Friday, December 1, 2023
Friday, December 1, 2023
Friday, December 1, 2023

Farewell to a Legend: F. Lee Bailey




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F. Lee Bailey is dead.

There’s nothing surprising about this. Death comes for us at all. But he once promised me he’d live to be one hundred years old and invited me to his party. For twenty years, I called him a friend. All at once, where once there was vast intelligence and a defiant spirit, there is now an absence. He was 88.

I did not know that aging required courage.

I met Bailey when he was looking for a lawyer in the Northeast to represent a man with legal problems up and down the east coast. We had lunch at a private club in New Haven. I worried some at the lunch that he’d size me up as a lightweight and be done with me soon. He didn’t, and, soon enough, we spent weeks together working on issues in the client’s case. I was a guest in his home; he was unfailingly gracious.

He wasn’t perfect. None of us are. He was disbarred late in his career as a result of issues with the management of the financial affairs of a client, Claude DuBoc, a man accused of being a drug lord. When the client fired him, Lee could not quickly enough square the financial affairs between lawyer and client. He was sent to a jail cell for a spell – 44 days if memory serves – until he could make things right.

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The jail cell did not diminish the man.

He fought for years to get his law license back, narrowly missing the chance by one vote in the Maine Supreme Court. There was a Miltonian sort of defiance in the man. I think of Satan in Paradise Lost: “All is not lost; the unconquerable will…. And courage never to submit or yield.” That was F. Lee Bailey.

We spent a week or so in Florida once, sharing a condominium while working on a case. O. J. Simpson was innocent. He was persuaded. We sat late into the night while to told me his reasons. As we talked, we drank from a shared bottle of some expensive whiskey. Lee could hold his drinks. We talked into the early morning hours. I’m not sure I was able to follow him after a few drinks. Lee, however, held his liquor, describing it once as his “fuel.”

I’ve worked with lawyers from coast to coast and never once met a lawyer who was better with facts. In complex cases, I’d bring my client to him – I once traveled with a client from Connecticut to see Bailey in Maine in a stretch limousine, and I’ll never forget the look of diners as we stopped for coffee along the route. Lee always found something in the facts I had missed.

He seemed to hit the ground the running as a lawyer. He litigated Sam Sheppard’s case – the man who inspired film The Fugitive – to the U.S. Supreme Court, winning Sheppard a new trial after proving that Shepherd’s trial resembled a carnival, and not a courtroom. He represented the “Boston Strangler,” Albert DeSalvo, and Ernest Medina for charged related to the My Lai Massacre. And, of course, there was O.J.

He was also a prolific writer. He wrote more than a million words in legal treatises, most about criminal defense. He loved the law, and believed that it could be used as a weapon. I can’t say whether he believed in justice; most good lawyers don’t harbor such beliefs. But he believed in the combat of trial. He never stopped being a Marine.

For years, he was active with the American Polygraph Society. He believed in the efficacy of so-called lie detectors. He encouraged me to try to find a case to take to the U.S. Supreme Court on the admissibility of polygraphs. He had a brief read to go. I’d bring him a client; he’d arrange for a retired FBI polygrapher to examine my client. We never made the record we wanted for the appeal he hoped to bring; the clients kept failing the test. But he never lost the appetite for the fight.

I interviewed him not long ago on a podcast.

He was talking about his new book, due out this month, The Truth About the O.J. Simpson Trial. I read it last month. It was classic Lee, acerbic, witty to the point. Ironically, he died just as it was to be published.

None of us get out of here alive. I get it. But I did not expect each new death to be a fresh wound. The idea that I will never be able to pick up the phone and ask a master questions about a case leaves me feeling more alone in a world suddenly less welcoming. I can’t say goodbye. He will always be larger than life to me.

I imagine the sinners in Hell taking heart and God himself shaking a weary head. “F. Lee Bailey is coming,” the sinners say. “There is hope for us. He will plead our case.”

And God?

“The man will never stop talking,” he says as he shakes a weary head. God, it turns out, read Lee’s book, The Defense Never Rests.

F. Lee Bailey is dead. It seems impossible. This truth does not liberate, it drills down someplace deep, striking the heart. Somedays it is enough to bleed.

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