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

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

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.

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