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Mister Legal Scholar

Don Samuel is the ‘walking legal encyclopedia’ whose cases make headlines

Published in 2021 Georgia Super Lawyers Magazine

Photo by: Stan Kaady

Don Samuel’s long career in criminal defense was launched with a phone call at 11 o’clock one evening in the fall of 1982. It was his managing partner, Ed Garland.

“He said some woman had killed her husband down in Griffin and to get down there and not come back until the case was ready for trial,” recalls Samuel, 67, who had joined the Atlanta firm, now called Garland, Samuel & Loeb, on Memorial Day that year, and had, up until then, planned to work in labor law exclusively—representing Teamsters and teachers unions and the like. It was the kind of work that would have made his father, a labor union organizer, proud.

“I didn’t know much about criminal law and wasn’t really interested in it,” Samuel says. Nonetheless, he drove down to Griffin, about 40 miles south of Atlanta, and spent the night at the jail with new client Nancy Sims, who had just shot her husband.

“Next morning the D.A. saw me in the jail and said, ‘I want you to know that we’re going to take your client in for arraignment this morning,’” Samuel remembers. “I told him, ‘That’s fine.’ Then I called my office and asked, ‘What the hell is an arraignment?’”

Turns out he was a quick study. “He’s like a walking encyclopedia,” says District Judge Steve Jones of Northern District of Georgia. “To say that he knows the law well is a huge understatement. The man is brilliant.”

Samuel’s longtime friend and frequent co-counsel Steve Sadow—the Sims case was their first together—calls him “Mister Legal Scholar.”

The Sims case ended tragically. She was convicted despite witness testimonies of her husband’s volcanic temper and physical abuse. In prison, after being misdiagnosed several times, she was granted a medical reprieve and sent home to die of cancer in 1987. 

“Most people who practice criminal law know it’s a very emotional practice,” Samuel says. “From the outside, everybody looks like a terrible human being: ‘How can you represent those people, how do you sleep at night?’ But that’s not what it’s like. It’s about getting to know people and understanding why things happen. Whether it’s a white-collar case, or a violent crime, or a case that just seems so horrible—a child pornography case—these are human beings and they all have something in their backgrounds that leads them to where they are. 

“There are people that do terrible things, there is no doubt about that. But I don’t think there is such a thing as evil people. I don’t buy that.”

In the years since uttering “not guilty” at that first arraignment in Griffin, Samuel has become, according to Sadow, “the leading expert, by far, in knowledge of criminal law in the state and 11th circuit.” He’s also become a leading expert in its application, having defended the accused and the damned, the wealthy and the indigent for almost 40 years.

His high-profile cases include the last three murder trials of Jim Williams, the charismatic Savannah antique dealer whose case was chronicled in the best-selling book Midnight in the Garden of Good and Evil (and who offered to pay Samuel with Nazi memorabilia when he ran low on funds, to which Samuel says, “Yeah, that’s all I needed—Hitler’s letter opener on my desk”); the Gold Club trial, in which he represented the club’s chief financial officer, Larry Gleit; and, with co-counsel Ed Garland, the Ray Lewis trial. He repped two other NFL stars as well: Jamal Lewis (federal drug prosecution) and Ben Roethlisberger (charges of sexual assault were ultimately dropped).

Samuel, who considers himself a casual sports fan (though he roots with gusto for his son, Yosef, who was a pro soccer player in Denmark and hopes to play in the MLS), loved representing the football stars. “These are larger-than-life people—literally and figuratively,” he says. “And Ray Lewis, he was nothing like what you’d see on the field, when he’d come out and look like the meanest motherfucker you ever saw. He’s the nicest guy. Charming, funny, respectful, and he wouldn’t stop calling us ‘sir.’ I was like, ‘Ray, we won’t call you Mister Lewis if you stop calling us sir.’”

Samuel is equally fond of clients no one has heard of. His pro bono cases include the first Al Qaeda trial in Georgia; the first federal death penalty case in Georgia; and the defense of a homeless man who insisted on sleeping on the courthouse steps. He’s taken on several habeas death cases, and he worked with the Southern Center for Human Rights in other pro bono work. Most recently, he represented a man wrongly convicted of rape in 1990. 

“He was released on November 3, Election Day, and discovered a few changes from the world he left in 1990,” says Samuel. “Thirty years for a crime he did not commit. Can you imagine?”

