Seth Kretzer’s law office is filled with artwork depicting what he describes as "American triumphs." Behind his desk hangs a LeRoy Nieman painting of an American soldier with a single-shot rifle.
"I’m fighting for the Constitution and my clients, and all we often have is a single-shot rifle," Kretzer says.
In arguments before the 5th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals, he has only 20 minutes to sway the court in a client’s favor, he says. But, often, that’s enough. Kretzer says he has won reversals from the 5th Circuit in five of his cases in the past three years.
His first 5th Circuit oral argument came in a death penalty case, to which the court assigned him the day he opened his law office in 2009, Kretzer says. In 2010, the 5th Circuit reversed 19 life sentences assessed in United States v. Tyrone Mapletoft Williams, a case involving a human-smuggling conspiracy that resulted in the deaths of 19 people in 2003. His client, Williams, was the driver of the tractor-trailer used to transport the illegal immigrants.
Yetter Coleman partner Marc Tabolsky of Houston, co-counsel for the appeal in Williams, says Kretzer developed the arguments and strategy, handled the briefing and argued the case before the 5th Circuit.
"He immersed himself in the case, and he was ready for anything," Tabolsky says.
Kretzer says he argued that there was insufficient evidence to prove Williams intentionally engaged in an "act of violence" that resulted in the deaths and that the trial court erred in its instruction to the jury on that issue. The 5th Circuit agreed, finding that, because the evidence was insufficient, the district court should not have submitted the "threshold intent question" to the jury and should have done the sentencing. On remand, the district court sentenced Williams to 34 years, of which he already has served 10, Kretzer says.
Although Kretzer has made a name for himself in criminal law, he did not always intend to be a defense attorney. Kretzer, who received a bachelor’s degree in business administration from the University of Texas, says he had a summer internship in 1999 at Enron Corp. The company made him a job offer, but he opted to go to UT School of Law instead, receiving his J.D. in 2003.
"I thought I’d be better at writing legal briefs than messing with spreadsheets," Kretzer says.
Kretzer says he was a judicial clerk in 2003-2004 for then-U.S. District Judge David Folsom of the Eastern District of Texas and in 2005-2006 for 5th Circuit Judge Thomas Reavley before joining Fulbright & Jaworski in Houston in 2006. He says he went to work at Caddell & Chapman in late 2007, remaining there until he opened his firm in 2009. Since then, he has served as lead counsel on more than 50 direct appeals in the 5th Circuit, Kretzer says.
In 2011, Kretzer won a reversal in United States v. Tyrone Jordan, a money-laundering case in which his client was convicted of helping to facilitate the purchase of a plane for a drug cartel. In calculating the sentence, the district court erroneously included $304,000 in drug money transported in the plane as laundered funds, Kretzer says.
"A simple legal mistake doubled his sentence," he says.