When Bobby Lee Cook was 6 years old, his cousin Gus would come by each morning and holler for him to come out. They would walk up the road to school together. It was not easy.
Gus was a couple of years older. He weighed more. He was tougher. He had a longer reach. And every day, after half a mile, Gus would whip Bobby Lee. For no good reason, he would whack the feathers out of him. It did not take long for Bobby Lee to figure out that this had to stop.
He pulled a box of Wheaties down off the shelf in his daddy’s store, which did not have much more than $500 worth of stock. He set aside a quart of milk, which was easier since the family had its own cow. And he got up in the morning and ate all the Wheaties and drank all the milk and left with Gus and got whipped again. Clearly, this did not work.
So that evening, he took the old No. 2 aluminum washtub that his mamma used because there was no indoor plumbing, and he borrowed a hammer and a chisel, and he chiseled the handles off the washtub. When Gus hollered for him the next morning, he shoved one handle down into the left pocket of his overalls and the other handle down into the right pocket. And when they got up the road, Bobby Lee took out the handles and thumped the tar out of Gus.
It was the beginning of a remarkable career. Today, Bobby Lee Cook is one of the premier trial lawyers in America. Among those who have never been in trouble or needed help, his name is not household talk. But otherwise, and among attorneys especially, he comes up when people speak of James Neal in Tennessee; Edward Bennett Williams in Washington; F. Lee Bailey in Massachusetts, and Racehorse Haynes in Texas. Cousin Gus gets mentioned along with a bunch of badly beaten prosecutors. When Bobby Lee Cook takes a case, it is usually for the defense. He has tried 300 murder cases, and he has won 90% of them.
From this north Georgia mountain town, he has built an international law practice that has taken him to 37 of the United States and to seven foreign nations. Tall, bearded and a country gentleman, he is smooth as corn silk, tough as a pine knot and smarter than two foxes. He has the eloquence of a preacher who could make “son of a bitch” sound Shakespearean. He rides in a Rolls-Royce and employs a chauffeur. At 59, he can name among those to whom he has lent his talent the Rockefellers, the Carnegies, Tongsun Park, Bert Lance and a large number of country folks from the nearby hills of Georgia, Alabama and Tennessee.
Bobby Lee does it for money, sure. But his own country people have made him neither rich nor famous. He defends them as a matter of principle. And the biggest principle to Bobby Lee Cook is fairness. Everyone, everyone, he insists, is entitled to the same breath of fresh air. The rich, the poor. The strong, the weak. The state, those it prosecutes. It matters not a whit their circumstances, the nature of their trouble or who they happen to be.
There is another reason he does what he does: He likes a good fight--like the one with the sheriff of Chattooga County.
Bobby Lee’s early clients were moonshiners and bootleggers. Back then liquor was probably the biggest industry in the hill country. Trouble was the government considered it illegal. One Sunday, the sheriff of Chattooga County and some revenuers sent undercover agents back into the hills, and they made an unusually large number of arrests. Among the apprehended was a client of Bobby Lee’s by the name of Earl Tucker.
A few years before, Bobby Lee had been in the Legislature, where he had tried to do away with what he figured, even in Georgia, was a conflict of interest: Sheriffs got fees from the fines paid by those they arrested. The sheriff of Chattooga County certainly had not favored Bobby Lee’s efforts to put a stop to that, nor had he much appreciated his attempts to put an end to unlawful searches and seizures--to give to the state what Bobby Lee liked to call “a little breath of the Fourth Amendment.” So the sheriff was waiting when Bobby Lee arrived to bail Earl Tucker out of jail.
To hear Bobby Lee tell it, this is what happened. “I went around to the sheriff’s office, and there were a lot of people there--must have been some 50 people out there between the jail and the sheriff’s office. And I said:
“ ‘I want to get Earl Tucker’s bail set.’
“And the sheriff said, ‘You can’t get him out of jail.’
“I said, ‘Oh, yeah? I can get him out. I want his damn bail set.’
“And there were 30 or 40 people in the area; they were bringing in the bootleggers, you know, and throwing them in jail. And he pulled out his pistol, and he said, ‘Well, I’ll just shoot you.’
‘Too Many Witnesses’
“And I said, ‘Hell, you’re not going to shoot me. In the first place, there are too many witnesses here. That’s one reason that you’re not going to shoot me. The second reason that you’re not going to shoot me is there are too many goddamn Cooks in this county. If you shot me, they’d hunt you down like a goddamn rabbit.’
“And he shot.
“I’m standing here, and he shoots over there. He obviously wasn’t shooting at me.
“But I just sort of waded into him and popped him a time or two.
“Later on, I got a call. My old friend, the district attorney, Earl Self, called, and he said: ‘Why don’t you get a warrant for the son of a bitch for shooting at another?’
“And I said, ‘No, I don’t want to do that, Earl.’ I said, ‘I wouldn’t be able to take an oath that he was shooting at another. In fact, if you asked me, I’d have to swear, by God, that he wasn’t shooting at another, because if he had been shooting at me, he would have hit me.’ ”
Bobby Lee would settle his score otherwise. And not long afterward, he got his chance.
