Last-Chance Lawyer Heats Up Bakker Defense

Times Staff Writer

George T. Davis is the kind of lawyer people call when they're already on Death Row, or already in prison for war crimes--or when they're disgraced former heads of television ministries about to be tried in a federal court run by a judge nicknamed "Maximum Bob."

Of course, only one person really fits that last category, ex-PTL evangelist Jim Bakker, facing up to 120 years in a restricted environment if he is convicted on charges of fraud and conspiracy in a trial that began with jury selection here Monday.

Not surprisingly, Bakker called Davis, of San Francisco and Hawaii, after he was indicted last December in the most severe blow to his tattered reputation since his sexual encounter with former church secretary Jessica Hahn became public more than two years ago.

And Davis arrived here last weekend, to begin final preparations for a courtroom defense that many consider a lost cause. It is the latest long-shot legal battle in a career that spans nearly six decades and includes important chunks of this country's criminal law history.

Davis is 82 years old and "retired." Sort of.

But he has a compelling reason, he said in an interview, to forsake his Hawaiian cattle ranch for the cramped courtroom of U.S. District Judge Robert Potter, whose nickname derives from his penchant for stiff sentences.

"You take different kinds of cases when you're retired, but you don't stop taking cases because you're always worried about the physiological processes of what happens when you retire," Davis explained. "Everybody I read about who retires dies a year or so after retiring because they're bored to death, they don't have a thing to do."

One indication that Bakker may be helping the attorney stay alive is Davis' energy level. Even at the end of a 12-hour court session he appears as alert as a hawk circling a poultry ranch. He can even summon a boyish burst of enthusiasm for the "fun" of the coming game of wits with Bakker's prosecutors.

Davis' enthusiasm doesn't make him indiscreet, however. Along with other attorneys in the case, including his local associate, Davis is under a court order not to publicly discuss the Bakker case, for which he is chief attorney. As a result, even in the most glancing references, Davis calls the televangelist "you know who."

That doesn't mean he runs from controversy. Davis' reputation rests on his appeals strategies for defendants whose names once stimulated heated arguments all over the country and sometimes the world.

Among others, he handled appeals for labor organizer Tom Mooney, convicted of a 1916 San Francisco bombing that killed 10 people.

In its day, the Mooney case was an international controversy, prompting riots in places as remote as Moscow. Davis' combination of legal finesse and political connections is credited with freeing Mooney after 23 years in prison. More importantly, from a historical perspective, the Mooney case produced a 1937 Supreme Court decision liberalizing the rules under which new evidence could be introduced as grounds for a new trial.

After Mooney was finally released in 1939, he and Davis staged a victory parade, walking through San Francisco's streets to the cheers of thousands.

After World War II, Davis accepted Alfred Krupp, heir to the German industrial and munitions empire, as a client--after getting the OK from President Harry S. Truman, whose California campaign Davis had managed. Davis said he was able to get Krupp's prison term cut in half, arguing that Krupp was being tried for war crimes in place of his father, who had actually headed the firm under Nazi rule but had been declared mentally unfit to be tried.

Perhaps most notoriously of all, Davis spent five years trying to save the life of Caryl Chessman, the so-called Red Light Bandit and jailhouse lawyer, whose delaying tactics against his death sentence drew worldwide attention. Chessman was executed for kidnap and rape in 1960 even as Davis frantically sought a last-second stay that was foiled by a mis-dialed phone number.

Davis entered the Chessman case when the inmate was ready to pursue appeals at the federal level. He helped prolong Chessman's life but not always to the condemned man's satisfaction, Davis said, recalling that Chessman fired him at least twice over legal disagreements.

"Chessman was a sort of ambivalent guy, you see," Davis said. ". . . He could change, he could be peaches and cream one day and vinegar the next. . . . Chessman wanted to be center stage and didn't like the fact the press was calling me up."

In all, Davis, who earned his law degree at UC Berkeley's Boalt Hall, estimates he has been involved in more than 200 death penalty cases, and he remains a committed opponent to the death sentence. He said he has fought executions not only of criminals but of political prisoners, including Benigno Aquino, the Philippine opposition leader whose assassination ultimately led to the overthrow of President Ferdinand Marcos.

Davis said he persuaded Marcos to not execute the then-imprisoned Aquino but to allow him to leave the country. Unfortunately, he added, Aquino later decided to return and was shot to death as he stepped from the airplane that brought him back to his homeland.

Yet despite the grim elements to his career, Davis remains bemused and amused by human nature, which keeps him in business.

His clients and others, he said, have done "all kinds of crazy things just because they're people."

And then he laughed.

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