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David Adler cannot begin to tally the countless hours he spent scavenging through hundreds of thousands of pieces of paper before he found the first clue that led to getting the Texas conviction of his client — one of the Central Intelligence Agency’s most notorious figures — vacated. In 1983, the U.S. Department of Justice built a case against Edwin Paul Wilson, alleging he had shipped 22 tons of C-4 plastic explosives to Libya from Houston Intercontinental Airport. Wilson didn’t deny that, but claimed he sold explosives as a way to curry favor with the Libyan government as he worked undercover to gather intelligence for the CIA — the government agency he had worked for from 1955 until 1971 and for which he said he continued to work on special assignments. A federal jury in Houston convicted Wilson in 1983. Sixteen years later, as Adler foraged through documents, he found the piece of paper that, in the end, would shake the foundation of the DOJ’s case against Wilson and ultimately help lead U.S. District Judge Lynn Hughes of Houston in October to overturn Wilson’s Texas conviction. A routing and transmittal slip from Mark Richard, a U.S. deputy assistant attorney general to then-Assistant U.S. Attorney General Lowell Jensen — both of whom supervised the case against Wilson — questioned the validity of an affidavit, known as the Briggs affidavit, presented at Wilson’s trial as part of the government’s evidence establishing Wilson did not work for the CIA after he resigned in 1971. The routing and transmittal slip called for a meeting among “relevant players” to discuss disclosure. Jensen, now a U.S. district judge in Oakland, Calif., declines to comment on the case. Calls seeking comment from Richard were directed to a DOJ spokesman, Bryan Sierra, who declines to comment on specific issues, saying only, “Right now we are reviewing the decision and studying it. It is a very significant case, so we want to make sure to look at it closely.” In the routing and transmittal slip, Richard questioned whether the DOJ should disclose that the Briggs affidavit was false. He wrote that he believed the information should be disclosed. But Wilson and his attorney at the time never learned of the affidavit’s falsity because the government never disclosed it. “It was just once piece of the puzzle proving that my client was telling the truth all along,” Adler says. Based on the evidence Adler’s tireless search produced, on Oct. 27 — six years after Adler had been appointed to represent Wilson, five years after Adler had found the routing and transmittal slip, and after Wilson had spent 20 years in prison — Hughes vacated Wilson’s Texas conviction in United States of America v. Edwin Paul Wilson, writing, “[T]he government knowingly used false evidence against him and suppressed favorable evidence.” AN HONORABLE ADVOCATE In December 1983, Wilson appealed his case to the 5th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals, but the court upheld the conviction the following year. In 1997, Hughes assigned Adler to represent Wilson, who wanted the court to vacate his conviction for selling explosives to Libya. Five attorneys who know Adler and who have worked with him say his tenacity and diligence made him the perfect person to handle a case such as Wilson’s. And it didn’t hurt that Adler — a 39-year-old Houston solo — also is a former CIA agent. In fact, Adler’s stint as an operations officer was one of the reasons why Hughes, in an interview, says he assigned him to the case. Hughes declines further comment about the case or Adler because the DOJ is reviewing his opinion. “I don’t know of any other attorney, working alone, who would go to the lengths that David did on this case,” says Waco, Texas, solo John Donahue. “I know he feels vindicated. What other way could you feel?” Richard Kuniansky, a partner in Houston’s Kuniansky & Rozan, agrees. “He was the ideal guy for the job because of his background and because he is tenacious,” he says. “He saw that an injustice had been done and worked his tail off to prove it.” Raised in upstate New York by a conservative Republican father and a liberal Democrat mother, Adler says the one thing his parents agreed on was the importance of treating all people fairly. Becoming a lawyer, Adler says, was never a goal. Instead, he was fascinated with television — sports production to be exact. So in 1986 he earned a bachelor’s degree in television/radio from Ithaca College in Ithaca, N.Y. He worked for area television stations producing sports shows and events, including Boston Red Sox games. Soon after graduating from college, his younger brother died. While spending time with his family as they mourned his brother’s passing, Adler examined his own life and decided he would take a crack at law school. “I was one of those students who high school teachers would tell that needed to go to medical school or law school, but I didn’t think that’s what I wanted to do,” he says. Warm weather drew Adler to Houston, where in 1987 he enrolled at Thurgood Marshall School of Law at Texas Southern University, graduating in 1990. While he attended law school, he worked part time at Houston-area news