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Famous and Plain Folks : Country Boy Loves Law, a Good Fight

July 30, 1986|RICHARD E. MEYER | Times Staff Writer

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.

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