YARMOUTH — The thought of redemption crosses the mind of F. Lee Bailey. One of the most famous defense attorneys in the United States, he tried some of the nation’s most gripping, gruesome criminal cases before a fall from grace more than a decade ago left him disbarred from practicing law.
But restoring his tarnished legacy isn’t the sole focus now for Bailey, who at 80 remains as sharp as a younger man as he seeks to be admitted to the bar in Maine so he can again practice law.
“I think there’s an element of redemption in it, but that’s certainly not the primary motivation,” Bailey said during a recent interview at his Yarmouth office, where he talked about the highs and lows of his storied career.
The Maine Board of Bar Examiners rejected Bailey’s application in 2012, saying in a 5-4 decision that he lacked “the requisite good fitness and fitness necessary” to return to practicing law.
But that didn’t settle the matter for Bailey, whose clients’ names read like a who’s who list of defendant celebrities – from Dr. Sam Sheppard, who became the inspiration behind “The Fugitive” hit television series in the 1960s, to football star O.J. Simpson, who was acquitted of his ex-wife’s murder after an internationally publicized trial in 1995.
The question of whether Bailey should be admitted to the bar is now in the hands of the Maine Supreme Judicial Court, after first a single justice of the court’s seven members overturned the Board of Bar Examiners’ decision last year and then the board appealed. The state’s highest court heard oral arguments in Bailey’s case last week, but it has set no timetable on when it will make a final ruling.
“We’re at the point now where the jury is out. So I sit and wait,” Bailey said.
Bailey said he sought to be admitted for a number of reasons. Chief among them are that he and a co-author, Kenneth Fishman, published a book last year, “Excellence in Cross-Examination,” and he would like to start a master-level law education course specifically for practicing lawyers to learn the “fading profession” of trying a case in court.
“It’s a lot more palatable to promote the book if one is a member of the bar, though people write books without being members of anything,” he said.
But Bailey, who was eligible in 2006 to reapply to be a lawyer, said he had no plans to apply in Maine until he encountered an excellent legal community here and a professional environment that he considers a much more pleasant one than exists in other states where he has practiced.
“At the time I decided to move to Maine and did move – which was finally in 2010, though I had been working up here since 2006 – I had absolutely no intention of applying for the bar. That didn’t happen until over a year later. There are those who are trying to argue that I thought the Maine courts would be a pushover, which is anything but true. I thought it might be more difficult than it would be to be reinstated in Massachusetts,” he said.
Bailey said what finally pushed him to take the bar exam was encouragement from Debbie Elliott, his girlfriend and partner at Bailey & Elliott Consulting, and from two lawyer friends who are older than he and continue to practice.
He’d been coming to Maine for vacations and visits since he was a boy growing up in Massachusetts and had long thought that he would retire here.
“Retirement is a word I used to use,” Bailey said. “When I was very, very young and fell in love with Yarmouth, Maine, I said, ‘That’s where I’m going to retire.’ As life went on and I found out it didn’t end at 40, 60 or 80, I resolved that it is a place where I would settle but not retire. My experience is, people who retire die sooner than they should have.”
Born in Waltham, Mass., as Francis Lee Bailey Jr. in 1933, he first became a legal officer in the military on July 7, 1954, before being admitted to civilian practice as a full-fledged lawyer on Nov. 16, 1960. Bailey ticked off those dates from memory without a moment’s hesitation.
The Sheppard case launched Bailey into the public’s eye only a year after he received his law license. He became Sheppard’s lead attorney in 1961, years after the Ohio doctor had been convicted in 1954 of the brutal murder of his pregnant wife, Marilyn, at their suburban home outside Cleveland.
Bailey took the lengthy appeal process all the way to the U.S. Supreme Court in 1966. The nation’s highest court struck down Sheppard’s conviction in an 8-1 decision, in part because of the “carnival atmosphere” of Sheppard’s trial. At retrial, Bailey took advantage of the case’s notoriety, asking jurors whether they had heard of “The Fugitive” television series, which most of them had.
“Everybody knew ‘The Fugitive’ was Sam Sheppard, and everybody knew ‘The Fugitive’ was innocent. So I think I went in with a presumption of innocence really working for once,” Bailey said. “He was summarilly acquitted, and he died four years later.”
Bailey went on to represent Albert DeSalvo, long suspected in the “Boston Strangler” killings that terrorized the city in the 1960s. He won the acquittal of Army Capt. Ernest Medina in his 1971 court-martial for the My Lai Massacre during the Vietnam War. He defended Patty Hearst, a newspaper heiress turned terrorist after she was kidnapped and brainwashed by a left-wing revolutionary group.
The walls of his Yarmouth office hold memorabilia of his high-profile career. He has framed front-page covers of Time and Newsweek magazines and an enlarged photograph of him at O.J. Simpson’s side moments after the jury declared Simpson not guilty of two counts of murder.
But that career ended first in 2001, when the Florida Supreme Court found unanimously that Bailey had mishandled stock forfeited by a drug-smuggling client, followed by a reciprocal disbarment in Massachusetts in 2003.
The complaints were brought against Bailey in 1999 by The Florida Bar, after Bailey’s defense of Claude Duboc from 1994 to 1996. Bailey said the money earned from about $6 million worth of stocks that had belonged to Duboc belonged to him as payment for his services, while The Florida Bar contended that Bailey knew that he was given control of the stocks with the understanding they would ultimately be turned over to the federal government.
Florida attorney David Ristoff, who served as lead prosecutor for The Florida Bar as it pursued the case against Bailey from 1999 to 2001, said Bailey accepted “no responsibility” for his actions at the time of the case. But Ristoff added that the allegations are from “an incredibly long time ago” – 1994 and 1995.
“I don’t hold any ill will toward the man,” Ristoff said in a phone interview last week. “If the court finds he is rehabilitated, then God bless him.”
Ristoff said he was “incredibly impressed” that Bailey passed the Maine bar exam at his age.
“There’s really no lawyers like Bailey was in terms of stature,” said Ristoff, now in private practice in Florida.
The Maine Board of Bar Examiners was less forgiving in its majority decision, written by Portland attorney Jennifer Archer, denying Bailey’s application to practice law in Maine.
“Rather than accepting that he was disbarred because of his own conduct, Bailey continues to place blame elsewhere,” Archer wrote in the 29-page finding. “It is clear that Bailey does not recognize the wrongfulness of his past conduct.”
Bailey said if the Supreme Judicial Court ultimately agrees with the Board of Bar Examiners, it won’t stop him from continuing the work he has been doing, especially in consulting and in his ongoing efforts for prison reform.
“If they say no, I’ve got quite a lot of years to go,” Bailey said. “It will certainly be a disappointment, but it’s not enough to disassemble it.”
Scott Dolan can be contacted at 791-6304 or at: