When the Los Angeles Unified School District (LAUSD) severed ties with attorney W. Keith Wyatt and his law firm last November, they made clear he was wrong to argue in court that a 14-year-old girl bore some responsibility for having sex with her 28-year-old teacher.
Apparently he won’t do that again. So last week, the district announced that it had rehired the law firm to handle cases. “We believe that the suspension was sufficient to drive home our concerns about statements he made,” LAUSD spokeswoman Shannon Haber told KPCC.
Wyatt had made his controversial defense of the school district in a civil suit brought by attorneys for the girl after her teacher, Elkis Hermida, was convicted of lewd and lascivious acts with a minor and sentenced to three years in prison in 2011 for the five-month affair. Wyatt summarized that defense in a radio interview with KPCC:
“Making a decision as to whether or not to cross the street when traffic is coming, that takes a level of maturity and that's a much more dangerous decision than to decide, ‘Hey, I want to have sex with my teacher.’ ”
“She lied to her mother so she could have sex with her teacher. She went to a motel in which she engaged in voluntary consensual sex with her teacher. Why shouldn't she be responsible for that?”
The short answer to that not-so-rhetorical question is: A 14-year-old is a child. And in criminal court that mattered. Not so much in civil court, as it turned out, until the state Legislature responded to this case by making it clear that 18 is the age of consent there, too.
But before the lawmakers acted, a Los Angeles Superior Court judge found in favor of the school district. That decision was reversed by a unanimous California Court of Appeal.
LAUSD General Counsel Dave Holmquist told the school board last week that the law firm of Ivy, McNeill and Wyatt, which has represented the district for 28 years, has done “outstanding legal work.” The firm’s contract comes up for formal review next month.
Holmquist said Wyatt’s problem was that he talked to the media about the case, rather than confine his legal arguments to the courtroom.
Times columnist Steve Lopez asked Holmquist if the law firm’s reinstatement had anything to do with it being a political heavyweight downtown and one of the few minority-run law firms doing business with LAUSD. He was told, “Not from our perspective.”
KPCC said LAUSD reassigned 14 cases Wyatt’s firm was handling when they were suspended, but it wasn’t clear if one of them involved the 9-year-old developmentally-disabled girl who was repeatedly molested by a classmate.
The legal team presented testimony from an expert evidence that the girl’s disability shielded her from suffering because “there’s a relationship between intelligence and depression,” according to KPCC. The distress that the girl exhibited was more likely related to her absent father, the witness said under questioning by the lawyer.
The jury was not impressed with the argument. Instead of awarding the $10,000-$12,000 that Wyatt argued for, the jury gave her $1.4 million.
“The jury was offended, they were disgusted,” the girl’s attorney, David Ring, said.