David Lee Windecher was arrested on a shoplifting charge when he was 11 years old. A sixth-grader at Greynolds Park Elementary in North Miami Beach, he swiped a bag of black pegs for the bike he shared with a younger brother.
“It didn’t seem like a big deal at the time, deciding to take what I believed I deserved, but this was the beginning for me,” writes Windecher, now 36. “That was the day I started thinking like a hustler.”
Windecher, who was found guilty of petty theft and sentenced to six months of community control, would go on to be arrested a dozen more times by the time he was 19. He joined a gang, organized a crime ring, sold dope — did what he thought he needed to do to survive the streets.
Now he’s a criminal defense attorney in Atlanta, licensed to practice in Georgia and Florida. He chronicles his painful evolution — a transformation pitted with false starts, hopelessness and desperate but supportive parents — in a recently released book, The American Dream: HisStory in the Making (MBMA Group).
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Inspiring and chilling by turns, the autobiography describes a boy lost to the streets, a boy who, against the odds, dreamed of becoming an attorney, a boy who eventually found God, love and a way out of the ’hood.
“I wrote this because I want to inspire,” he says. “I’m not unique. There are many like me and if I can reach out to them, that’s what I want. I want to show them that if they put their mind to it, they can do it too. Too many of them fall victim to lack of hope.”
Windecher’s journey from criminal to practicing attorney hasn’t gone unnoticed. In May, right after The American Dream was released, he came on as a legal analyst with the HLN show Nancy Grace. He is scheduled to appear on the program at 8 p.m. Sept. 1 and Sept. 7.
In June he signed a shopping agreement with 34th Street Films, a production arm of Tyler Perry Studios. The agreement entitles the studio to hire a screenwriter, prepare a budget and cast before both parties move on to sign a production agreement.
“From what I understand,” Windecher says, “I receive a percentage of the proposed budget and subsequently royalties [once the production agreement goes into effect].”
While these developments are exciting, Windecher considers them gravy. His main goal is to help guide the kids who have strayed. He represents defendants who remind him of the teenager he once was. He understands that, as they face criminal charges, they are living through “one of the most precarious moments of their lives.”
Undoubtedly his experience being on the wrong side of the law has helped him on the job. “I’m able to establish rapport quickly. My understanding of who they are, where they’re coming from establishes common ground because they know I’ve made bad decisions, too.”
But Windecher, the eldest son of Argentine immigrants, wants to do more than represent lost youth in court. He founded Rehabilitation Enables Dreams, or RED Inc. (his nickname), a nonprofit organization that sponsors GED programs for juveniles facing nonviolent criminal charges. He believes other young men are capable of rehabilitation through an education, as he was. (Windecher went on to attend John Marshall Law School and was voted Peer Mentor of the Year in 2011.)
“The judicial system is broken, not just in Miami but here [in Atlanta] as well,” he says. “There’s abuse of the law and wrongful accusations. It’s all about conviction, conviction, conviction. It doesn’t occur to many that there might be a chance of rehabilitation.”
In The American Dream, Windecher paints an unflinching portrait of what it’s like to be poor, young and tempted by easy money. “Make no mistake,” he writes. “The hood is an addiction. An addiction that pulls as seductively and fiercely as the drugs hustled on its streets.”
He recounts how after his 13th and final arrest, he spent 10 days at the Miami-Dade County Pretrial Detention Center, charged with the misdemeanor of loitering. After the charges were dropped, Windecher began to notice the toll his lifestyle had taken on his family. Then after a series of fortunate events, including meeting a young woman who would become his girlfriend for three years and surviving a terrible car accident, Windecher turned around. He began to make the right choices. “I learned to be a part of the world without being broken by it.”
Those chapters of his early life, however, weren’t the most difficult to write. The chapter titled “The American Dream” was. It recounts how the past caught up with Windecher while he was working for the Dekalb County District Attorney’s Office. “I wrote it with tears in my eyes the whole time,” he admits.
Windecher now runs his own practice, The Windecher Firm, and has a longtime girlfriend who is, as he puts it, “the one.” He hopes to present his book in his hometown one day. But he returns to Miami only when absolutely necessary — to represent someone facing criminal charges, for example — though his parents still live here.
“It’s an environment I’d rather steer clear of,” he says. “Miami will always be home for me, of course. There will always be a place for it in my heart.”