Debbie Wyatt indictments tossed out
The five indictments against civil rights attorney Debbie Wyatt for the archaic crime of "embracery" were thrown out of court today in a conference-room hearing in Albemarle Circuit Court.
Embracery comes from English common law and is the crime of attempting to corrupt and influence a jury that dates back to the Magna Carta, and is so rare it's unheard of in Charlottesville legal circles. It's not to be confused with jury tampering, which is on the Virginia books.
Wyatt's phalanx of attorneys, including Alexandria-based John Zwerling (left), Alan Silber, and Dana Slater, concede that Wyatt attempted to contact five grand jurors. But they say it was merely to let them know she was available to testify as a witness.
Where the defense differed from the prosecution: "That's not a crime," says Zwerling, who defended UVA stabber Andrew Alston in 2004, and earlier this year, the woman who forgot her nine-month baby in the JAG School parking lot, Raelyn Balfour.
Only one embracery case has been brought in Virginia in the past 100 years, Silber told retired Fredericksburg Judge William Ledbetter, and the charge is not a part of the commonwealth's statutory law. "Debbie Wyatt's notification of jurors was not unlawful," maintains Silber.
Silber described grand juries, whose indictments are done in secret at the behest of the prosecution, as a "sword and shield" that protects citizens accused of crimes but could be used as a "source of oppression."
The indictments stem from a 2004 case in which Wyatt's client, Ernest Charles Erickson, had been charged in a hit-and-run. Wyatt's team contends that jurors deserved the information that Wyatt wanted to give them: that her client suffered from seizures."The topic is important," said Silber, "and not just to Debbie Wyatt. That's why I'm here on the behalf of the National Association of Criminal Defense Lawyers."
Special prosecutor Jerry Negin disagreed that Wyatt's purpose was merely to offer her services as a witness, and hinted at a more nefarious scenario of juror intimidation that would have come out at trial. He contended that Wyatt had other avenues by which to offer her testimony, either through the commonwealth's attorney or the court.
Negin says that Wyatt went to the clerk's office and attempted to photograph the grand jurors' list with a digital camera– until an assistant clerk made her a copy.
Sitting quietly beside Negin in the standing-room-only conference room, Wyatt looked wounded as he described her alleged misdeeds.
Zwerling rejoined that the grand jury list is a public document, and whether she attempted to photograph it was not the issue. "Did she intend to criminally influence the jury?" he asked.
"What was she going to testify?" asked Judge Ledbetter. "She was not an eyewitness. She just wanted to get in there and argue the case."
Zwerling points out that hearsay is admissible in grand juries and that police officers do that all the time.
Wyatt's contact of the grand jurors may be "inappropriate " or "foolish," said Judge Ledbetter.
"Getting to the nitty gritty," he continued, Wyatt's actions did not amount to embracery, and he granted the defense motion to dismiss. "It is the Court's opinion that to put Ms. Wyatt on trial would be a grave injustice," he added.
According to Wyatt, it was Albemarle Commonwealth's Attorney Jim Camblos who took the grand jurors' concerns to Judge Edward Hogshire and sought a special prosecutor. "This is Jim Camblos doing," Wyatt told the Daily Progress.
Curiously, the unsealing happened the day before the November 6 elections. Wyatt wasn't running for anything, but incumbent Albemarle Commonwealth's Attorney Jim Camblos was. He was defeated by Democratic challenger Denise Lunsford.
"Pure coincidence," says Camblos of the timing. "I haven't had anything to do with that for two years."
"Very bizarre," says Wyatt of the timing of the unsealing. She was indicted in June 2005, but the indictments remained sealed while Erickson's legal case proceeded. He was ultimately acquitted of hit-and-run by a jury in April 2005. Nonetheless, Wyatt still faces a Virginia State Bar investigation.
After her indictments were dismissed, Wyatt said, "The commonwealth's attorney knew all these facts. This one was such a travesty for what they did to my client."
[The spelling of Jerry Negin's name was incorrect in the print version and has been corrected in the on-line edition.]