It came during a trial in another liquor case. Bobby Lee had the sheriff on the witness stand. And Bobby Lee was cross-examining him.
“I got him hemmed up in a tight spot. The jury’s in the box. There was an old wooden Coca-Cola crate, you know, with glass bottles, sitting down by the witness stand. And I had him hemmed up pretty well. I was working on him, and he just reached down and threw two goddamn Coca-Cola bottles at me.
“One after the other. And, hell, one came that close to my head.
‘Pretty Good Whipping’
“I walked up to the stand and took him and put him down on the floor and got down on top of him and whipped up on him a little bit, and I gave him a pretty good whipping. Judge Clovis Rivers was on the bench, and Judge Rivers knew he was a tyrant. And Judge Rivers sat up there, and he cleared his throat. After a while, he cleared his throat again.
“ ‘You can let him up now,’ he said. ‘He’s had enough.’
“And hell, I let him up, and he got back on the damn stand, and the case continued.
“Damn jury went out and turned my client loose.”
Bobby Lee Cook was born 10 miles down the road near Chattoogaville, where his father farmed cotton during the Depression for 8 or 9 cents a pound. The family lived on bottomland along the Chattooga River, which was so clear that Bobby Lee could swim in it and fish. Cotton gave way to cattle and then to the general store. Bobby Lee’s father sold overalls, horse collars and loaf bread. He had a potbelly stove and penny candy. He did not charge a deposit on Coke bottles. He simply trusted people to be fair and bring them back. They did.
That left an impression on Bobby Lee. So did what happened over in Marietta, where Leo Frank, a Jewish manufacturer, went on trial charged with killing a 13-year-old girl named Mary Phagan. Frank was accused of asking her for sex when she picked up her pay at his pencil factory--and then strangling her when she refused. His accuser said he helped Frank dispose of her body. A mob, including members of the Ku Klux Klan, gathered outside the court and chanted: “Kill the Jew!” Frank got the death sentence. The governor commuted it to life. But a mob broke Frank out of jail and lynched him. Eventually, a witness came forward and testified that Frank had been, in fact, innocent--and that the accuser had done the killing. Bobby Lee sat on the front porch with his grandfather, and his grandfather said: “Frank wasn’t treated right. He didn’t get a fair trial.”
Sent to Military School
Basic training in fairness, however, did not keep Bobby Lee from being a red-haired hell raiser. It was hill-country hell raising, but sometimes Bobby Lee got pretty wild. For taming, he was sent to Gordon, a military school. Then came two years in the Navy. After that he went to three universities, took all the chemistry they offered and attended law school for a year. He ran for the Georgia House of Representatives from Chattooga County. He won. He was 21.
He got an apartment in Atlanta and showed up at the Georgia Statehouse in plaid jackets, striped shirts and bow ties--some of them red, others bright green and still others with polka dots. During his first legislative session, he took a law review course and passed the Bar. These were lean years. He got into trouble for writing bad checks. One was for $50, the other for $20.
But he made a mark as a freshman legislator. A textile mill was dumping raw dye and hot sulfuric acid into the Chattooga River. By God, he thought, that ought to be stopped. An environmentalist before his time, he challenged the textile interests and their supporters. They had no notion what was in store.
Bobby Lee called for an investigation. He got a promise of support from state Sen. Claude Pittman, whose district included Chattooga County. But then came what Bobby Lee perceived to be a double cross. When Pittman found out that Bobby Lee’s demand for a probe had been reported out of a Senate committee, he moved to send it back.
Bobby Lee stalked into the Senate chamber.
In tones likely to have been heard in Texas, he accused Pittman of selling out.
Pittman ordered him outside.
Calls Him a Liar
In the corridor, he called Bobby Lee a liar. Bobby Lee grabbed him by the lapels and hit him once or twice.
Bystanders separated them.
After a few years, Bobby Lee moved up into the Senate himself. When the Legislature did not seem ready to assent to very many of his Fourth Amendment proposals, he concentrated on investigating the state Purchasing Department. His effort was so successful that when his congressman died he decided to run for the vacant seat.
He ought to have known better. He was in the 7th District, and it had some of the most conservative voters on earth. For Bobby Lee, the race stands to this day as something of an embarrassment. A reporter wrote in a newspaper story still to be found in libraries that Bobby Lee’s platform included “support for segregation.”
Bobby Lee does not remember that particular plank. But he does remember that his chief opponent was a judge, and he concedes that “we might have gotten in some pissing contest at some barbecue, and I might have tried to out-segregation him.”
In any case, Bobby Lee lost.
Eventually, he counted it a blessing. It made him decide against politics, and he started practicing law in earnest.
He put up a law office, a small concrete-block building on East Washington Street across from the Summerville courthouse. He built it in Maude Bloodworth’s front yard. In return, he agreed to represent her son, Barney, free of charge for the rest of his natural life in all instances when he got caught in his criminal frivolities, which were not bad, only constant and mostly the result of public drunkenness.
Wins First Murder Case
Bobby Lee took his first murder case and won it.
