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America has a love/hate relationship with criminal defense lawyers, particularly those that manage to transcend their profession to become household names. One of the best-known criminal defense lawyers of the 20th century, perhaps no one was simultaneously more admired or more criticized than F. Lee Bailey. Bailey is best known for representing Sam Sheppard, the doctor charged with murder who later became the subject for television's “The Fugitive," and as part of the “Dream Team" defense for O.J. Simpson's murder trial. Bailey died on June 3, at 87. The cause of death was not initially made public.
Bailey dropped out of Harvard after two years to become a pilot for the Navy, then the Marines. After his service, he went to Boston University Law School while working as an investigator for law firms. It was in 1966 that Bailey first made headlines, clearing Dr. Sheppard of the gruesome murder of his wife. Dr. Sheppard famously argued that it was a “one-armed man" who killed his wife. Earlier this year, Bailey told a local news station that he would “bet his life" that Dr. Sheppard was innocent.
Cool, calm, and armed with a ferocious memory for facts, Bailey was best known for his skill at cross-examinations. In the Sheppard case, for example, Bailey got the coroner to admit that despite testifying Sheppard's wife was killed with a surgical instrument, he had no physical or forensic evidence to support this claim. In the O.J. trial, he was the one responsible for Detective Mark Fuhrman denying he ever used the n-word before tapes of him repeatedly using the epithet were played for the jury at the end of the trial. Many people watching the O.J. trial felt that it was Fuhrman taking the Fifth rather than answering Bailey's question about planting evidence that led to the acquittal. According to Bailey, he also goaded the prosecutor into having O.J. try on the glove found at the scene, which led to the famous Cochran line “If it doesn't fit, you must acquit."
More than just his skills as a lawyer, Bailey was known for embracing the spotlight, paving the way for future celebrity lawyers. Bailey made numerous television appearances and spoke with Johnny Carson, William F. Buckley, and Truman Capote, among others. In the prime of his career, F. Lee Bailey said he couldn't say no to any case that included either a professional challenge, a big fee, or notoriety. While his success was undisputed, his approach to the practice of criminal defense earned him critics from both the public and members of the bar. It may also have contributed to his downfall and ultimately his disbarment.
In 1996, Bailey was sentenced to six months in jail for contempt of court after failing to turn over to authorities $700,000s in stocks that a client of his, a convicted drug trafficker, gave to Bailey as a fee for his services. In 2001, Florida disbarred Bailey, as did Massachusetts, for "multiple counts of egregious misconduct, including offering false testimony."
Whatever your thoughts about Bailey's career, methods, and penchant for the spotlight, he undoubtedly influenced the practice of law. As he once told the New York Times, “. . . I didn't set up the ground rules. I'm only a player in the game." It was a game he played well.