Posted Mar 02, 2009 05:00 am CST
The year was 1949. Bobby Lee Cook was handling one of his first-ever murder trials, defending a man who had killed another man who had called him a “goddamn son of a bitch.”
During opening statements, the prosecutor told the Dade County, Ga., jurors that while calling someone this was a bad thing, it didn’t give the defendant the right to kill the man.
Slowly, Cook rose from his chair at the defense table to approach the jury. “I have a question for you,” he asked the dozen in the box. “What would you have done if someone had called you a goddamn son of a bitch?”
At that moment, an older mountain man with a long beard sitting at the back of the jury box whispered just loud enough for the other jurors to hear: “Why, I would have killed the son of a bitch.”
“I had an entire opening statement planned,” Cook says. “But I just looked at the man, looked at the jurors, nodded, walked back to my chair and sat down.”
The next day, the jury acquitted his client.
During the past six decades, Cook has tried thousands of cases, including more than 300 murder trials, in more than 40 states and several countries. He’s represented moonshiners and money launderers, bootleggers and bank fraud schemers. The Rockefellers and Carnegies have been his clients. The television show Matlock was reportedly based on Cook’s practice. And his defense of Savannah socialite Jim Williams helped bring to life John Berendt’s true-crime classic Midnight in the Garden of Good and Evil.
At age 82, Cook still lives in Summerville, Ga., which sits a little closer to Chattanooga, Tenn., than to Atlanta. He’s still trying cases—he represents three murder defendants in separate cases set to go to trial this year. He remains one of the most sought-after criminal defense lawyers in the South.
“I’m having the best and most productive year of my career,” Cook says. “I enjoy waking up every morning and kicking somebody in the ass that needs it.”
When that feeling is gone, he says, that’s the day he’ll retire.
“The law practice has changed so much,” says Cook. “The law is viewed as a business these days—and not as a noble profession. Law firms are operated as banks. I know partners at big law firms who have never tried a case to a jury. I didn’t become a lawyer to get rich, but I’m doing OK.”
Indeed he is. Cook’s reported net income is about $1 million a year. He owns houses on the side of historic Lookout Mountain and on beautiful Sea Island. His driver transports him back and forth in his Rolls-Royce. But it hasn’t always been this way.
“For many early years, I got more calls from creditors than I did clients,” he says. “And I’ve represented some clients that most lawyers didn’t want to defend, and I made some enemies in the process.”
In 1951, Cook represented a man who had been arrested for moonshining by a Georgia sheriff who didn’t appreciate Cook’s belief that the Fourth Amendment’s prohibition on illegal searches and seizures should apply in Georgia. When Cook showed up at the jail to post bail for his client, the sheriff refused to accept the money and threatened to kill the defense lawyer if he made any further attempts to have his client freed.
“You’re not going to shoot me,” Cook told the sheriff. “There are hundreds of Cooks who live in this county and they will hunt you down like a damn rabbit, and they will kill you.”
Cook says he put the money on the table, grabbed the keys to the jail cell and started to walk his client out the door, when he heard the sheriff cock his pistol.
“Boom! The gun fires and the bullet shoots into the doorway just above my head,” says Cook. “I got my client the hell out of there.”
A month later, at his client’s trial, Cook got his revenge. He had the sheriff on cross-examination and asked why he hadn’t also arrested his client’s neighbors for moonshining. When the sheriff didn’t answer, Cook responded it was because the neighbors had been making secret payments to the sheriff while his client had not. Angered, the sheriff threw a Coke bottle at Cook, barely missing him.
“I walked up to the witness stand, grabbed the sheriff by the collar, pulled him down onto the floor and started whipping up on him,” says Cook. “The judge was on the bench and the jury was in the box watching me whip up on him for several minutes. They all knew the sheriff was a tyrant. After a few minutes, the judge cleared his throat and said, ‘Mr. Cook, I think he’s had enough.’
“I pushed the sheriff back into the witness chair and finished my cross-examination,” says Cook. “Damn jury was out for only a few minutes before they came back with a not guilty verdict on all counts.”
Cook’s fame grew in 1975 when he represented on appeal seven men accused of killing Atlanta pathologists Drs. Warren and Rosina Matthews. The key witness in the case—“Hell, the only witness,” says Cook—was Deborah Kidd, who testified that she had been with the defendants and witnessed them brutally killing the victims. Prosecutors had given her total immunity in return for her testimony.
But years after Georgia courts had refused to relook at the case, Cook got one more chance to question Kidd under oath in a federal habeas proceeding.
