I dropped by Harbor Municipal Court this week to check out F. Lee Bailey. In case you don’t follow such things, Bailey is certainly one of a handful of famous criminal attorneys--if not the most famous--in the country. He was flown out here over last weekend to defend Pomona orthopedic surgeon Thomas A. Gionis, who was accused of ordering the Oct. 3 assault on his ex-wife, Aissa Wayne, and her then-companion, Roger W. Luby, in Newport Beach.
Surprisingly, the spectator area on the first 2 days of Gionis’ preliminary hearing was well-populated but never full, and about half the audience appeared to be working press and lawyers looking for a short course in cross-examination.
When I arrived Monday, Deputy Dist. Atty. Christopher J. Evans had just finished questioning an employee of Pacific Bell about phone records apparently showing a number of calls between Gionis and private investigator O. Daniel Gal, who was observed at the scene of the attack and employed the two men allegedly involved.
Bailey is a portly, ruddy-faced, avuncular man who approached his cross-examination with almost cherubic bonhomie. Toying with his glasses, he spoke extemporaneously, quite remarkable in view of the fact that he had arrived on the scene less than 24 hours earlier.
Bailey had crossed my life once before, rather obliquely, when I did a magazine piece about a medical doctor who specialized in hypnosis and told me that he had worked for Bailey for some years. One of his jobs, he said, was to sit in the spectator area of the courtroom and listen carefully to the questioning of prospective jurors.
He said jurors always offered telltale signs that would enable him to flash signals to Bailey to indicate whether Bailey should accept them. The doctor had also hypnotized two of Bailey’s most famous clients: “Boston Strangler” Albert DeSalvo and Dr. Sam Sheppard, for whom Bailey won a retrial and freedom after Sheppard was convicted of killing his wife in Cleveland. (There have been some spectacular failures too--the best-known was his unsuccessful defense of Patty Hearst.)
Stars of Bailey’s stature don’t often appear in a municipal court, and his presence had an electric quality, dominating even the imposing Gionis, a stocky, curly-haired, rather swarthy man in a dark suit who followed even the most technical questioning intently.
The thing that struck me most about the early part of the proceedings was the good ol’ boy camaraderie of the participants--rather like an advanced law seminar. Amid the one-liners, the inside jokes between Judge Susanne S. Shaw and the attorneys and witnesses, and the general aura of good fellowship, it was sometimes hard to remember that the man at the defense table was accused of hiring thugs to assault his ex-wife. I had a feeling that everyone involved wanted to show Bailey that they could match his sophistication and this was no backwoods operation.
Christopher Evans--a tall, rail-thin man with a high-domed forehead and well-trimmed mustache--told me before the Tuesday-morning session: “I heard rumors, but I didn’t know until I came to court and saw him that Bailey would be involved. I wasn’t surprised, though, because the Gionis family has lots of money, and I thought they would come up with a name lawyer.
"(Bailey is) very smooth and competent in every facet of the job--and he also seems to be a pleasant guy. I don’t have any special strategy to deal with him. We have some pretty competent defense attorneys in Orange County too--including the people who represented Gionis before Bailey took over. Let’s say I was whelmed when I saw him, but not overwhelmed.”
The good fellowship struck a discordant note with me because I’ve always found a courtroom threatening, stirring in me a deep sense of jeopardy that I feel in few other places. That feeling didn’t coalesce with the atmosphere in Judge Shaw’s courtroom until late Tuesday morning when Jeffrey Kendall Bouey--a Simi Valley pool cleaner wearing an Orange County jail jump suit--took the stand.
Bouey has confessed to being one of the two assailants, and he described the attack on Wayne and Luby in some detail. Evans’ last question was: “Why are you telling this story here today?” And Bouey--a remarkably handsome young man who looks more like an All-American wide receiver than a hired thug--answered softly, his voice breaking, that being deprived of seeing his children since he has been in jail has given him insight into what Aissa Wayne had been going through in her custody battle with Gionis over their 2-year-old daughter, Anastasia.
Then Bailey took over to cross-examine, and the whole tone of the proceedings changed dramatically and drastically. Bailey cut up Bouey with surgical precision, leading him down paths and then pulling the path from under him, deriding Bouey’s “new-found sensitivity” and challenging his motives for cooperating with the prosecution. Exchanges between counsel turned rancorous, and comments from the bench--still delivered with a kind of fixed smile--became testy.
This was the Bailey I’d come to see, and he put on a terrific show. Although he is a consummate performer, he long ago learned the value of understatement and doesn’t use histrionics at all. Whenever he makes a point, he says, “Oh,” in a kind of throwaway signature that says quite eloquently, “Well, now we’ve taken care of that matter.” He is confident without being arrogant, and knowledgeable without being supercilious. Everybody’s favorite uncle--with a stiletto in his shoe.
If Judge Shaw decides there is enough evidence to send Gionis to trial, Bailey will apparently defend him. If he gets Gionis off the hook at his preliminary hearing, Bailey can go home in triumph to await the next call.
Have law books, will travel. For lots of money.