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

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

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?

In Atlanta.

And then on this day?


And now on this day?

Still Atlanta.

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.

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