a handful of drug defendants and a few sexual predators thrown in.
Why hire Ellis?
He is the author of “Federal Prison Guidebook,” and he boasts that every federal judge in America has a copy. He employs forensic accountants, psychiatrists and investigators to churn up information that can be used to mitigate his clients’ crimes. He has contacts within the Bureau of Prisons, which decides where prisoners are housed. He even hired the former Western regional director of the BOP as a consultant.
“I’d like to think that I’ve got a certain amount of credibility when I walk into a courtroom,” Ellis says.
But some defense lawyers question the value of bringing Ellis aboard. They consider what he does to be part of their job description.
“My personal view … is that, I think, most competent trial lawyers can handle it themselves,” said Walter Brown Jr., a white-collar defense attorney at Gray Cary Ware & Freidenrich. “Your credibility [in front of a judge] will be more valuable than anything a post-conviction specialist will provide.”
Ellis’ unique practice started more than 20 years ago in Philadelphia. He admits he couldn’t hack it as a criminal defense attorney, though he won one case of the three he tried.
“I got tired of throwing up in the bathroom before going into court because of the butterflies. It was just, at the time, not my thing,” Ellis says.
A one-year stint at Golden Gate University was similarly unsuccessful. Ellis says he was a “total failure” as a law professor.
But at that time he saw that on the federal level, things were changing. Defendants began to lose more and more of their cases.
“I saw the handwriting on the wall,” Ellis says. “Along came the burger court: people were not winning their trials; the Fourth Amendment was going by the boards; and I came to realize that for most people, how much time they were going to serve and where they were going to serve it and how quickly they were going to get out were the three issues of paramount concern.”
His 20-plus years of experience have taught him a few things about crimes, and what judges want to hear about them.
“There’s the follies of youth; the terminally stupid; the people who have mental disorders; the evil, malicious, anti-social personality sons-of-bitches; and the good guy who just screwed up.”
His clients, Ellis explains, mostly fall into the last category – and his job is to explain to a judge why his clients screwed up.
“Judges want to know why this guy did what he did and how, if I cut him a break, do I know that he’s not going to come back and embarrass me,” he says.
“Nobody is as bad, in my opinion, as the government makes them out to be. In all fairness, probably nobody’s as good as I make them out to be. But I’m there to make sure they get a fair shake.”
Those abilities could be sorely tested with his latest client.
John Walker Lindh hit the nation’s consciousness at a time when it was red with anger. Few things are worse than being called a traitor, but Lindh was, and at the worst possible time – a Marin County kid found fighting on behalf of the nation’s newly designated enemy following last year’s Sept. 11 attacks.
Trying to reduce Lindh’s sentence is fruitless – 20 years has already been agreed to by federal prosecutors and Lindh’s defense team. But the case will put to the test Ellis’ other specialty: steering defendants toward minimum-security federal prison camps close to their family.
“Alan literally wrote the book on federal prison facilities,” explains Today West, of counsel at Morrison & Foerster, one of Lindh’s defense lawyers.
With a plea signed and an agreed-upon sentence, Lindh is turning to Ellis to help with another primary concern for defendants: placement. West said Lindh wants to further his education while he spends the next two decades behind bars.
“Where [Lindh] is designated can impact his access to educational materials,” West said, saying his client would like to obtain “several” degrees.
There is also fear of violence. “We’re very concerned about John’s safety given the high publicity of the case,” West said.
AFTER THE DEFENSE
Lindh is one of the lucky few that can afford Ellis. What he does is not unique, but being poor and finding a sentencing specialist can be difficult.
In several states, they are working as staff members. In Wisconsin, for example, indigent defendants that want to challenge their sentences will most likely come across Sharon Patrick.
Patrick is one of about 300 members of the National Association of Sentencing Advocates, a group of professionals – many of them, like Patrick, without a legal degree – who work within the legal system to mitigate the sentences of the convicted.
Patrick is a clients services coordinator at Wisconsin’s Office of the State Public Defender. The skills required for the job are similar, but Patrick works the opposite end of the spectrum from Ellis.
“I just work with poor people, and I wish I could do more because most of them have circumstances where if the judge only knew, their sentence could be modified,” Patrick said.
And unlike Ellis, who most often enters a case once guilt has been determined, some of Patrick’s cases involve cleaning up after defense lawyers who focused all their energy on the trial at the expense of uncovering mitigating evidence.
“You’ll just have bad lawyering and you’ve got to fix things up,” Patrick said.
And that’s where Ellis’ and Patrick’s roles converge: picking up where a defense attorney leaves off.
“Most people become criminal defense lawyers because they like cross-examining the snitch, delivering the dynamic closing argument that’ll bring tears to the eyes of the jurors,” Ellis says.
“They’re really good at telling a story to the jurors. They’re not as good about telling a story to the judge. And that’s the name of the game. You’ve got to tell a story.”