His client was Joe Burrage, a farmer who had a place down at Chattoogaville. Burrage and his brother got into a quarrel one day. The quarrel was over a turnip patch. And like Cain who slew Abel, Joe Burrage killed his brother. It looked like a tough situation, a pretty bad case. But after Bobby Lee offered his evidence and presented his final argument, the judge let Joe Burrage off with manslaughter.
Those were hardscrabble days. Bobby Lee tried cases for $50, sometimes $25, sometimes nothing. He missed payments on two FHA loans. They were foreclosed, and the government sued him for the money.
He served as city court judge in Summerville.
And slowly but certainly, Bobby Lee’s reputation as a lawyer grew.
It grew, for instance, when Penn Holbrook drove over to Dalton, about 45 miles from here, in a truck and found a large mobile home. He removed its underpinnings, cut its utility lines, hooked it up to the truck--and stole it. He towed it all the way back to Summerville and was rolling down Commerce Street in front of the courthouse when the people who lived inside woke up. Needless to say, Penn was arrested.
The facts being what they were, Bobby Lee sat down with Earl Self, the district attorney, and tried to negotiate a plea. Self, by Bobby Lee’s recounting, wanted the maximum penalty: 10 years.
“Well, Earl,” Bobby Lee offered, “I’ll plead him guilty for seven years.”
‘I’ve Got You This Time’
“No, by God, I’m not going to do it,” Self replied. “I’ve got you this time, and I’m going to hold you.”
Both knew it would mean a trial. “Earl, that’s hard work,” Bobby Lee said. “What about eight years?”
“No. Hell! I’ve got to have 10.”
“Well, you know, he’s not going to take 10, because then he’s got nothing to lose. Might be one chance out of 1,000, but, hell, we’ll just go to trial.”
So they did.
And by the time the trial was over, Bobby Lee had raised serious questions about whether the mobile home cited by serial number in the indictment was in fact the same mobile home that his client was accused of taking. He had convinced the jury of a fatal variance between the state’s allegation in the charge and the proof offered at the trial.
And the jury acquitted Penn Holbrook.
Bobby Lee’s reputation grew even more when an editor named Don West came to see him. West ran a tiny newspaper over in Dalton. The paper was owned and operated by the Church of God of the Union Assembly. Its members held to a fundamentalist creed. They forswore all government aid, movies, TV and lipstick. The women did not cut their hair. Churchmen were bedrock honest, patriotic and had no problem with serving in the armed forces--unless someone made an attempt to vaccinate them. They did not believe in doctors.
West told Bobby Lee that the newspaper, called The Southerner, was pro-labor. Georgia at the time had what was known as the Little Smith Act. Because of its provisions, West’s pro-labor editorials had earned him a subpoena to appear before a county grand jury, which had it in mind to charge him with being a communist. The grand jurors wanted him to explain his social beliefs and his political philosophy.
Bobby Lee took the case.
What happened next stung him in a way he would never forget.
‘Hot as a Potato’
“I had four or five people who came to me; and one friend who lives right over here, always been a friend of mine, dear friend of mine, came to me, and he said, ‘Well, now, I’ve been your friend all of my life, in good times and hard times, and it’s just not in your interests to fool with that guy. You know, he’s just hot as a potato, and people are saying he is a communist. I know you’re bullheaded, but you just ought not to fool with him.’
“And I said, ‘Well, let me tell you something, John. I know you’re my friend. And I do appreciate your friendship, and we’re going to continue to be friends. But you do not understand what we are dealing with. These people do not have the goddamn right to haul Don West before a grand jury and to inquire into what he believes, as to what his political alignment is, anymore than they have the right to call you before the grand jury. You’re a Presbyterian, aren’t you, John?’
“He said, ‘Well, of course. We all are.’
“I said, ‘Well, you and I are. But we’re in the minority. You know, there ain’t that many Presbyterians in this section of the country.’ I said, ‘What if the Baptists'--there are more goddamn Baptists here than there are people--I said, ‘What if the Baptists decided they wanted to, you know, come down on us Presbyterians? And all the grand jurors are Baptists? And they are going to summon us and, you know, probe us about this false belief we have about the Trinity?’
“And he said, ‘Well, I hadn’t thought of it that way. I know what you’re saying, but you ought not to fool with that fellow. It will just hurt you.’
“I said, ‘John, let me tell you, you’re right--it might. But, by God, if it does--and mind you I haven’t been in this business but about three or four years--but if I can’t represent people that need help without regard to associating myself with whatever view that they might have and hold myself apart from it and do the job that I’m supposed to do, then I need to find out about it now. Because if I can’t do that, if I don’t have the ability to do that or the courage to do that, I’m in the wrong goddamn business.’ ”
Bobby Lee drove over to Dalton.
More Conservative Dress
By now, his red hair had been touched with sandy brown. He had toned down the bright reds and greens and polka dots, and he had begun to favor patterned coats in blends of tan and orange and black. His pants had cuffs. He wore wing-tip shoes. Occasionally he wore an Alpine hat with a feather. And in his vest he carried a gold watch and chain.
Normally, he had the charm of a British squire. But on this day his eyes were blue ice.
