Criminal: James F. Wyatt III

By Chris Richter

More than three years have passed, but James Wyatt remembers the case clearly. He had been appointed to defend Samuel Mahatha, charged with shooting and killing a sheriff’s deputy outside a grocery store in Charlotte in 1998. The jury found Wyatt’s client guilty after 25 minutes of deliberation. That’s because he was guilty. The only issue in the case, Wyatt says, was whether Mahatha would get the death penalty.

He argued that his client was borderline mentally retarded and emotionally disturbed. “We had several expert witnesses who could have testified during the sentencing phase of his case about his mental and emotional condition, but we chose to rely on people with firsthand knowledge.” Among them was Mahatha’s twin brother, a decorated Army Ranger whose testimony left some jurors in tears. Mahatha got life. It was vintage Wyatt. “I want a juror to emotionally connect with my client’s case. It’s a combination of presenting the most forceful facts along with appealing to their emotions and their common sense and their experiences to give them the ammunition they need to go in the jury room and come back in my favor, in my client’s favor.”

About half his work is criminal, the other half civil. His clients have included Sidney Kosann , former CEO of Shelby Yarn, who was sued after the company shut down in 2000. Kosann, the company that owned Shelby Yarn and other defendants paid about $2 million to settle with former employees in 2004. Wyatt also represented Andrew Reyes, the Mecklenburg County Democratic chairman accused of embezzling $3.6 million from an owner of the construction company for which he worked. He pleaded guilty in 2003 to 19 counts of bank fraud and tax evasion, agreed to cooperate in a federal investigation of his associates, who were accused of tax evasion, and received a 57-month sentence.

Wyatt grew up outside Chicago in Barrington, Ill., and gravitated to law partly because of his father, who had a law degree from Georgetown University and worked in the finance departments of Universal Oil Products and agricultural co-op CF Industries. Wyatt majored in economics as an undergraduate at Vanderbilt University.

After graduating from law school, he clerked two years for a federal district court judge in Rome, Ga. He wanted to start his own firm but lacked experience, so he got a job with a lawyer in Summerville, Ga. He got the experience he needed, trying cases ranging from divorce to federal racketeering.

He had enjoyed his time in North Carolina during law school and liked Charlotte, so he started his practice there in 1986. It wasn’t easy. “You have to go out and earn the right for people to hire you. The way I did that was to get out and get on every court-appointed list I could and start trying cases.” He made $8,000 his first quarter. Expenses were $6,000. His desk and credenza were four banker’s boxes supporting a typewriter and four more with a telephone on top. He has better furniture now, but he has kept his practice small. The firm has one other lawyer — Rob Blake, who was made partner in 2004 — two paralegals and a secretary.

Wyatt isn’t preachy and doesn’t feign moral outrage as some lawyers do, says Carl Horn III, U.S. chief magistrate judge for the western district of North Carolina. “He prepares as well as any lawyer I’ve ever seen. He’s very smart, and he balances rational argument with a passion for his work.”

That balance is critical in building trust, Wyatt says. “The jury believes you as a lawyer if they think you’re credible. They’ll listen to you. If they’ll listen to you, then you have a chance to win your case.”