 

Samuel comes by his portside ideology honestly. He grew up in White Plains, New York, in what he describes as “a very liberal family.” His mother, Ruth, was a nursery school teacher, and his father Howard was a rank-and-file union organizer for clothing workers who was president of the A.F.L.-C.I.O.’s Industrial Union Department for 13 years as well as deputy assistant of labor during the Carter administration. 

Samuel’s two brothers, Bob and Bill, followed in Dad’s organized-labor footsteps. Bob is an investment consultant who helps labor unions invest in union-friendly projects, while Bill heads up the A.F.L.-C.I.O.’s lobbying division.

Don was interested in community organizing and building. So after graduating from Oberlin College, he joined Volunteers in Service to America (now called AmeriCorps VISTA) with a college friend, Melissa Fay Greene, and moved to the south Georgia coast. He was working out of the Brunswick Legal Aid office and she was working at Savannah Legal Aid.

In college, she had dated Samuel’s roommate. Working together in south Georgia, they fell in love and got married while Samuel attended law school—which hadn’t even been on his radar. “But we were surrounded by lawyers and all kinds of legal talent,” Samuel says. “I was convinced by the people I was working with down there to go to law school, and after a couple of years I decided to go. Meanwhile, Melissa started writing about McIntosh County, and that became Praying for Sheetrock.”

Melissa’s book, published in 1991, is a riveting true account of good-old-boy criminal shenanigans and the rise of civil rights in the rural county. It was a finalist for the National Book Award and has been ranked among the best works of journalism in the 20th century. She’s written six more books. She’s also helped her husband with a pearl or two for a closing argument—most notably when he was a third-year law student at UGA in 1979.

“I was competing in the upper-class moot court competition and had made it to the semifinal-round,” Samuel says. “That weekend, Melissa and I were married in Savannah. While driving back to Athens, she rewrote a few lines of my concluding argument. I used those lines in the semifinal and final rounds. The result, undeniably, was that I won the schoolwide competition, and that led to me being hired for my federal clerkship.”

Samuel clerked for U.S. District Judge Harold Murphy (Northern District of Georgia) in Rome for two years, then joined Garland’s firm. Then the Nancy Sims trial happened, “and I really fell in love with criminal defense. I haven’t looked back.”

Part of that is because he enjoys representing individuals rather than organizations. Maybe another part is: Who has time to look back or shift gears when you’re raising nine kids? First came Molly, Seth, Lee and Lily. Then, facing the prospect of an empty house, they adopted five children from other countries: Jesse from Bulgaria (1999); and Helen (2002), Fisseha (2004), and brothers Daniel and Yosef (2008) from Ethiopia. Fisseha passed away in 2014. “Shortly after his death,” Samuel says, “we located Daniel and Yosef’s older brother in Ethiopia and arranged for him to get a student visa and he has been living with us and attending school since 2015. His name is Wegene. He was too old to adopt when he arrived, so he is not actually one of our sons, though he lives with us and is treated in all respects as a son.”

“What Don and Melissa have done is amazing,” says longtime Atlanta Journal-Constitution writer Bill Rankin, who hosts the newspaper’s true crime podcast, Breakdown. He’s also Samuel’s weekend walking partner. 

“Don has a heart as big as the world,” Rankin says. “And he knows the law so well and can explain it in a way my 85-year-old mother-in-law can understand it. We frequently interview him for the podcast and call him Breakdown’s resident legal expert. A lot of people that listen—and we’ve had millions of downloads—have a better understanding of the law thanks to Don.”

The same goes for lawyers and judges. Two of Samuel’s books—Georgia Criminal Law Case Finder and Eleventh Circuit Criminal Handbook—are considered must-have volumes. He also runs a compilation of federal cases that are favorable to the defense on his firm’s website. It is currently 1,900 pages long with more than 6,000 cases on every topic of criminal law.

“His written work is as good, if not better, than anyone’s I’ve ever read,” Sadow says.

Rankin adds: “Some of the best lawyers in the state use his books. They’re on judge’s bookshelves. At one point during the Ray Lewis trial, the prosecutor pulled out Don’s book on evidence.”