With Don West in tow, he pulled up at the Dalton courthouse. Hands on hips, coat open to his suspenders, Bobby Lee stood defiant: What the grand jury was trying to do just was not going to plow. West, he asserted, his voice rising, was not about to appear before anybody’s grand jury, subpoena or no goddamn subpoena.
Nobody, beyond any peradventure of a doubt, he added, “has any goddamn right to inquire into his beliefs or to probe his mind.”
Bobby Lee cited a number of decisions by the Supreme Court. “Ever who wants to know any more,” he snapped, “call me.
“We’re going home.”
And they did.
The turning point for Bobby Lee came in 1971, when Warren and Rozina Matthews were shot to death at their home in Marietta. For a year, the police were stymied. Then they arrested seven men and a woman. All the accused professed innocence. They had some money, so Bobby Lee got a reasonable fee to head their defense. And the case got attention.
All had been arrested on the say-so of a woman named Deborah Kidd. But some things about the case looked askew. Chief among them was Debbie Kidd, a prostitute and shoplifter who took amphetamines regularly--as many as 75 “black beauties” a day. She got immunity, and the police put her up at the apartment of a Cobb County police detective. She became his lover. Officers maintained her drug supply. And they took her to a hypnotist.
“A lot of it ain’t written in law books,” Bobby Lee was fond of saying. “You have a goddamn country feeling that something ain’t right. So you act on that feeling. Sometimes I get to thinking, for instance, that something has not been turned over--something that the district attorney ought to be letting the court know about. So I make an inquiry--and I push for whatever it might be.”
Push he did. Hard. But the judge granted him next to nothing.
Lost in Thought
At times like this, Bobby Lee would walk slowly out of the courtroom at recess, take an old bent pipe from one jacket pocket and a pouch of Sir Walter Raleigh from the other and fill the pipe and tamp it down with his forefinger and puff on it, brooding and thinking and hunkering down on his haunches if there was no room left on the bench outside the courtroom door; and his brow would tighten into a V, and he would seem to fall asleep. Blue smoke would blow and wash around his ears.
He would rise when the recess had ended, and he would go back inside and begin slowly, standing in the well of the court, tall and lean of face, working the muscles across his high cheekbones and behind his jaw, folding his hands prayerfully at first, and then extending them, palms open, thumbs up, fingers forward, chopping to divide his points one from another, his voice gaining in volume and strength, his coat open, a man proficient in the law, but plain-spoken. “It is the obligation of the sovereign,” he would say, with a noticeable nod toward the prosecutor, “to be honest. That is my idea of the scheme of things.” Then he would approach the bench. “Ever what we’ve gotten isn’t enough. I remember what a judge said to me in Savannah once. He said: ‘District attorneys don’t err. Judges err.’
“And he was a noteworthy gentleman such as yourself, and a great feller.”
But it did no good.
In four trials, all the men, three separately and four in a group, were convicted. The woman defendant was not tried. Six of the men were sentenced to life in prison. The seventh, whose name was Larry Hacker, got the death penalty.
‘Bone in My Throat’
Bobby Lee always would remember how it felt. “They had kicked me in the goddamn teeth, and I didn’t like it, so I said, ‘Not only will these cases be reversed, but we will show that these convictions were obtained by perjurious and suborned testimony.’ I felt that I couldn’t turn it a-loose. I was damn well convinced that they were innocent, and I was convinced that the deck had been stacked.
“It was a goddamn bone in my throat.”
He began appealing through the Georgia courts. And he sent an investigator to South Carolina to dig into Debbie Kidd’s background. One after another, the appeals failed, all the way up to and including the Georgia Supreme Court. But one day, the investigator found something.
He brought back certified copies of checks that Debbie Kidd had endorsed and an affidavit she had signed in a divorce proceeding, all in Greenville, S.C.--on the very days when she had claimed she was in Georgia in the company of Bobby Lee’s defendants, robbing and killing the Matthewses.
Bobby Lee petitioned federal court to intervene.
A U.S. district judge ruled that the trial judge had indeed erred. The federal judge granted Bobby Lee access to the additional evidence he had sought. It showed that Bobby Lee’s country hunch was right.
The evidence showed that Debbie Kidd’s early accounts to the police contradicted and were otherwise at variance with physical evidence, laboratory reports, accounts by other witnesses, autopsy findings and fingerprints at the scene. It showed that she had been seven months off on the date of the murders. And it showed that during her early talks with her hypnotist, she had said that Larry Hacker, the man now on Death Row, had not been involved.
Moreover, it showed that her hypnotist, who had been paid by the police, had taken her through a process called “age regression” back to the time of the killings, told her things available only from police files and instructed her to scan news accounts of the killings. Finally, it showed that, as her “recollections” grew closer to the facts, the state had decided to suppress all evidence of her early accounts, down to firing her lover, the detective, when he objected.
Put on the Stand
At a federal hearing to consider all this, Bobby Lee put Debbie Kidd on the stand. Quietly and in a courtly way, he took her through the day of the killings and through the days before and after.
Where had she been on this day?
And then on this day?
And now on this day?
What about on this day?
In Marietta, at the Matthews home.
Slowly and without fanfare, Bobby Lee pulled out the copies of the checks and the divorce affidavit.