stations. After he graduated from law school and passed the Texas bar exam, Adler says he thought he wanted to take a job serving his country. He considered joining the military and being a part of the Judge Advocate General’s Corps (JAG), but found something that interested him even more — the CIA. “I remember going to the public library and flipping through a book of all the government agencies and came across the CIA,” he says. “I wrote them a half-joking letter that said that I didn’t really know what they did but knew that they tended to get into trouble.” Adler says he wanted to join the agency’s general counsel office, but CIA recruiters had other plans for him. During his interview with agency representatives, Adler was asked if he considered himself a team player. He responded, “Only if I can pick the team.” That answer earned him a rejection letter from the Federal Bureau of Investigation several years earlier, Adler says. But his response must have been the answer the CIA was looking for. “They started talking about operations, and I started laughing,” he recalls. “I began to envision what I had seen on TV and in movies and thought there was no way I would make it.” After spending nearly two years training to use weapons, to write intelligence reports and to recruit people to share information, the CIA sent Adler to Africa. It was not a sought-after post by most agents, Adler says, but he wanted to go there because he would get more hands-on experience and wouldn’t have to work under a large bureaucracy found in the agency’s divisions in Europe and South America. Adler worked in countries such as Somalia, Sierra Leon and Liberia — places where civil unrest was the norm. He says he recruited people to give him information that “their boss[es] didn’t want us to have.” The work was exciting and dangerous, Adler says. Wilson’s name would come up from time to time, Adler says. “People spoke badly about him,” Adler says. “He was hated.” After four years, Adler says, he’d had enough of government work and wanted out. He says he loved his job and enjoyed the agency, but knew his personality eventually would keep him from being promoted beyond a certain point. “There were a substantial number of people who were more interested in their own career path than getting the job done,” he says. “I knew it was a matter of time before I said or did something that would hurt my career.” SURPRISE, SURPRISE Because he was licensed to practice law in Texas, Adler returned to Houston. He says he thought about relocating to Austin or San Antonio, but because he had some contacts in Houston, he decided to set up shop as a solo in 1995. He thought he’d try his hand at labor and employment law, but he began to accept federal court appointments to pay the bills. “I soon began to enjoy criminal work and eventually fell in love with it,” Adler says. He steers clear of state cases because they “seem more political and rushed,” compared to federal cases. Adler handled one of his first jury trials with Kuniansky. It was a large drug conspiracy case with multiple defendants represented by highly experienced attorneys, Kuniansky recalls. “I was impressed with David from day one,” Kuniansky says. “He was a rookie and was slinging it with seasoned veterans.” Adler says he chugged along, trying cases and building his practice, when in 1997 he received a call from the personnel director at the Southern District clerk’s office to see if he could accept an appointed case. The phone call was routine and not unlike any others Adler says he had received over the years. He told the person on the other line that he was free and soon after received a faxed docket sheet. Adler says he was taken aback when he noticed the name on the documents cycling out of his fax machine: Edwin P. Wilson. “To be honest, although I knew about the case and who Ed Wilson was, I did not realize he had been tried in Houston,” Adler says. “I looked through what he filed and added it to the stack of things to do.” Adler contacted his client by letter on May 14, 1997, to introduce himself. He stated in the letter that he would be representing Wilson and that the court had given him permission to travel to Washington, D.C., to examine documents and he was waiting for security clearance to access classified documents related to the case. A few weeks later, in June, Adler traveled to Pennsylvania to meet Wilson, who was serving a 52-year sentence at Allenwood Federal Penitentiary, a maximum-security prison. Between the time the court appointed Adler and when he turned in his motion to vacate Wilson’s conviction in September 1999, Adler made many trips to Washington, where he would sit in a vault at the DOJ and review classified documents or in a nearby Alexandria, Va., warehouse where Wilson had stored nearly 40 boxes of government documents he had obtained through Freedom of Information Act requests he filed pro se after his conviction. Adler worked alone on the case, without assistance from other attorneys, clerks or paralegals. In contrast, he says the DOJ had two lawyers and three paralegals reviewing the same information. Adler says because he had been a CIA agent, he had a leg up on opposing counsel — he knew how to