BOSTON — Christopher Muse was just starting law practice with his father in 1977 when he asked for some work.
"Here, start on this one," Robert Muse told his son as he threw over the court papers on a man seeking freedom from a life sentence for a murder he said he didn't commit.
That casual toss began 9 1/2 years of free legal work by a dozen attorneys that culminated last month when a judge granted freedom and a new trial to Bobby Joe Leaster.
The Muses, who began as court-appointed attorneys and ended up turning the case into a cause, say they stuck with Leaster because of an absolute moral conviction that he is innocent. Robert Muse's wife, Mary, now a judge, and three other Muse sons and two daughters, all lawyers, worked on the case.
"You don't walk away from an innocent man," Christopher Muse said in an interview. "We didn't go into it expecting this longevity. After nine years you develop some very strong bonds. We got personally involved. We knew him as a human being more than just as a client."
Leaster, now 36, felt the same way about the Muses.
"Mr. Muse and his whole family are like family to me. I'll always be grateful to them for working on my case, never losing faith," he said.
Leaster himself never lost hope, never became bitter in the 15 1/2 years he spent in prison. Instead he learned carpentry, masonry, roofing and how to read and write. For seven years, he has been on a work-release program.
"Me and myself just reached down deep inside of me and just pulled out the strength that I thought I never had, just kept fighting and hanging in there."
The district attorney's office has indicated that it is unlikely that Leaster will be retried and it will announce its decision at a hearing Dec. 26. The parole board has recommended that Leaster's sentence be commuted and that he be paroled for good behavior. The victim's widow, who is in poor health, has said she does not want to go through the stress of another trial, since Leaster would likely go free even if convicted again.
Witnesses Identified Him
Leaster was identified by two witnesses, including the widow, Kathleen Whiteside, as the gunman who shot Levi Whiteside in a robbery of the couple's variety store in the Dorchester section of Boston on Sept. 27, 1970. Leaster was convicted and went to jail in June, 1971.
The Muses entered the case in March, 1977. They argued that previous counsel had failed to present vital evidence and to object to certain procedures. They said, for example, that police had illegally allowed Kathleen Whiteside to confront Leaster after he had been picked up and brought to the hospital where her husband lay fatally wounded. They said that this suggested to her that he was the gunman and that any identification should properly have taken place in a police lineup.
But early court decisions went against the Muses. In the summer of 1985, Christopher Muse tried another approach, asking the Parole Board to commute Leaster's sentence. This summer the seven-member panel, in an unusual unanimous vote, recommended that his sentence be commuted because of his work and study in prison.
New Trial Granted
The recommendation was awaiting action by Gov. Michael S. Dukakis when Leaster was granted a new trial Nov. 4 on the basis of a new witness. Mark Johnson, an English teacher, testified that, as a 13-year-old boy living in Dorchester, he saw two men running through a back lot near the Whiteside store. Neither, he said, was Leaster.
Assistant Dist. Atty. Fran O'Meara said that, although Johnson "lived in the neighborhood several years afterward and it was the corner store he frequented all the time," he had not come forward earlier because he did not know anyone had been convicted until he read about the case and saw photographs of Leaster in Boston Globe Magazine last July.
O'Meara would not say whether the district attorney's office would pursue the men Johnson saw running away, one of whom Johnson identified as possibly serving a life sentence for another murder.
"The name Mr. Johnson gives us is not serving time for murder in the state," O'Meara said. "He couldn't give us the first name, last name, nickname or address of the other man. Different names have been thrown around. Our position is, we have two witnesses who identified Mr. Leaster and continue to do so."
O'Meara said Kathleen Whiteside, now 59, still says she is positive that Leaster killed her husband. O'Meara quoted her as saying that Leaster had been in the variety store three days before the shooting, again on the morning of the slaying and for seven minutes just before the murder that afternoon.
Shortly after Leaster was released on his own recognizance, he visited his parents, whom he hadn't seen in 15 1/2 years, in his hometown of Reform, Ala.
Leaster says he is looking ahead to marrying his fiancee, June Wallace, whom he met a few years ago while on furlough, and starting a family. He is working as a carpenter and living with a nephew.
The case has brought the Muses a lot of attention and at least one award, but no monetary rewards. They estimate that the work they did would normally have cost as much as $400,000, but they took the case knowing Leaster was indigent.
"There isn't a week in nine years, 52 weeks times nine, every day of the week, that we didn't do something in this case," Robert Muse said.