Deborah Kidd crumbled. She began to cry.
At first, she denied that the signatures were hers. But Bobby Lee produced three experts who said they were. Then she claimed that the checks were post-dated--so she could have been in Georgia at the time. . . .
But it was too late.
The federal judge ruled that Bobby Lee’s clients had been framed. He called the frame-up Kafkaesque. He declared that the constitutional rights of all of the defendants had been trampled. And he set them free.
Made System Work
It gave Bobby Lee stature--and confidence. In his own mind, the Matthews case had forced upon him a moral obligation to see if, under rock-hard circumstances, he could make the system work. He had made it work.
And he had come into his own as a lawyer.
With a flair. To wit:
One sultry day, he was trying an assault case. He had a state’s witness on the stand, and he knew that this particular witness was not telling the unvarnished truth. It was mid-summer, and there was no air conditioning. The courtroom windows were open. And there were thunderclouds overhead.
“Now, you know that’s a lie, and you’re not telling the truth,” Bobby Lee said. “You’re lying, aren’t you?”
“No, sir,” the witness replied.
At that moment, a bolt of lightning slashed across the sky, and a thunderclap rocked the courtroom. Bobby Lee fixed the witness with his eyes, stood tall, extended his arm and pointed his right forefinger toward the heavens.
“Oh,” the witness pleaded, “Mr. Bobby Lee. I’ve been lyin’! I’ve been lyin’!”
During another trial, this one for murder, the central question was: Had two shots been fired, or three? Again, Bobby Lee had a witness for the prosecution on the stand. The witness said he knew that two shots had been fired; he had heard them, they were right together--he knew there were only two shots, and he had no difficulty saying so, he was good at that sort of thing.
Assisted by a Friend
Bobby Lee had talked to the witness ahead of time, and he knew what he was likely to say. So he asked a friend to stand outside the courtroom with a pistol. At the appropriate moment, the friend fired six times.
The witness jumped. His eyes grew.
“How many was that?” Bobby Lee demanded.
“Well, you know . . . You know, Bobby Lee, I don’t really know.”
But Bobby Lee’s favorite ploy was the Bible verse.
“Earl Self and I were trying a murder case over in Dade County, and he had me in a close fight. He had me somewhat backed up in a corner.
“And he was asking for the death penalty.
“So I decided that I would tell the jury before I finished something about mercy.
“ ‘The quality of mercy is not strained,
“ ‘It droppeth as the gentle rain from heaven
“ ‘Upon the place beneath: It is twice blessed;
“ ‘It blesseth him that gives and him that takes:
” ' ‘Tis mightiest in the mightiest. . . .’
“Which, as most of us know, is from Shakespeare. But it being Dade County, and the people there not being acquainted with Shakespeare, and even if they had been acquainted with him, they probably wouldn’t have liked him, would’ve thought that he was from Tennessee, or, even worse, from Alabama, and had no damn business being over there in Dade County, I said, ‘Well, now this is from the Book of Solomon.’
“And it worked.
Late-Night Phone Calls
“So that night I got back home, and Earl--we were close friends, and he had a habit of what I called late callin'; he’d call up sometimes at one o’clock or two o’clock in the morning; and, just for the hell of it, he would say, at two o’clock in the morning, ‘Well, what are you doin’?’
“I’d say, ‘Oh, hell, I’m not doing anything. I’m just lyin’ around here expecting a goddamn call from you.’
“But on this particular evening, he said, ‘You son of a bitch! I’ve been reading the Bible all night. I’ve read this Book of Solomon four or five times.’ And he said, ‘What you told the jury ain’t in the Book of Solomon!’
“ ‘Wait a minute, Earl,’ I said. ‘Don’t become unreasonable. Let me ask you something, and give me a truthful answer. What Bible have you been reading?’
“ ‘The King James version.’
“ ‘Earl, I didn’t tell the jury it was in the King James version.’ ”
Only rarely did Bobby Lee try his hand at prosecuting. A cotton mill executive who was well-liked in north Georgia, had picked up two teen-age hitchhikers on the road between Summerville and Rome. On the far side of Taylor’s Ridge, the teen-agers forced him to drive up a little dirt road. They took his money--about $20--and tied him to a tree with barbed wire. Then they clubbed him to death with a fence post.
Bobby Lee accepted appointment as special prosecutor.
Plea for Mercy
The defense attorney pleaded with the jury for mercy.
Bobby Lee approached the jury box with a fence post. He agreed entirely with his eminent colleague--the jury should, indeed, show mercy. He slammed the butt end of the fence post down onto the courtroom floor. “Mercy!”
He slammed it down again. “Give them the same mercy . . . " Again he slammed the courtroom floor with the fence post. “Mercy!” Again, he slammed the post to the floor. “Mercy!” And again. “Mercy!” Again. “Mercy!” Again. “The same mercy . . . " He slammed down the post again. “The very same mercy . . . " Again. “They gave . . . " Again. “To their victim.” Again. “Mercy!” Again. “Mercy!” Again. “Mercy!”
One of the defendants panicked. He scrambled to his feet and ran. “Mamma!” he cried. “Mamma!”
The sheriff brought him back.