At first, Kidd stuck to the same story she had told at trial. But Cook showed Kidd a personal check she had written in South Carolina the very day she claimed she was supposedly with the defendants committing murder.
When Kidd claimed the check was a forgery, Cook presented three handwriting experts who confirmed the signature was hers. When Kidd said she’d backdated the checks, Cook presented witnesses who said Kidd gave them the checks in South Carolina the day she claimed she was in Georgia.
Cook also presented Kidd with an affidavit she’d signed in a South Carolina divorce case at the exact time she claimed she was at the murder scene. Finally, Cook presented evidence that Kidd and the lead detective had been sleeping together during the trial.
Overwhelmed, Kidd broke down on the witness stand and confessed to Cook and the federal judge that she had made up the entire story, and that she and the police had framed the seven defendants.
The convictions were thrown out and prosecutors later admitted that the seven were innocent.
“If you can railroad a bad man to prison,” says Cook, “you can railroad a good man. That’s why we should always vigorously fight for the constitutional rights of even those who are most despised in our communities.”
Click here to read more about this illustration
from the racketeering trial of Michael Thevis.
Illustration courtesy of Bobby Lee Cook.
Cook has a history of representing unpopular clients. For example, he was the only lawyer in Georgia who represented unions during the 1950s, when organized labor was considered communist. And his defense of high-profile criminals left many of his neighbors scratching their heads.
In the mid-1980s, he was having breakfast at a Summerville diner when a longtime friend approached his table to ask how he could represent a local man who was accused of killing four people.
“I explained the Sixth Amendment, right to counsel, innocent until proven guilty, right to confront your accuser,” says Cook. The friend gave Cook a puzzled look. A few days later, another longtime friend approached Cook, also seeking an explanation of how he could defend such a horrible person.
“I could tell you that it is the right to a fair trial, due process, effective assistance of counsel, but there’s more to it than just that,” Cook told his friend. “The guy paid me $150,000 in cash up front.”
“Well goddamn, Bobby Lee,” the man responded. “That’s great. We hope you win.”
Cook, who has won about 80 percent of his murder trials, says there are two things a lawyer must prove to a jury in order to win a murder case: That the victim was a bad person who deserved to be killed, and that your client was just the man for the job.
“If you prove those two things, nine times out of 10, your client walks,” he says.
Not that Cook wins all of his cases. In the 1970s, he represented a young man charged with arson in the defendant’s small north Georgia town. Cook asked the panel members during jury selection whether any of them knew his client. Several jurors raised a hand. Cook randomly pointed to one of the potential jurors and asked what he knew.
“Everyone knows Tommy’s always been a little firebug,” the juror responded.
“I knew then it was time to plead this case,” Cook says.
And then there are those cases when you have to adjust your argument based on the makeup of your jury. Cook points to a death penalty case he was defending in rural Georgia in the early 1970s.
Seeking leniency from the jury during closing arguments, Cook quoted Shakespeare: “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.”
Cook started to attribute his quote to Shakespeare when he caught himself.
“I realized that I was in Dade County, Ga.,” Cook says. “The people of Dade County are good but simple people. They don’t know who the hell William Shakespeare is. They may think he’s some guy named Bill from Tennessee, or worse from Alabama, and sentence my client to death.”
So Cook cleared his throat and told jurors, “And that’s from Song of Solomon in the Bible.” The jurors all nodded in reverence.
That night, Cook was awakened by a phone call. It was the prosecutor in the case who said he had just finished reading through the Song of Solomon for the fourth time.
“What you told the jury ain’t in there, you son of a bitch,” the district attorney said.
“What version of the Bible are you reading?” Cook asked.
“The King James Version,” the prosecutor responded.
“I never said it was the KJV,” Cook replied and then hung up.
“The next day, the jury spared my client’s life,” he says.
Cook frequently uses people’s basic mistrust of government and power as a foundation for his case. In 1979, the Rockefellers and Carnegies hired Cook after the federal government seized their coastal Georgia property as part of a land condemnation procedure, offering only nickels on the dollar. His clients told him they doubted a Georgia jury would ever side with them because they are viewed as rich and powerful.
But Cook turned that argument upside down. He told the jury that if the federal government could do this to the rich and powerful Rockefellers, then imagine what they could do to ordinary citizens of Georgia. The jury awarded the families $5.5 million, multiple times what the government had offered.
