The Defense Never Rests
James Wyrsch has dedicated his life to two words: “fair trial”
Published in 2006 Missouri & Kansas Super Lawyers magazine
By K.A. Shelley on October 23, 2006
Before he was the second president of the United States, John Adams, a young and struggling lawyer, hesitated before defending British soldiers accused of firing into a crowd during the Boston Massacre in 1770. But Adams said he believed in a free country: “No man, no matter what his alleged crime, should be denied the right to counsel or to fair trial.” Under Adams’ defense, the British captain and six of the eight soldiers were acquitted.
“That’s our system,” says Kansas City attorney and biography buff James (Jim) Wyrsch, retelling a chapter from David McCullough’s John Adams. “If you don’t have lawyers who uphold the system, the system runs over people. What I do is uphold the system.”
Wyrsch, of Wyrsch Hobbs & Mirakian, has spent more than three and a half decades upholding the system as a defense attorney for clients accused of crimes, both of the violent and the white-collar varieties. And in that time, he has acquired a sage perspective and certainty. “You have to understand what a lawyer’s defense role is, OK?” He speaks with a measured cadence, and when he ends his sentence with “OK,” as he often does, he’s not asking you if you get it; he’s telling you how it is.
In 1970, 200 years after John Adams defended those British soldiers, Wyrsch was a new attorney working to give every man his fair trial. Practicing law for only a few years, he became lead counsel for the reputed leader of Kansas City’s Black Mafia, Jimmy Willis. Willis was accused of killing one of the more powerful black political leaders in the state, Leon Jordan. A member of the Missouri House of Representatives and founder of Freedom Inc., Jordan had previously achieved the rank of lieutenant in the city’s police force, the highest rank at that time for an African American.
Jordan owned the Green Duck Tavern at 2548 Prospect Avenue, and early in the morning of July 15 he was gunned down at close range with a sawed-off shotgun in front of his tavern. Jimmy Willis also owned several nightclubs and was prominent in the black community. After seeking other counsel first, Willis came to Wyrsch and Wyrsch’s early mentor, attorney Henry Fox. The politically and racially charged case, State v. Jimmy Willis, would eventually involve the FBI and the U.S. Attorney’s office. But Wyrsch focused on his client.
“We did a lot of work establishing an alibi, interviewing witnesses,” Wyrsch says. Tracking money orders used by Willis, the team was able to prove he was not even in the state at the time of Jordan’s murder. “After about a week of trial,” Wyrsch says, “we walked Jimmy Willis out the door. He wasn’t guilty.”
Law was a natural path for Wyrsch, who says he always admired lawyers, particularly those who became politicians. Thinking he might one day want to try his hand in politics, he chose Georgetown University Law School in Washington, D.C., after finishing his undergraduate degree at the University of Notre Dame.
“Washington was a place of excitement,” Wyrsch says. “John Kennedy was in office, and I thought it was going to be a great time.”
And it was a great time, he says. Then John F. Kennedy was assassinated.
The law school was at 6th and E street, downtown, maybe a mile and a half from the White House. Upon hearing the news from Dallas, Wyrsch didn’t sit idly by. A former editor of the Notre Dame college paper, he went into the National Press Club, where reporters from all over were waiting for an official briefing.
Wyrsch talked to the reporters and told them he thought he could cover the story for the Notre Dame paper.
A few phone calls later and Wyrsch was inside the White House, reporting the story for his alma mater. He says he still has the photograph he took when the president’s body was moved to lie in state on Capitol Hill.
“I was standing on the portico of the White House when they came out,” Wyrsch says. “I followed the casket, and the press walked behind it, but the crowds were such that I never made it up to Capitol Hill.” He returned to the National Press Club and finished his story for the Notre Dame paper.
More tumultuous times followed. After graduating from Georgetown Law, Wyrsch says he was ready to return to the Midwest, but it was 1966 and the Vietnam War was escalating. Wyrsch didn’t wait to be drafted, and instead took a commission as a first lieutenant in the Army Medical Service Corps. He was later reassigned to the General Staff of the Army, and enjoyed traveling the country and using his legal skills looking over contracts for the military’s supply system. Upon leaving the service three years later, Wyrsch had his pick of law firms and in-house positions.
“I had offers in Philadelphia, New York, Washington,” Wyrsch says, “but I said, ‘Look, I want to go home. I want to go where the real people are.’”
