Prominent local attorney indicted on rare charge
A prominent local civil rights lawyer with a history of clashing with authorities has been charged with attempting to improperly influence an Albemarle County grand jury, according to indictments unsealed Monday.
Deborah C. Wyatt, 57 , faces five misdemeanor counts of embracery, a common-law charge seldom used in Virginia.
In December 2004, Wyatt contacted several members of a grand jury considering the case of one of her clients and offered herself as a witness, according to court documents.
Prosecutors maintain her conversations with the grand jurors were illegal attempts to influence their deliberations. However, Wyatt and her attorney say she did nothing improper and that no law was broken.
“There’s no corrupt intent,” said Alexandria-based defense attorney John Zwerling, who represents Wyatt. “Just saying that, ‘so-and-so is available to be a witness’ is OK.”
Albemarle Commonwealth’s Attorney Jim Camblos initiated the unusual case by referring it to a special prosecutor for investigation.
Wyatt said Monday, “This is Jim Camblos’ doing, and I really wish the public had an opportunity to learn in more detail what this is all about before the election tomorrow.” She referred all additional questions to her lawyer.
Camblos replied, “The grand jurors had raised a concern about what had happened. I made no investigation into this matter. A special prosecutor was appointed.
“I just felt there was something that ought to be looked at. I went to [Circuit] Judge [Edward L.] Hogshire and asked for a special prosecutor to be appointed. I got a special prosecutor appointed and they took it to the grand jury.”
Wyatt has made a name for herself in Charlottesville in several high-profile cases. As a young lawyer in 1983, the University of Virginia School of Law graduate argued two cases before the U.S. Supreme Court, one successfully. In recent years, she has filed lawsuits against the police claiming wrongful death and racial profiling.
In December 2004, Wyatt was representing Ernest Charles Erickson, who was charged with hit-and-run after a July 8, 2004, car accident.
Wyatt is accused of calling three grand jury members the night before they were scheduled to meet to decide whether there was enough evidence for a trial in Erickson’s case.
“She called on Sunday night before we had to go on Monday, and I think it was about quarter of 9,” one juror, who asked that her name not be used, said Monday. “She called and said that she had some information about that case that she would like to talk about.”
Wyatt is also accused of attempting to contact two other grand jurors the next day at the courthouse, again offering herself as a witness in Erickson’s case.
Some of the jurors felt the contact was inappropriate and brought their concerns to Camblos, the juror said.
“I said, ‘I’d rather for us just to forget this. Let’s go home, it’s been a long day,'” the juror said.
However, the entire panel later signed a letter “indicating that Ms. Wyatt may have not followed proper procedures and may have been inappropriately trying to influence their decision in the Erickson indictment,” according to court documents.
Erickson, Wyatt’s client, was accused of getting in a car accident, driving on for a few hundred feet and striking a second car. He was arrested at the scene of the second accident and charged with both felony and misdemeanor hit-and-run.
In a motion asking a judge to dismiss the charges against her, Wyatt maintains that Erickson had a history of seizures and that she wanted to testify that he’d had a seizure the day of the accident.
However, she was not called before the grand jury, which indicted Erickson. He was later acquitted at trial.
Though it is not typically done, Zwerling said there is no law prohibiting attorneys from making themselves available as witnesses to a grand jury. He said the jurors would likely not have indicted Erickson if they’d heard from Wyatt.
“The only person to come out worse would have been Debbie, because she wouldn’t have earned her trial fee,” Zwerling said.
Though legislators create most state laws, Virginia’s embracery law – which prohibits attempts to influence a jury – was adopted from the English when the commonwealth was formed, according to Jerry Negin, an assistant commonwealth’s attorney in Prince William County brought in to prosecute Wyatt’s case.
“The common law is the common law that comes from the Magna Carta,” he said.
Negin declined to discuss the case, but did say that such charges are rare.
“Embracery is an attempt to influence a juror,” Negin said. “There’s a case that’s a very old case, the year is in the 1920s, that extends that crime to a grand jury.”
Wyatt was indicted on the embracery charges in June 2005, but the indictments were sealed and the criminal cases put on hold while the Virginia Bar Association looked into the case.
This spring, the bar association decided to wait until the criminal cases were concluded to make a decision in Wyatt’s case, Zwerling said.
“The bar association decided that they were going to pass the buck back to the prosecutors,” he said.
A spokeswoman for the state bar declined to comment on the case.
After the indictments were unsealed Monday, the state and national associations of criminal defense lawyers condemned the charges.
“The prosecution of attorney Deborah Wyatt for zealous and competent representation of her client before a grand jury can only be described as an attempt to co-opt the grand jury as an exclusive tool of the prosecution and isolate it from the community,” lawyer Alan Silber wrote in a release from both organizations.
Wyatt is scheduled for a jury trial on Dec. 18 and 19. On Nov. 14, a judge will hear her motion to dismiss the charges. If convicted, she could face up to a year in jail for each count.