Amanda Clark Palmer, a former student of Samuel’s at Georgia State University, where he is an adjunct professor, and now a partner at the firm, recalls a recent hearing in Brunswick in which she and Samuel were defending a police officer who allegedly knew a colleague was giving drugs to confidential informants. “We were talking about defendants appearing before a grand jury, which doesn’t happen very often in Georgia, and a related law that had recently changed,” says Palmer. “And the judge literally looked to Don and said, ‘What do you think the appellate courts would say about this?’” 

In his 40 years of practice, Samuel counts the Gold Club trial as a favorite for many reasons, including his co-counsel (led by Sadow, they were dubbed “The Magnificent Seven” by one juror), the judge (U.S. District Judge Willis Hunt), the subject matter (prostitution, extortion, racketeering, airline fraud, credit card fraud), and the length of the trial (12 weeks). Every day involved an encounter with memorable characters—athletes, mobsters, exotic dancers, and unique evidentiary issues. Samuel’s client, Larry Gleit, who pled to a misdemeanor charge and got probation, was probably the least colorful character in the courtroom. 

“Other lawyers handled the mob allegations, the public corruption and the prostitution. I thought that my assignment [credit card fraud] would be a boring part of the trial,” says Samuel. Except at one point he had to cross-examine several of the dancers about how they would double-bill customers on the side. “At the end of one of those cross-examinations, during which the entertainer was winking at me and twirling her hair, the judge looked at me and said, ‘Mr. Samuel, would you like to have a cigarette?’”

 

Rankin, who has seen Samuel work a courtroom plenty of times, notes, “He’s self-deprecating and kind of draws people in. He has an easy manner to him, but he can get pointed when he needs to, and he does. Some people go for the jugular. Don gets to the jugular but it doesn’t feel like it.”

“I’ve seen him go from being very jovial the first few minutes and laughing along with the witness, to a few minutes later, he’s on the attack and has the guy on the ropes,” says Palmer. “Then five minutes later, the witness is laughing along with Don.” She adds: “He does this other thing when he’s really on a roll. He’ll get the witness in the habit of saying ‘yes, yes, yes.’ And so, if he gets to a question where the witness doesn’t answer fast enough, Don goes, ‘Come on, just say yes.’ And everybody in the courtroom laughs.”

She adds: “Don is one of those people that, if you don’t like him, the problem is with you.”

In a courtroom, you’d be hard-pressed to find two defense lawyers as different as Samuel and Sadow. “Whereas I might call myself theatrical, Don is as calm and easygoing in a courtroom as one can be and still be effective,” says Sadow. “He doesn’t attack witnesses in a showboat style. But he’s able to penetrate a witness’ testimony and call into question their credibility or truthfulness. He’s so damn reasonable.”

Example: In 2014, Samuel represented the southern regional president of the Outlaw Motorcycle Club in federal court. The defendant had fired a local club leader suspected of being an FBI informant. Turns out, he was. “And the government’s view was that he had obstructed justice by firing their informant,” Samuel says. “I told the judge, ‘What happens if you find that one of your law clerks is telling the FBI everything that goes on in chambers? You can’t fire him? You have to keep him?”

The judge directed a verdict of not guilty.

“Even when he disagrees with the other side, he does so in a way that is respectful and professional,” says Judge Jones. “That always leaves a good impression.”


Some of Samuel’s Top Cases and Clients

Jim Williams: Samuel was counsel or co-counsel in the last three murder trials of Jim Williams, the Savannah antique dealer profiled in Midnight in the Garden of Good and Evil. Tried four times, he was acquitted in the last trial.

Gold Club: In 2001, the Gold Club’s CFO faced RICO prosecution for involvement in major organized crime. The client pled to a misdemeanor charge in the 14th week of the trial and was sentenced to 12 months of non-reporting probation.

Ray Lewis: With his partner, Ed Garland, Samuel counseled the Baltimore Ravens All-Pro linebacker who was charged with double murder in Atlanta in 2000. All charges were dropped in exchange for a misdemeanor plea.

Ben Roethlisberger: Samuel and Garland represented the Pittsburgh Steelers quarterback in connection with allegations that he sexually assaulted a college student in Milledgeville. No charges were brought.

Midnight Rider: The director and producer of a movie were charged with involuntary manslaughter in connection with the death of a crew member who was killed by a train. Facing 10 years in prison, the producer had his case dismissed, while the director pled guilty and served 12 months.

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