sift through the government paperwork and was able to tell what various codes meant. There were times, he says, when opposing counsel would come to him and ask what something on a form meant. In between trips to D.C., Adler still ran his law practice in Houston. And business was booming. He was asked to consult with Timothy McVeigh’s defense team to help the lawyers gain access to intelligence information they thought could clear their client. A federal jury convicted McVeigh and sentenced him to death for his role in the 1995 bombing of the Alfred P. Murrah federal building in Oklahoma City. McVeigh was put to death in June 2001. Despite Adler’s busy work schedule, he found time to have a personal life. In November 1998, he met his future wife at a charity bowling event. Christine Kirchner was an associate with Chamberlain, Hrdlicka, White, Williams & Martin in Houston when they met. She says she was at the event with a date but ended up flirting with Adler, who was bowling in the next lane. The two began dating, and often their conversations turned to Wilson’s case. “I thought he was crazy” for taking the case, says Kirchner, now a partner in Chamberlain Hrdlicka. “I remember him talking about having to sit in a vault reviewing the documents. I tried to imagine that. The government made it difficult for David.” A CRUCIAL DISCOVERY Adler’s time in the vault and warehouse, however, was about to pay off. He says talking about the exact moment he found the routing and transmittal slip is almost like recounting a scene from a bad movie. After three straight days of rummaging through boxes in the Virginia warehouse in 1998, he came across the routing and transmittal slip dated July 12, 1983. Inside the cold warehouse, Adler says, racks of boxes surrounded him and a single light bulb dangled from above to illuminate his workspace. “I picked up this one piece of paper and said, ‘My God. This guy was telling the truth,’” Adler recalls. “That’s when it finally hit me that something was wrong. [Wilson] wasn’t the crazy guy he was made out to be, barking at the moon. It re-energized me.” On the routing and transmittal slip, Richard talked about disclosing to the federal jury in Houston the inaccuracy of information from the Briggs affidavit that already had been presented at trial to refute Wilson’s claims that he sold explosives to Libya as part of his undercover work for the CIA. The discovery of the routing and transmittal slip led Adler to a memo titled “Duty to Disclose Possibly False Testimony” that was sent to Richard from an attorney at the DOJ. Adler then found other internal documents discussing how to handle the Briggs affidavit. Adler used the information to piece together Wilson’s claim that not only did he do work for the CIA after he resigned, but that government officials also kept that information from the court. In its answer to Adler’s motion to vacate Wilson’s conviction, the government wrote: “With the benefit of retrospection and in light of all the information now known to the Department, it appears that the statement [the Briggs affidavit] was inaccurate.” In addition, the government wrote, “[F]ollowing Wilson’s termination as a CIA employee, he was asked to perform or did perform what can be described as services on its behalf.” Adler says he was extra cautious about preserving the documents. He quickly faxed a copy of the routing and transmittal slip to his secretary with instructions to make sure it got to Wilson’s next attorney if anything should happen to him. “I wasn’t suspicious that CIA guys were after me or that I was going to get killed over all of this, but God forbid my plane would crash on the way back to Texas,” Adler says. “I didn’t want my client to sit in jail with no one knowing that he was telling the truth.” Donahue, Adler’s friend and colleague, says he remembers asking Adler if he was concerned that people wanting to keep those documents under wraps would ransack his office. “I remember we stood on my front porch one night and talked for nearly three hours about this case,” Donahue says. “I asked if he was worried, and he wasn’t. It was all fascinating stuff.” Adler made more trips to Washington to search for documents with the names of the people he identified — based on the routing and transmittal slip — as key players in keeping information about Wilson’s CIA role a secret. Adler asked a few lawyer friends in Texas to review nonclassified documents to make sure he was not reading something into them that was not there. “I am not a believer in conspiracies, so I wanted to make sure I was on the right track,” Adler says. In less than a year, Adler finally had what he needed to put together a motion to vacate Wilson’s conviction. He spent 72 hours in his office writing it — a 94-page motion with 131 exhibits. Adler says he was careful to ensure that every claim he made in his motion was backed up by evidence. Adler continued his regular routine as a solo after he filed his motion with Hughes in September 1999. When he filed the motion to vacate Wilson’s conviction, Adler and his client were inundated with calls from the media. He made appearances on CBS’ “60 Minutes,” and The New York Times, Washington Post and Time magazine