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Nationally known criminal defense attorney Joe Cheshire (’73) talks about his colorful career

When he was young, Joe Cheshire wanted to be a teacher and a coach.

“Those are my real loves,” he said, “to work with young people.”

But Cheshire chose another direction in life, and those with whom he has crossed paths are thankful that he did. Cheshire (’73), a Raleigh-based and nationally known criminal-defense attorney, on Tuesday, March 30, visited Wake Forest University as part of the “A Conversation With” series. The series, celebrating its 10th anniversary, is sponsored by the School of Law. Cheshire’s clients have included David Evans, who was wrongly accused in a 2006 sex scandal involving the Duke Lacrosse team; and Greg Taylor, who had served 17 years in prison after he was wrongfully convicted of murder in 1993. Cheshire took the case and, with the help of the N.C. Innocence and Inquiry Commission, fought for, and eventually won, Taylor’s release.

We like to think our criminal justice system is great, but you can never have a perfect criminal justice system because it involves human beings.

He also was a key player in a case in which the owners of the Little Rascals Day Care Center in Edenton, N.C., were accused of sexually abusing children in their care. During that case, Cheshire was the victim of assaults and for a time wore a bullet-proof vest.

In the Duke lacrosse case, charges were dropped against the accused players, and then-Durham County District Attorney Mike Nifong was disbarred for his inappropriate handling of the case.

“That case was an American phenomenon,” Cheshire said. “I was blessed to be a part of it and blessed to be a part of so many cases that made such a difference. We like to think our criminal justice system is great, but you can never have a perfect criminal justice system because it involves human beings.”

Human beings, that is, who live under the magnifying glass of an incessant news cycle.

“All the news media said these guys were guilty,” Chesire said. “ I shook my finger at the media, and I said you people are lying to the American public.

“What happened in that case happens every day. People are falsely accused and have to prove their innocence. What was so powerful about the Duke case is if they had been young Hispanics, black or poor white men they would probably be in prison today.”

Cheshire, the first Chief Justice of the Wake Forest Moot Court Board, also represented Alan Gell, who had been sentenced to death. He has represented rockers Bon Jovi and Motley Crue, as well as congressmen, state governors and heads of major corporations. He worked to create the Indigent Defense Service Commission in North Carolina and helped to found the first drug treatment center in Wake County.

“I knew I wanted to be a lawyer, but what resonated with me was criminal law — you are social worker, a poverty worker and a job trainer.

“I wanted to be trial lawyer,” said Cheshire, who has tried 40 first-degree murder cases. “I would go to the courthouse every time a good lawyer was trying a case. I would go watch him.”

He told Professor Charley Rose and the law students, who gathered in the Worrell Professional Center: “You would be stunned at how lawyers in the real world will help you, become invested in you and help you succeed. They become your mentors. When you pick a mentor, pick someone you respect — not someone who is making a lot of money, but an honorable person.”

At 14, Cheshire read “The Diary of Anne Frank.” He began to ponder his life’s work. “It really moved me and affected me deeply,” he said.

About a year later, he was chosen to meet with Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., who made a visit to Cheshire’s school. The pair – a teenager and a great civil rights leader — spent two hours together.

“I came from a very forward-thinking Southern family, which suffered a lot during the civil rights movement. Dr. King gave me a sense that life needed an immense purpose. My dad taught me that when you are an old person lying on your bed, you want to look back on your life and say, ‘I did the best I could. I helped the most people I could help.’ Some people have the opportunity it to help one person, and others help thousands. My two hours with Dr. King inspired me to try to do something in my life, to do something that could help as many people as possible. I chose the law to do that.”