Wyrsch admits his view of the Midwest may be overly romantic. “You don’t want to overgeneralize, oversimplify,” he says, “but I believe the people here, what they tell you is what they believe.”
Everyone wants to make a good living, he says, but he had other ideals in mind. “I wanted to come back where those values are more prevalent,” he says of the area. “Obviously, I don’t think Kansas City is a rural town, but I think in many ways it reflects good rural values.”
Rural people are close to the earth, Wyrsch says, and they seem to reflect values that continue in nature. “If you work hard on the land, the land will reward you,” he says. “If you work hard in your profession, your profession will reward you.”
In downtown Kansas City, on the 16th floor of the Commerce Bank building, Wyrsch has been working hard. In more than 35 years of practice, he has argued at the local, state and federal levels, as well as in front of the U.S. Court of Appeals and the Supreme Court. High-profile criminal cases are sprinkled among complex civil litigation. No matter the case, Wyrsch takes it through the system.
In 2001, Wyrsch defended Charles Schleicher, attorney for Kansas City real estate giant J.C. Nichols, against criminal racketeering and conspiracy charges. Schleicher was charged along with two other men, both of whom pleaded guilty only weeks before trial. Wyrsch went to court with a notguilty plea for his client.
“We tried that case for three weeks with these two executives testifying against us,” Wyrsch says. After the third week the judge acquitted Schleicher.
Criminal law is ripe for media attention, and Wyrsch has received his fair share. At a time when clergy abuse scandals are rocking the nation, Wyrsch defended retired priest Sylvester Hoppe in a child molestation case in 2002; and in 2004 he defended another retired priest, Francis E. McGlynn, accused of sexual assault.
The firm is small — nine attorneys and three paralegals — and that’s how Wyrsch likes it. In a bigger firm, you don’t have the same sense of community that you do in a small firm, he says. It’s also important to Wyrsch to have good people with whom to practice.
“If you’re around other good lawyers, and I am,” Wyrsch says, “and they do good work, you can do good work.”
Since starting his law practice, Wyrsch has led by example. He lectures, publishes, has received his master of law degree in trial practice from the University of Missouri–Kansas City School of Law and is an adjunct professor there, teaching a criminal trial techniques course with the firm’s vice president, J.R. Hobbs. In 1994 he co-authored Missouri Criminal Trial Practice (Harrison Books) with Susan Hunt and Judge Anthony Nugent.
“Jim is very willing to give back to the legal community and the law school, through his time, talents and money,” says Ellen Suni, dean of UMKC’s Law School and professor of law. “Because of his reputation and contacts in the community, he has been able to bring the top criminal lawyers in the city into the classroom for demonstrations.”
Whether inside the classroom or in the courtroom, Suni says Wyrsch is truly committed to our system of justice and the role of the criminal defense bar in making that system work.
“He is truly a leader of the bar,” Suni says, “and a giant of the Kansas City criminal defense bar.”
The third-oldest of nine children, Wyrsch credits good role models for making sure his priorities were straight. His parents taught him solid values while he was growing up in Springfield, Mo. “I really had a great set of parents,” says Wyrsch. “I remember things they would say about not taking things too seriously. They taught me to back away, to make sure I was doing the right things.”
It’s easy for Wyrsch to spend time with his wife Darlene. With her job as a paralegal at the firm, they have been able to work together often, especially in the early years of their relationship. Darlene says they spent more than a few nights “burning the midnight oil to meet deadlines for motions, responses and briefs, prepare for trials, and put together articles and outlines.” Most of their five grown children and 12 grandchildren live within five or 10 miles of the their home in Blue Springs. “Many empty-nested couples are downsizing their living quarters,” Darlene says. “Jim and I went the opposite way, and moved into a larger home to accommodate frequent family visits.”
Wyrsch says he likes living in Blue Springs because he gets to know the people around him and see them in a social context. “I enjoy the company of lawyers and judges very much,” he says. “There’s a commonality there, a community.”
Back in Springfield, the lawyers Wyrsch came to know, the ones used by his father and uncle for their businesses, were not only good lawyers, Wyrsch says, but leaders in their community. It’s all part of the civic responsibility that comes with the profession.
“My idea of a lawyer is just not someone who excels in the profession,” Wyrsch says, perhaps thinking of John Adams defending those vilified British soldiers. “They should also provide leadership.”
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