HOTSEAT- Last stand: Wyatt's day(s) in court
Here's how Deborah Wyatt starts her new year: with a three-day murder trial.
One of Charlottesville's first female lawyers, dubbed the "Black Widow" for the notoriety of her cases– and her success in winning them– is throwing down her legal pad. She's not taking new cases, but insists she'll stay with current clients until they're done.
Among her better known clients: Shirley "Razor Wire" Presley, who's suing Charlottesville and the Rivanna Trail Foundation for $1.5 million, Abraham Gray, who won $4.5 million for the fatal shooting of his son in 1997 in a suit against Albemarle police Sergeant Amos Chiarappa, and Chris Matthews, who is suing the rape victim who mistakenly identified him as her attacker.
And why quit at the relatively young age of 56 [according to the Hook's count, despite Wyatt's more aged answer below]?
"So I have a life," she replies. "I don't know if it's your classic burnout, but I've seen things that really bother me."
She doesn't hesitate to list some of those pet peeves: the county prosecutor's office, mandatory minimums, making misdemeanors felonies and taking away the voting rights of America's extraordinarily large prison population.
"I've always had this sense of outrage at unfairness, and my parents had to hear about it with my sister," says Wyatt.
But after nearly 30 years practicing law, the Atlanta native has lost some of her idealism, if not her outrage.
"In some ways, I'm not sure you end up making that big a difference," she muses, citing the case of Anthony Jones, who was charged with attempted murder of a police officer and for whom she challenged the credibility of Charlottesville police in 1980. "That won me a lot of friends," she asides. She got Jones acquitted, only to see him shot in a drug deal eight years later.
Besides, the law is not her only passion. "I've been painting since I was a child," she says, pointing to portraits of her two sons that adorn her Court Square office. She also harbors an interest in history and writing. "I have some material," she deadpans. "Or maybe I'll be hanging out in a bar," she jokes.
Wyatt's sense of humor extends to the "Black Widow" nickname that she says was bestowed by a male lawyer after she beat him in court. "I liked it," she says. "I didn't take offense."
Why here: Met husband at UVA's Animal House while I was attending Sweet Briar– how could I leave?
What's worst about living here? Having to try to relate to frosted-haired women who drive expensive SUVs with fish symbols.
Favorite hangout: Corner of Via Cavour and Via dei Fori Imperiali– whenever I can.
Most overrated virtue? Being so-called "tough on crime," which lately just means supporting more and more felony charges and mandatory minimums so that every year we can imprison and disenfranchise more and more people (or extract even more falsely-based plea bargains), until ultimately only a select class will be left free and able to vote (or, for the 2nd Amendmenters, to bear arms).
People would be surprised to know: That I am at times shy and insecure? How about that I spent many months in the jungles of Guatemala– in places most decidedly not on any tourist itinerary, where they did not speak Spanish at all but only Kekchi and conditions were, well, let's just say there were no bathrooms as we view them, no beds, no coffee either but just burnt corn substitute.
What would you change about yourself? Greater patience and a longer fuse.
Proudest accomplishment? Surviving and perservering through the shamefully unconstitutional, abusive trial of U.S. v. Johnny Mac Brown and other occasional journeys through judicial abuse. Talking abuse here, not merely rulings I disagree with.
People find most annoying about you: Probably my bluntness/candor. And definitely need some work in the whole patience department.
Whom do you admire? Sir Thomas More
Favorite book: To Kill a Mockingbird and One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest (any other books out there with bird titles?)
Subject that causes you to rant? Religious hypocritical zealots of any persuasion– and idiots (same thing?).
Biggest 21st century thrill: Very weird paranormal/metaphysical experience I will discuss only with intimates.
Biggest 21st century creep out? "Patriot Act" and Guantanamo.
What do you drive? Audi since 1974 (not the same one)
In your CD player right now. "How to Understand Great Music," Book 4, plus the Band, Lynyrd Skynyrd, Rolling Stones, Neil Young. Soon, the masterful jazz sounds of William Wyatt.
Next journey? Probably back to Italy (see favorite hangout)– or maybe back to central Guatemala.
Most trouble you've ever gotten in? Still in it, and I look forward to being able to discuss at some point, at some length, with pride.
Regret: Not being patient and appreciative enough with family members.
Favorite comfort food: Fried chicken, mother's or KFC original; and chocolate anything.
Always in your refrigerator: Probably something decaying badly.
Must-see TV: Jon Stewart.
Favorite cartoon: Simpsons
Describe a perfect day. At a shady old house along the Patuxent River near where it enters the Chesapeake Bay, children splashing, laughing, screen doors slamming, picnic ready under the trees on a long table with a red checkered cloth, everyone a little pink, a little stinging from the sun, planes occasionally flying low overhead to the nearby naval base, still a child so someone else does all the work.
Walter Mitty fantasy: Being Queen Elizabeth rallying her troops at Tilbury before the miraculous defeat of the Spanish Armada.
Who'd play you in the movies? Katherine Hepburn. Oops, she can't– so Russell Crowe.
Most embarrassing moment? Latest– sending a personal email to a listserv.
Best advice you ever got? Pick your battles.
Favorite bumper sticker: "Allen lies; check the facts," which I personally had printed up during his first Senate run (after watching him take credit for EPA clean up). Catchy, huh? Still have some left over but I might have to use them again.
PHOTO BY JEN FARIELLO