When she was in the third grade, Debbie Wyatt heard about the firing of an old man from her neighborhood A&P store. This was more than 40 years ago, long before age discrimination laws took hold.
“I told them I’d never shop there again,” she says.
Following a $4.6 million win in the Frederick Gray lawsuit, defense attorney Debbie Wyatt announces she’s taking no new cases. But will her retirement by the real deal E.M. Forster kind or the ephemeral Jay-Z variety?
Wyatt hasn’t stopped being troubled by injustice. These days, she is juggling some of the highest-profile civil rights cases in the area. The man wrongly accused of raping a UVA law student? Wyatt is representing him. The man shot by an Albemarle police officer after killing his police dog in a robbery? Wyatt is co-counsel for a $2.35 million lawsuit. A class action suit on behalf of the black men swabbed in the serial rapist DNA dragnet? Wyatt represents them. The woman suing UVA for her firing? Yup, she’s got Wyatt.
A big victory came recently when Wyatt won $4.5 million for the estate of a victim of a 1997 Albemarle County police shooting.
But, just as the 28-year veteran of the local legal scene is seemingly hitting her stride, Wyatt is beginning her retreat. She may be winning some important battles, but Wyatt says the war is tiring her out.
Wyatt refers to attorneys on the other side as “opponents;” plaintiffs and defendants are lightly referred to as “good guys” and “bad guys.” There are two kinds of lawyers, according to Wyatt—those who get emotionally involved in their clients’ cases, and those who detach and treat it like a job. “I think I’m the first kind,” she says. She’s not one to back down, but the system itself can be exhausting.
Hearings for her current case load will continue well into next year. But Wyatt has pledged to take no new cases and hopes to wrap up and take time off.
Her office, which overlooks Court Square, attests to a variety of interests outside the law. Wyatt’s paintings adorn the walls, artifacts from her travels—“or eBay”—decorate shelves of legal books. In her retirement, she’ll take her painting more seriously—she’s currently into German Expressionism—and perhaps start a gallery. She’d also like to write about some of the problems she’s observed with the legal system.
Some members of the legal community think Wyatt will just take a sabbatical and then return to the law. Wyatt says she can’t guarantee she’ll stay retired, either. She’s afraid she’ll be bored or her “brain will turn to mush.” And, as much as the system frustrates her, this tenacious defense attorney might miss fighting the battles too much.