The jury sent the teen-agers to the electric chair.
It bothered Bobby Lee. He did not stand in the way of efforts to appeal. If he had to, he thought, he would seek a commutation. But the appeals eventually stayed the death penalty.
He would forever feel the discomfort.
“I didn’t like it. I did it, but it was not any fun. I decided that I just couldn’t do that anymore. It went against the grain. That is not to say that they should not have been prosecuted. It just seemed incongruous, my having done it. They could have gotten the town idiot to prosecute that case and won it. It just wasn’t of my choosing, and I just didn’t want to do that anymore.”
Preferred Defending Clients
Instead, as his acclaim widened, Bobby Lee concentrated on the defense.
Of Tilton Lamar Chester, dashing former airline pilot accused of leading a multimillion-dollar drug-smuggling ring. Of Ruth Chancey, 67-year-old mother of the alleged leader of the Dixie Mafia, charged along with her son in a murder case. Of Jack Agnew, charged in what came to be known as the Bank of Sark case, one of the more famous swindles of the 1970s. Of Abdillahi Haji Hussein Omar, a director of the Central Bank of Abu Dhabi, accused of stealing $2 million and fleeing to America. Of Mike Thevis, said to be the head of a $100-million pornography empire and one of the FBI’s 10 Most Wanted Men.
Although he lost the Thevis case, Bobby Lee did well often. Only once did he lose a defendant to the chair.
He charged significant fees.
In addition to a blue-and-silver Rolls-Royce, he bought two Mercedes-Benzes, a light tan 380SE and a dark brown 450SLC, and he hired drivers so he could spend his considerable travel time reading case law and writing briefs.
One of his chauffeurs was a fellow known as Boss. He wore overalls and plaid flannel shirts; and he looked like he had just gotten off a bulldozer. He became quietly famous during a case involving a little lady from Big Sand Mountain. The little lady had killed her husband.
By Bobby Lee’s retelling, here is what happened:
“He had been a terrible husband all of their married life and had periodically beat her very brutally. They lived together for some 20 years, and he came home this particular night, and they didn’t have an argument, you know; he’d been beating her and whipping up on her for 20 years, but this was a peaceable night, and he lay down on the bed over in the corner, and she took a damned double-barrel shotgun and put two rolls of buckshot in it, backed off about 15 feet and let him have it two times; and then he moved a little bit, and she ejected those two shells and put two more in and shot him again; and then she called the funeral home, you know, because she wanted to give him a Christian burial.
“ ‘I want to tell you now, Mr. Bobby Lee,’ she said, ‘I really didn’t mean to kill him. I just wanted to make an example out of him--to scare him.’
“ ‘And I said, ‘Well, now, let me tell you something. We’re not going to tell the jury that story, because that’s not the truth, and it won’t work. That would be like me telling a jury over in Dade County that Teddy Kennedy swam the Chappaquiddick. You just tell the jury what a son of a bitch that husband of yours has been for the last 20 years.’
“Now, the courthouse was on a square, and I got back from lunch, and I saw my car driving around the square two or three times. But I didn’t think anything about it.
“The jury went out and came back and forgave the lady.
“And then I found out, much to my chagrin, and what could have been much to my embarrassment, that a juror had heard I had a Rolls-Royce and knew that Boss was the driver, and he’d walked up and said, ‘I’d sure like to ride in that thing.’
“And Boss had said, ‘Hell, come on.’
Bobby Lee’s acclaim attracted some big names.
When Tongsun Park, was indicted in Koreagate, the congressional bribery scandal, and he wanted to negotiate with then-Atty. Gen. Griffin Bell, he phoned Bobby Lee from Seoul. When F. Lee Bailey got tangled up with Glenn Turner, the cosmetics salesman who dared to be great, Bailey summoned Bobby Lee. When Bert Lance, President Carter’s budget director, got into trouble because of his banking practices, Bobby Lee testified in Washington on his behalf. When the federal government took the Rockefeller and Carnegie families to court to force them to sell their land on Cumberland Island, off the south Georgia coast, the Rockefellers and the Carnegies came for Bobby Lee.
To Bobby Lee, the Rockefeller case was instructive about plain folks.
“On the jury, as I recall, the highest-income person was a truck driver who made about $23,000 or $24,000 a year. And in my opening statement, I took about 15 minutes and I told the jury that I represented the Rockefellers. ‘Let me tell you at the outset, they’ve got more money than you or I could possibly conceive,’ I said. ‘I was talking with Mr. Rockefeller last night, and he was concerned about the fact that he didn’t believe that he could get justice down in south Georgia because, No. 1, he is from New York and Maine, and he figured that made him an outsider, and, No. 2, the jury would obviously know he was a person of considerable wealth. And I assured him that he was entirely wrong.
‘Fair, Honest and Decent’
“ ‘Georgia people are fair, honest and decent,’ I said. ‘You’ll get just as much justice or more justice here than you would in New York or Maine.’
“Now that island is one of the most beautiful places in America. The government had one appraiser from Washington, D.C., and one from Brunswick, Ga., and what have you, and one testified that the value of the land was $250,000 and another one testified it was $400,000. Well, I had one witness, an old country appraiser from Vidalia, and he testified that the property was worth $5.5 million.
