Defending the Delorable

Four North Carolina lawyers describe how and why they do it

Published in 2007 North Carolina Super Lawyers — February 2007

The law provides for fair and equal treatment in the criminal justice system, but the public often assumes the accused is guilty, particularly if the case is profiled repeatedly in the media. But criminal defense attorneys have the ability to focus on the person, not the act, when they take on cases that involve the notorious. Read on to learn why some North Carolina criminal defense attorneys believe that everyone deserves fair, expert representation.

The Smart, The Stupid, The Mean, The Angelic

Allegedly. Criminal defense attorneys use this word a lot, much to the chagrin of a society often frustrated with the criminal justice system. However, it does nicely sum up their job, which is requiring that the government prove beyond a reasonable doubt that a citizen who allegedly commits a crime receives fair legal representation.

“Allegedly” is no mere buzz word for criminal defense attorney Locke T. Clifford, senior partner with Clifford Clendenin & O’Hale in Greensboro. “I am a firm believer that our society is defined by the fact that every single one of us—guilty, innocent, rich, poor, smart, stupid, sane, crazy, mean or angelic—has a right to be represented by zealous and effective counsel.”

Clifford earned experience with all those adjectives while serving in the military. He was already an attorney when he enlisted during the Vietnam War. “When I got to Vietnam,” he says, “they needed a lawyer more than they needed a grunt that particular day.” Therefore, he was assigned to the JAG (Judge Advocate General’s) office in Da Nang, and his work as both a prosecutor and a defense lawyer in several courts martial solidified his plans for the future. “I knew by the time I was through with my year in Vietnam that I wanted [criminal defense] to be my life’s work,” Clifford says.

In his post-war private practice, two of Clifford’s most prominent criminal cases involved the medical profession—one in which a nurse was charged with homicide in the death of a newborn baby born with terminal birth defects, and the other involving a charge of manslaughter against a mental hospital caretaker accused of suffocating a patient with a towel while trying to restrain him. Clifford helped secure not guilty verdicts in both cases.

The biggest challenge of Clifford’s job has always been getting to the truth and figuring out what really happened. “I tell them that misleading your lawyer about the facts of a case is like misleading your doctor about the symptoms of your disease: No good can come of it.”

Swimming Against the Media Tide

David S. Rudolf knows a thing or two about getting to the truth after swimming against the tide of extensive negative media coverage preceding the trial of former Carolina Panther wide receiver Rae Carruth in a 2001 murder-for-hire case. “By the time we went to trial, I think most of the people in Charlotte and around the country assumed Rae was guilty, so that was something we had to try and overcome,” says Rudolf. He says that with less publicity, he might have won the entire case rather than beat only the capital murder charge (Carruth was convicted of conspiracy to commit murder). “I think the jury did the best they could, but they’re human beings and I’m sure they were on some level influenced by all the publicity.”

President of Chapel Hill firm Rudolf, Widenhouse & Fialko, Rudolf grew up in the 1960s, an era in which the government’s role in society was often called into question, and which he credits as the genesis of his interest in criminal defense work. “I’ve had many clients—businessmen, FBI agents, etc.—who were probably in the ‘lock-’emup-and-throw-away-the-key’ camp until they found themselves on the wrong end of an investigation,” he says. “And then they felt very strongly that they were entitled to a presumption of innocence, and they certainly wanted a lawyer who would hold the government to proving its case and not simply rolling over. And that’s really what distinguishes our legal system from most others in the world.”

When asked how he feels about defending people accused of committing allegedly deplorable acts, Rudolf cites his representation of the chair of the Republican Party of North Carolina. “He and I disagreed probably about every political issue we could possibly think of, but I represented him as zealously as I would represent any other person. I don’t make value judgments about my clients,” he says. “I really separate what they’re charged with doing from the person who is sitting across from me at the table seeking my help.”

A Legal Legacy

As counsel for what may be the most prominent criminal trial in America today, the Duke Lacrosse team rape case, Joseph B. Cheshire V has navigated his share of choppy media waters. “It’s very interesting to watch the ebb and flow of the media,” he says, referring to how cases can fall under or away from the public purview. In his lengthy career, Cheshire has handled dozens of first-degree murder and myriad other criminal cases, while also finding time to serve as chair of Indigent Defense Services of North Carolina, which provides representation for low-income clients.

The partner at Cheshire, Parker, Schneider, Bryan & Vitale is the fifth first-born male of the same name to practice law in North Carolina. But during those 170-odd years of law practice, Cheshire is the first to practice criminal law. “When I was 14, I read The Diary of Anne Frank,” he says, “and I knew that I wanted to help prevent my government from ever doing something like that to its own citizens.”

From the Frivolous to the Grave

James F.Wyatt III of Wyatt & Blake in Charlotte has defended a local costume-shop client against Barney the purple dinosaur as part of a trademark infringement case, has called Michael Jordan as a witness in a drug and gambling case, and has been mentored by the attorney upon whom the titular television character in Matlock is based.

Wyatt’s practice is varied and colorful: He once defended a man accused of shooting a police officer in cold blood over some stolen crab legs at a grocery store. The catch? The defendant, Samuel Mahatha, was mentally retarded. Wyatt—himself a father of three children—faced the task of ensuring Mahatha was spared the death penalty for shooting a decorated police officer who left behind a pregnant wife and two children. Wyatt succeeded. “The most effective testimony,” he says, “was from some of his former teachers testifying about him as a person and about his mental capacity, as well as [from] his twin brother, who was a decorated military veteran.”

It is those many different perspectives that typify our system of justice. Frustrating as it might have been, Wyatt says of the case, “It was a gut-wrenching story from many different perspectives.” But, he adds, “Without that adversarial process, the word ‘allegedly’ might be replaced with ‘guilty’ before anyone gets to trial.”

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