Fighting for rights ain’t easy

Fighting for rights ain’t easy

There are lawyers who will take on the establishment at any price, suing institutions like UVA or the police for little payoff aside from the greater good. Neal L. Walters is not that lawyer.

Though Walters has played the yin to bulldog attorney Debbie Wyatt’s yang on a number of civil rights cases over the years—cases like the Eduardo Calzada prison death case and the DNA dragnet suit against the City police department—he picks his battles carefully.

“Civil rights stuff, despite the great tradition it has played in the country, is rarely at the time perceived as being a career-advancing thing to do,” says local attorney Neal Walters.

“One has to have a skill to be able to identify a case in advance as having a sufficient likelihood of success that you can afford to take it on,” Walters says. “You have to factor in: How much money is the rest of my practice bringing in, how much time is this case going to consume?”

A father of two, Walters has his practice with the firm Scott Kroner PLC on Water Street, which focuses on “civil litigation with a heavy business bent.” But, when he has time, the former federal Fourth Circuit Court of Appeals attorney likes to tackle civil rights cases.

In the Calzada case, Wyatt and Walters won a judgment of $350,000 against jail guards who handled Calzada, an alcoholic who died in his jail cell in 1998.

In another case, the DNA dragnet suit, Wyatt and Walters are trying to get class action status for the case of Larry Monroe and others whose rights may have been violated by the city police department during the mass swab-fest that accompanied the hunt for the serial rapist.

Walters says he and Wyatt make a good team: “She’s a good investigator, and good with juries and she can be righteously indignant, whereas I come from a more technocratic, law clerk, ‘O.K., we really need to have a 50-page memo to go with this’ background.”

Walters takes civil rights cases on a contingency basis, meaning he doesn’t get paid unless a client gets a settlement.

“What I’d love to do is win the lottery and say now all I’m going to do for the next 20 years is take on one or two really interesting cases like this. My reluctance to take them on is pragmatic rather than spiritual.”

“[Wyatt] gets these really interesting cases, and it’s a shame that nobody else in town takes them on. Nobody will take on UVA because everybody has some connection to UVA.”

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