“And that’s what the jury gave us--$5.5 million.”
Bobby Lee’s acclaim also took him overseas: Costa Rica. Norway. England. In Vietnam, he represented a military contractor. In Cuba, his client was a man accused of dealing in illegal currency. In Germany, he won an acquittal for a U.S. airman charged with strangling his wife. This he accomplished by hiring one of the foremost psychiatrists in Europe to trace the airman’s brain waves. The psychiatrist found that the airman had suffered a brain injury and was, in fact, temporarily insane at the time of the killing.
In Nicaragua, Bobby Lee was hired by the Somoza government to report on its regard for human rights. Somoza needed to file the report with the U.S. State Department to get more aid. In retrospect, the exercise bothers Bobby Lee. He likens it to trying to teach a skunk about table manners. In his report, he said, there were “a lot of things that ought to be changed, but I said that they could be worse.
“And I told them that they needed to straighten up and give people a fair trial, quit torturing people.
“Apparently it didn’t have a hell of a lot of impact.”
Made an Impression
But back home, the trip seemed impressive.
When Bobby Lee returned, the conversation turned to representing governments, and a fellow lawyer asked him if he had ever represented any cities or counties.
“No, no. Hell, no,” Bobby Lee said. “I stay away from representing municipalities and things like that. I’d rather be on the other side. But let me tell you what you need to do.” He put his hand on the other lawyer’s arm and spoke in a low voice. “Go and get yourself a couple of damn countries. Now, that’s good money.”
“How in hell,” asked the lawyer, “does a guy from Jesup represent a damn country?”
“Well, hell, I don’t know. I’m from Summerville.”
In time, Bobby Lee seemed to grow larger than life. His suits were custom-tailored by Brooks Brothers, and he wore a different one each day. Light gray, three-piece pinstripes; pale blue shirt, with French cuffs and small, octagonal gold cuff links; maroon suspenders, dark blue bow tie. Deep brown, two-piece; tan-and-white striped shirt; straight brown tie. He wore gold-rimmed granny glasses. Whenever he rose in court and put them on, he paused to use both hands. First he placed them on the bridge of his nose. Then he tucked the right earpiece over his right ear. Finally he tucked the left earpiece over his left ear.
It created a moment of impressive silence.
His red hair had turned dark and almost totally sandy, and it was flecked with gray. He parted it in the middle, and it fell on both sides. It curved back behind his ears, and then it flowed down over his collar. He grew a goatee. It was snow white. People variously said it made him look like Colonel Sanders, Abraham Lincoln, Ho Chi Minh, a preacher, a leprechaun or a billy goat.
By now, Bobby Lee was making big money. He had moved out of the block building in Maude Bloodworth’s front yard and into a cypress edifice that he had designed by a student of Frank Lloyd Wright. It stood on Commerce Street like a silver watch on denim overalls. Oriental carpets covered stone floors. His desk was an 18th-Century serpentine antique with two serpentine end tables and a lamp with a genuine Tiffany base and a counterfeit Tiffany shade--elegant, so he had bought it anyway. Near the fireplace were portraits, including a striking picture of Judge Clovis Rivers.
Down the hall was a semicircular library with floor-to-ceiling law books that cost $30,000 a year to keep current, a chandelier of clear electric globes hanging from a skylight and a large round table littered with law reviews.
In the hallway were signed lithographs by Salvador Dali.
Bobby Lee and his wife, June, had a large home on Riverside Drive, out among the dogwoods and Georgia pine, with a front entrance crafted of native stone; a mantle-piece from Italy that took eight men to hoist into place; and antique furnishings that included a gold-encrusted concert harp and a bronze statue of Mephistopheles, both from a gothic mountaintop mansion called Corpsewood Manor, whose devil-worshiping owners had been murdered. He and his family, including grandchildren, had the run of The Walk, his lodge on Lookout Mountain, the southernmost of the Appalachians, including a guest house, complete with hot tub and antiques, as well as a fishing cabin along a quiet river where the mist fell in droplets from the rhododendron and the mountain laurel. He called it The Walk because that was where cock fighters put their prize game cocks to rest and mend after battle and to regain strength and strut and get ready to fight again.
Kept the Common Touch
But despite all this, Bobby Lee kept the common touch. No matter where he went, he returned always to the hills that nurtured him. He’d gotten to like a fancy meal; but whenever he wanted barbecue he went down Commerce Street to Armstrong’s. His pipes were Dunhills; but when he was offered fancy tobacco, he smoked a little and put the rest of it loose into his suit pocket. He never put it into his pouch, lest it contaminate the Sir Walter Raleigh. He savored the country idiom. A mighty good man was “a high type feller” and a plain fool was “a pumpkin head.” A comeuppance was something “that’d break you from suckin’ eggs.” If an opponent fell into a trap, “the feller took the hook and went under the bank with it.” When it was impossible to shake a cold, one “wore it out.” An invitation to dinner went like this: “Let’s have a drink, and we’ll cook a chicken.”
Most of all, Bobby Lee took care of his people. He made his law library available to all lawyers in northwest Georgia for the asking. And he devoted every Saturday to helping folks with their legal problems--free.
