Tenacious defender represents Muhammad

Lawyer already tasted stress of high-profile and death penalty cases

October 31, 2002|By Stephanie Hanes | Stephanie Hanes,SUN STAFF

James Wyda's message outside the federal courthouse in Greenbelt on Monday was a lonely one.

In a region still raw from the sniper shootings that are blamed on his client, in a legal arena where prosecutors jostle for the chance to send John Allen Muhammad to die, the 43-year-old federal public defender appealed publicly for calm and due process.

To defense lawyers with experience in high-profile cases, Wyda's position -- "attorney for the damned," as one put it -- was all too recognizable. But area lawyers who know Wyda say he will be more than able to handle the pressure of a media-intensive death penalty case.

"Muhammed could not do any better," said Michael Millemann, a professor at the University of Maryland School of Law. "If he had a million dollars he couldn't do any better."

Wyda, who grew up in East Baltimore and now lives in Mount Washington, has a reputation in legal circles as a thorough, tough defense attorney dedicated to public service.

He was appointed as Maryland's federal public defender in 1998.

Before that, he had worked in the federal public defender's office and the state public defender's office, in the capital defense and appellate divisions.

In the early 1990s, he helped defend Eric Joseph Tirado, who was charged with killing state trooper Theodore D. Wolf. Tirado was convicted, but the jury decided against sentencing him to death.

More recently, he has defended a former Baltimore police lieutenant convicted of robbing two city banks at gunpoint and a Jordanian man alleged to have roomed briefly with two of the Sept. 11 hijackers.

"He's a hard-working guy who understands what a public defender has to do," said Charles G. Bernstein, a Baltimore attorney who helped create the federal public defender's office in 1974. "He's got to defend a lot of people who aren't so nice. You've got to go up against a lot of other people who want to cut their heads off."

But that is far from Wyda's main concern, said Christopher L. Tritico, a defense attorney for Timothy J. McVeigh, who was convicted in 1997 of bombing the Oklahoma City federal building and killing 168 people.

Defense attorneys have already made peace with the fact that they represent people "most members of society don't want to have dinner with," he said.

More grueling is the enormous stress of a capital murder case -- "God just didn't intend for us to deal with that sort of pressure," Tritico said -- intensified by the never-ending media attention.

"Here you are, you got a guy's life on the line, the government is trying to execute him, and you're getting hundreds of calls from the media every day," he said. "`Can I interview you? Can you confirm this? Can you not confirm that?' It's impossible."

Wyda has already had a taste of that attention. Since word of the federal charges against Muhammad became public, his office has been swamped with calls. (Federal proceedings against Lee Boyd Malvo, a juvenile, are not public.)

His brother and sister-in-law in Baltimore responded to a reporter's phone call yesterday with a practiced "no comment."

Last night, Wyda's daughter said he was still at the office.

Wyda and his brother, Joe, grew up near Johns Hopkins Hospital, said Joe Brune, the boys' high school football coach. The Wydas went to the Our Lady Of Fatima School near Eastern Avenue, where Brune's sister was the principal, and then to Loyola Blakefield in the Towson area.

"We did not get a lot of people out of that area at Loyola, but my sister said to look for these guys, that they come out of a real solid family," Brune said.

Brune, a retired Loyola teacher, recalls James Wyda as not particularly athletically talented, but as tenacious and "probably what you call an overachiever." Wyda was "competitive, but in the good sense of the word."

Wyda graduated from Loyola in 1977 -- a year before Thomas M. DiBiagio, the Maryland U.S. attorney handling the federal prosecution of the sniper case.

He went to Trinity College in Hartford, Conn., graduating with a major in American Studies.

Wyda stood out even among the talented students in Trinity's then-new American Studies program, said Professor Eugene Leach, who was director of the program: "Jimmy was a superb writer. Intellectually curious, independent-minded."

Leach said he wrote a recommendation for Wyda to Yale Law School, which he thought was a perfect fit for his student.

"It was the leading law school that most invited critical reflection on the uses of the law and the place of the law in American society and culture," he said.

Wyda went to Yale Law in the late 1980s and passed the Maryland bar in 1991.

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