In 1985, Cook used his extraordinary ability to relate to jurors and his exceptional cross-examination skills in defending C.H. Butcher Jr. of Knoxville, Tenn., in what was then one of the largest federal banking-fraud cases in history. His client’s brother, Jake Butcher, had already pleaded guilty for his role in the alleged scheme.
During jury selection, Cook’s fellow lawyers advised him to use his peremptory strikes to remove from the jury both a military veteran and an 81-year-old woman, neither of whom fit the profile they were looking for.
“They thought she was too damn old and would fall asleep during the highly complicated financial testimony, and they thought the veteran was too pro-government,” Cook says. “I never use jury experts because I think they are full of shit. Picking a jury is about common sense and something down deep in your gut. It’s not about science.
So I kept them on the jury.”
The key witness in the case was a senior executive from a national accounting firm hired by federal prosecutors to review millions of pages of documents from the failed United American Bank. The auditors discovered that the $3 billion Butcher banking empire in Tennessee was nothing more than a house of cards based on paper fraud. Tens of thousands of people had lost their money.
The entire case rested on the credibility and independence of the private auditors.
On cross-examination, Cook asked the witness whether he had personally reviewed the allegedly fraudulent documents.
“No sir,” came the answer.
“But I have working for me the best and most honest team of accountants in the business,” the executive responded.
Cook asked whether he was willing to vouch for them personally.
“Yes, sir,” the executive replied. “I know each and every one of them, and they are the best.”
Cook then turned to the four accountants seated behind the prosecution table and asked them to stand.
“Are these the four?”
Yes, said the witness.
“Well, I want you to introduce each of them to the jury,” Cook continued.
The witness stammered for a minute and then proceeded to say that each was highly educated and well-qualified.
“But I want their names,” Cook said. “You said just a minute ago that you know each and every one of them, and that you vouched for their credibility and expertise. What are their names?”
One by one, Cook acknowledged the four accountants, asking the executive to provide their names.
Finally, the executive admitted he couldn’t remember them.
When the four started to sit down, Cook stopped them and asked them to remain standing. He returned to the witness. “And if you, at any point during my cross-examination, ever remember any of their names, you stop me and let me know.”
Every few minutes, after a series of questions, Cook paused dramatically and returned attention to the standing accountants: “Have you remembered any of their names yet?”
He never did.
In his closing argument, Cook all but ignored most of the findings of the accountants. He questioned the integrity of the audit, focused on patriotic themes, and reminded the folks in the jury box that they could be a check on an all-powerful government.
At the end of the six-week trial, the jury acquitted Butcher on all counts. As Cook walked from the courtroom, the 81-year-old juror approached him and whispered in his ear, “I was with you from the beginning, Bobby Lee.”
BOBBY LEE COOK
Born 1927 in Lyerly, Ga.
Firm Cook & Connelly in Summerville, Ga.
Law school Vanderbilt.
1986—Defended Tennessee banker C.H. Butcher Jr., who faced 25 counts of fraud. Butcher was acquitted on all counts.
1988—Represented former Auburn University All-American football star Bobby Hoppe, who was charged with murder in a 1957 shooting. Jurors deadlocked 10-2 for acquittal. The case was never retried.
Currently—Represents Wayne Williams, who is appealing his 1982 conviction forthe murder of two black youths in what was known as the Atlanta Child Murders.
Other career highlights—Widely believed to have inspired the TV-show character Ben Matlock.
Read about the other “Lions”:
Bernie Nussbaum: From Watergate to the World Trade Center
Joe Jamail: Keeping it simple
James Neal: Hating losing more than loving winning
Fred Bartlit: John Wayne in a pinstripe suit
James Brosnahan: Defending clients, not movements
Richard “Racehorse” Haynes: The man they call when they’re in Texas-size trouble
Illustration courtesy of Bobby Lee Cook.
Case U.S. v. Thevis.
Location Atlanta federal courthouse.
Who Bobby Lee Cook, as sketched by an artist during his final argument.
What The racketeering trial of Michael Thevis. Thevis, who had been dubbed the “Scarface of Porn,” was accused of at least two murders in defense of his adult entertainment empire.
Note After his indictment in 1978, Thevis became a fugitive and was listed among the FBI’s “10 most wanted” before being captured in Connecticut later that year. Thevis, now 76, was convicted and sentenced to federal prison. He is scheduled for release in 2028.
Mark Curriden, an occasional contributor to the ABA Journal, is a freelance writer based in Dallas.
Mark Curriden, an occasional contributor to the ABA Journal, is a freelance writer based in Dallas.