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FEATURE: Defense Attorney Carves Out White-Collar Crime Niche by Greater Wilmington Business Journal
November 11, 2014


Defense attorney James Payne has taken on capital murder and white-collar crime cases. The Shallotte-based attorney has represented service members while in the Marines and served as a military judge when he was a reservist. (Photo by Chris Brehmer) 

 His main office may be in Shallotte, but James Payne is anything but a small-town lawyer. In his practice as a criminal defense attorney, at any one time he may have several capital murder cases in North Carolina and several white-collar crime cases, which can take him anywhere.

“I will go anywhere to defend a client,” he said. “Right now I have a client in Miami.”

Payne said he has represented more than 50 defendants in capital murder cases since 1988, most cases having been assigned him by the state. He has a special interest in capital murder cases – defined as any case in which the defendant is eligible for the death penalty – because he has a “moral objection” to the death penalty.

“It just makes us feel good,” he said about the death penalty. “What is a deterrent is a sentence of life in prison without parole.”

Payne said he developed his other area of focus, white-collar crime, because he believes in American business.

“You see more and more prosecutions [of corporations or individuals who made decisions that led to the prosecution],” he said. “It appears the government has turned its attention to over-criminalizing of American business. It’s very difficult for [business] professionals to know all the regulatory details.”

While embezzlement is the type of white-collar crime that may get the most media attention, Payne said, there are other categories, such as insurance fraud, crop insurance fraud, Clean Water Act violations and tax fraud. While some people are definitely miscreants, he finds that, often, a person accused of white collar crime can be a hard-working, honest person who has lived his or her life complying with the law and with no idea of being involved in a crime.

“It’s one or two decisions out of hundreds; ones that get put under a microscope and are called into question by the investigating authorities,” he said. “That 20/20 look can have a chilling effect on business.”

Payne, who served as an active-duty Marine and then spent several decades in the Marine Corps Reserves, sees similarities between questionable work decisions made by a civilian and by a military officer.

“Military officers are called on to make extremely important decisions. A split second in time can cost them their career or their liberty,” he said, adding that the same is true of white-collar crimes: they can result from a one-time error in judgment or from a pattern of questionable behavior.

“I have spent 30-plus years defending liberty,” he added. “I believe in American business; it deserves protections and liberties. It seems to me that, over time, there has been an increasing attack by federal and state authorities. [Businesses] need counsel that is honed and tested in the battlefield of the courtroom.”

Often, however, Payne’s goal is for his client to avoid that battlefield. He feels his best victories are those when his investigations result in a client not being charged or when all sides can reach a negotiated settlement.

He emphasized the fact that, in the criminal justice system, the burden is always on the prosecution to prove its case beyond a reasonable doubt. The defendant is never compelled to testify.

“The difficulty a defendant gets into, on the stand, is there are any number of reasons you don’t come across well to a jury,” he said.

“You could be scared, having 12 men and women judging you. It could be the intonation, the tone of your voice; there are so many factors of communication. And you are subject to cross-examination, which is designed to hurt you.”

Payne said he does not subscribe to the “don’t ask, don’t tell” school of defense, in which the defense attorney doesn’t want to know the truth about a client’s actions.

“I subscribe to being full of honor and candor with them and expect the same from them. Even if clients are guilty, they are entitled to absolutely the best defense. I put out the facts and defend them 100 percent,” he said.

Making that best-possible case before a jury requires total trust between client and attorney, he said, adding that establishing that “very important bond” is often a challenge.

“Many of these individuals never dreamed that they would be sitting in a courtroom as a defendant,” he said. “You have to let that client know that you’re going to do everything in your power to ensure that things will work out for them. They have to put everything in your hands.”

A native of Elizabeth City, Payne earned both his bachelor’s and his law degrees from Campbell University. He passed the bar in 1984, and as a Marine he represented fellow service members in court martial cases and administrative discharge proceedings.

When Payne left active duty, he served in the Reserves for 30 years, retiring in 2009. During his tenure in the Reserves, he served for five years as a military judge. He began civilian practice in 1988, first joining a Wilmington firm and then a smaller one in Shallotte. He opened his own practice in Shallotte in 2010 and maintains a small office in Wilmington.

Military judicial experience has helped him as a defense attorney, Payne said, enabling him to see a case from the judge’s perspective and from the viewpoint of the prosecution and defense. It also helped him learn to expect the unexpected in a courtroom, since surprises can happen despite an attorney’s extensive preparation.

“You can never script out everything, especially in a criminal case,” he said. “I find every trial to be exciting and always requiring that you have razor-sharp attention to everything that goes on.”