They came from all over the mountains, from Alabama, Tennessee, North Carolina, everywhere in Georgia, but mostly from around Summerville, and they took seats in his waiting room. The first person to arrive put his name at the top of a yellow legal pad; the second put his name right below, and so on. And Bobby Lee saw them first-come, first-served. Social Security snarls. Workman’s compensation claims. The start on a defense against an assault charge. A will.
It was all part of helping people get a fair shake. And that was what made Bobby Lee Cook tick. That was the heart of the matter--to him, fair treatment is crucial, whether it is a matter of the deposit on a Coke bottle, the life of a Jewish pencil maker or the trial of a child rapist.
‘I’m No Different’
“I’m no different. I do not want to be robbed or to have my children or grandchildren raped or robbed. But yet, at the same time, if this republic is going to last, and if we are a nation of laws, and if the Bill of Rights is meaningful, then we have got to view this problem within the Bill of Rights. You can’t have it both ways. Protecting the rights of some but not of others leads to far greater abuses. And these days there is a wave of judicial precedent that I find to be very frightening. Every time the Supreme Court considers a Bill of Rights case, you can figure somebody is fixing to be hurt.”
Not that everyone understands.
“Sometimes I’ll get up in the morning, and I’ll go down to a little restaurant downtown, the little M & M Cafe, and have some breakfast. There are many people there, a lot of them that I’ve known a lifetime. It is 6 a.m., or maybe 6:30, and maybe I’m involved in a major case.
“ ‘Goddamn! one of them’ll say. ‘That fellow’s charged with killing four people. How do you deal with a situation like that? Hell, everybody knows he did it.’
“And so I’ll go through this litany of constitutional arguments about the Sixth Amendment and about the effective assistance of counsel and the presumption of innocence and all of the other things.
“ ‘Well,’ he will say, ‘we don’t understand this. We like you. We grew up with you, and we think you’re a great feller. But, hell, we don’t understand that.’
“The next time, I tried something else.
“One of ‘em said, ‘Well, we see you’re trying old Rick Meyer. How in the hell can you do that?’
Bobby Lee’s Reply
“I said, ‘Well, I’m going to tell you. The last time you asked me that question, I told you about the Sixth Amendment, the constitutional right to the effective assistance of counsel and due process and the presumption of innocence and the fact that the burden of proof never shifts to the defendant and all of that stuff.’ And then I said, ‘Now I’m going to tell you really what moves me in this case and the reason that I am able to represent him.’
“ ‘Well, what is it?’
“I said, ‘Rick Meyer gave me $150,000.”
“ ‘Goddamn! That’s great! Go get ‘em, Bobby Lee. Kick ‘em in the ass. We hope you win it.”
Last Christmas Eve, Bobby Lee and his wife were coming back to Summerville from Lookout Mountain. “We had the little Mercedes, the little sports car. I was driving at a moderate rate of speed, I guess 40 or 45. And we got to this little old stop sign in the town of Menlo, about eight or nine miles west of here, a town of about 300 or 400, right at the foot of Lookout Mountain, and there wasn’t anybody coming, so I slowed down, as I recall, and came to almost a stop. I might not have completely stopped. I thought I did. I wouldn’t take a blood oath on it. But I certainly slowed down.
“And we got on the other side of Menlo, about 2 or 2 1/2 miles, and I looked back, and I see this blue light--and I immediately pulled over. And this fellow walks up to the side, and he said, ‘Mr. Cook,’ he said, ‘let me see your driver’s license.’
“And I said, ‘Well, I don’t have it. I changed my clothes and went to church, and then I went out on the mountain, and I don’t have it.’
“He said, ‘I’m going to have to see some identification.’
“And I said, ‘Why, goddamn, mister, I don’t know who you are, but you know who I am. You called me by my name when I stopped, and I told you my license was at home. That’s silly as hell.’
“He said, ‘Well, I’m just going to have to take you in--back to Menlo.’
“ ‘Take me to Menlo!’ I said, ‘Now look, if you’ve got a charge to make against me, I’m not any better than anybody else.’ I said, ‘Make it.’ But I said, ‘Mister, goddamn it, you ain’t taking me to Menlo.’
“He said, ‘You’ve got to make a cash bond.’
“I said, ‘You’ve got that wrong, too.’ I said, ‘I don’t have to make a cash bond. I can make a property bond--and I’m going to the sheriff’s office in Summerville.’
‘Now Don’t Get Mad’
“June said, ‘Now don’t get mad and don’t speed.’
“And I said, ‘I’m not going any faster than I was a while ago, about 40 or 45 miles an hour.’ And I pulled in at the sheriff’s office downtown here. And he pulled in.
“And I got out.
“He walked around, and he said, ‘Another goddamn thing.’ He said, ‘I just might have to charge you with running your mouth.’
“I said, ‘Now look here, let me tell you something. That’s a goddamn privilege you’ve got in this country.’ I said, ‘You can run your goddamn mouth, and it’s not against the law.’
“And he patted his gun, like that.
“And when he patted his gun, I just knocked the piss out of him.”