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

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

At that moment, a bolt of lightning slashed across the sky, and a thunderclap rocked the courtroom. Bobby Lee fixed the witness with his eyes, stood tall, extended his arm and pointed his right forefinger toward the heavens.

"Oh," the witness pleaded, "Mr. Bobby Lee. I've been lyin'! I've been lyin'!"

During another trial, this one for murder, the central question was: Had two shots been fired, or three? Again, Bobby Lee had a witness for the prosecution on the stand. The witness said he knew that two shots had been fired; he had heard them, they were right together--he knew there were only two shots, and he had no difficulty saying so, he was good at that sort of thing.

Assisted by a Friend

Bobby Lee had talked to the witness ahead of time, and he knew what he was likely to say. So he asked a friend to stand outside the courtroom with a pistol. At the appropriate moment, the friend fired six times.

The witness jumped. His eyes grew.

"How many was that?" Bobby Lee demanded.

"Well, you know . . . You know, Bobby Lee, I don't really know."

But Bobby Lee's favorite ploy was the Bible verse.

"Earl Self and I were trying a murder case over in Dade County, and he had me in a close fight. He had me somewhat backed up in a corner.

"And he was asking for the death penalty.

"So I decided that I would tell the jury before I finished something about mercy.

" 'The quality of mercy is not strained,

" 'It droppeth as the gentle rain from heaven

" 'Upon the place beneath: It is twice blessed;

" 'It blesseth him that gives and him that takes:

" ' 'Tis mightiest in the mightiest. . . .'

"Which, as most of us know, is from Shakespeare. But it being Dade County, and the people there not being acquainted with Shakespeare, and even if they had been acquainted with him, they probably wouldn't have liked him, would've thought that he was from Tennessee, or, even worse, from Alabama, and had no damn business being over there in Dade County, I said, 'Well, now this is from the Book of Solomon.'

"And it worked.

Late-Night Phone Calls

"So that night I got back home, and Earl--we were close friends, and he had a habit of what I called late callin'; he'd call up sometimes at one o'clock or two o'clock in the morning; and, just for the hell of it, he would say, at two o'clock in the morning, 'Well, what are you doin'?'

"I'd say, 'Oh, hell, I'm not doing anything. I'm just lyin' around here expecting a goddamn call from you.'

"But on this particular evening, he said, 'You son of a bitch! I've been reading the Bible all night. I've read this Book of Solomon four or five times.' And he said, 'What you told the jury ain't in the Book of Solomon!'

" 'Wait a minute, Earl,' I said. 'Don't become unreasonable. Let me ask you something, and give me a truthful answer. What Bible have you been reading?'

" 'The King James version.'

" 'Earl, I didn't tell the jury it was in the King James version.' "

Only rarely did Bobby Lee try his hand at prosecuting. A cotton mill executive who was well-liked in north Georgia, had picked up two teen-age hitchhikers on the road between Summerville and Rome. On the far side of Taylor's Ridge, the teen-agers forced him to drive up a little dirt road. They took his money--about $20--and tied him to a tree with barbed wire. Then they clubbed him to death with a fence post.

Bobby Lee accepted appointment as special prosecutor.

Plea for Mercy

The defense attorney pleaded with the jury for mercy.

Bobby Lee approached the jury box with a fence post. He agreed entirely with his eminent colleague--the jury should, indeed, show mercy. He slammed the butt end of the fence post down onto the courtroom floor. "Mercy!"

He slammed it down again. "Give them the same mercy . . . " Again he slammed the courtroom floor with the fence post. "Mercy!" Again, he slammed the post to the floor. "Mercy!" And again. "Mercy!" Again. "Mercy!" Again. "The same mercy . . . " He slammed down the post again. "The very same mercy . . . " Again. "They gave . . . " Again. "To their victim." Again. "Mercy!" Again. "Mercy!" Again. "Mercy!"

One of the defendants panicked. He scrambled to his feet and ran. "Mamma!" he cried. "Mamma!"

The sheriff brought him back.

The jury sent the teen-agers to the electric chair.

It bothered Bobby Lee. He did not stand in the way of efforts to appeal. If he had to, he thought, he would seek a commutation. But the appeals eventually stayed the death penalty.

He would forever feel the discomfort.

"I didn't like it. I did it, but it was not any fun. I decided that I just couldn't do that anymore. It went against the grain. That is not to say that they should not have been prosecuted. It just seemed incongruous, my having done it. They could have gotten the town idiot to prosecute that case and won it. It just wasn't of my choosing, and I just didn't want to do that anymore."

Preferred Defending Clients

Instead, as his acclaim widened, Bobby Lee concentrated on the defense.

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