interviewed him. But life soon returned to normal. Adler and Kirchner were married in October 2000 and had a son in September 2003. And Adler continued to grow his practice. Shortly after he filed Wilson’s motion to vacate, Adler says he and Donahue were hired to defend a client facing a wire fraud charge in Oakland, Calif. Coincidentally, the federal judge hearing the case was former Assistant U.S. Attorney General Jensen. For nearly three years, Adler and Wilson waited for Hughes’ answer to the motion to vacate Wilson’s conviction. Knowing how busy the federal dockets were, Adler says he tried to be patient. But every now and again, he sent notes to Hughes to see where things stood. Kirchner says she remembers one note her husband wrote to Hughes. It referred to the movie “Castaway,” in which the lead character is stranded alone on an island and turns a volleyball into a companion named Wilson. “The letter said something to the effect that he had his own Wilson and wanted to remind Hughes that the case was still out there,” Kirchner says. “It’s an example of how David kept his sense of humor while this important case was in the balance.” Adler received the judge’s call late on Oct. 27. The opinion was complete. Adler says he was not surprised that Hughes vacated Wilson’s Houston conviction. Kirchner says Adler is thankful his client is alive to hear the good news. “I think David’s biggest fear has been that Mr. Wilson would die in prison before a decision was made,” she says. Adler’s goal is to get Wilson out of prison, but Wilson currently is serving more than the 17-year sentence for his 1983 conviction in Houston. That same year, a federal jury in the Eastern District of Virginia convicted Wilson on a similar charge of selling explosives to Libya, for which he was sentenced to 10 years. And also in 1983, a jury in the Southern District of New York convicted Wilson for attempted murder, criminal solicitation, obstruction of justice, tampering with witnesses and retaliating against witnesses for trying to have two prosecutors killed. The sentence on that conviction was 25 years. All told, Wilson was sentenced to a total of 52 years in federal prison, including the Texas conviction, but Adler thinks his client may be able to get out of jail soon, especially if Adler now can investigate the Virginia case, which he says was built around similar facts as the Houston case. “My goal here is to get him out of prison as soon as possible,” Adler says. “If that means working with the Justice Department, that’s great, but if I have to battle them, then we’ll go after the Virginia case.” If the Texas and Virginia sentences are vacated, Adler believes that Wilson will already have served enough years in prison to be eligible for parole for the New York conviction. “I find it hard to believe that the prosecution broke the rules in this case and not the others,” Adler says. “Without question, the order of Judge Hughes reversing Mr. Wilson’s conviction raises a number of significant and troubling issues worthy of serious examination,” Mike Shelby, U.S. Attorney for the Southern District of Texas, writes in a statement. “My office will fully review the facts of Mr. Wilson’s case, the law applicable to its resolution, the manner in which it was litigated and the opinion of Judge Hughes. We will then determine what specific steps [we] should follow to bring about a just and fair result.” DOJ spokesman Sierra adds that the DOJ is reviewing how Hughes’ opinion and the evidence outlined in Adler’s motion to vacate may impact Wilson’s Virginia conviction. BOOK DEAL? Three days after Hughes’ opinion vacated Wilson’s Texas conviction, Adler was in court representing a client accused of kidnapping. He’s now fielding phone calls from “60 Minutes,” “ABC Nightly News,” The New York Times, Newsweek and many other media outlets interested in reporting on his victory in Wilson’s case. He’s been interviewed on CNN. He even received calls from writers who want to turn his client’s story into a book. Adler agrees to pass the writers’ information to Wilson and let him decide on any book deal. Through it all, Adler remains unflappable. “All this will die down again in the next couple of weeks,” he says. He maintains that working on this case has not really changed him — or his opinion of the government. “I was never a conspiracy theorist, but I’ve done enough criminal defense work to know that government agents will break the law,” he says. “I think this case is an anomaly. It was unusual. I think there will always be misconduct by a small percentage of those people, but I am more willing to believe it’s possible now.” Since his victory, Adler says he has received many congratulatory messages, including a few from people who offered to help pay for Wilson’s defense. Adler appreciates the gestures, but says he can’t accept any money because the federal court will pay him — someday. At the moment, Adler has yet to fill out a single voucher for reimbursement of attorney fees for his six years of work on Wilson’s case. He says he hasn’t even estimated how much he’s owed. “I’ll get around to it,” he muses. For now, he has more pressing things to do.

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