F. Lee Bailey

Francis Lee Bailey (born 1933) is a high-profile superstar attorney and best-selling author.

"The legal profession is a business with a tremendous collection of egos," proclaimed F. Lee Bailey to U.S. News & World Report. "Few people who are not strong egotistically gravitate to it." Not many would deny that Bailey is well-suited to his vocation; he has generated significant controversy throughout his career, often due to his capacity for self-promotion. He became the preeminent superstar lawyer, appearing on television and publishing books at a time when such activities were often criticized as grandstanding. Furthermore, noted Edward Felsenthal of the Wall Street Journal, the often flamboyant attorney "didn't get to be rich and famous by being cautious or carefully following rules. His career is pockmarked with run-ins with judicial authorities and others." Bailey has been involved in a number of high-profile cases, notably the trials of Patty Hearst, the Boston Strangler, and O.J. Simpson.

Bailey was born June 10, 1933, in Waltham, Massachusetts; his mother was a teacher and nursery school director. An outstanding student, he nonetheless dropped out of Harvard to serve as a fighter pilot in the U.S. Marine Corps; flying would become one of his few passions rivaling litigation. Bailey then moved on to law school at Boston University—achieving the highest grade point average in the school's history—and was admitted to the Massachusetts bar shortly after graduating in 1960. He married Florence Gott the same year; the two divorced in 1961.

Bailey attended Keeler Polygraph Institute in Chicago, where he became an expert in lie detector tests. It was in this capacity that he was enlisted by the defense in the case of George Elderly, a physician charged with murdering his wife. When Elderly's attorney was incapacitated by a heart attack, Bailey took over the defense. The doctor—whose story served as the basis for the television series and film The Fugitive—was acquitted. Soon thereafter, Bailey won a reversal of the conviction of another doctor, Samuel H. Sheppard, who was also accused of murdering his wife. Felsenthal cited a New York Times article from the period that labeled the dynamic young lawyer "the shiniest new star in the criminal law field."

This new standout did not shy away from the spotlight. Indeed, Bailey drew criticism for appearing on television talk shows and discussing various cases and was censured by the Massachusetts bar in 1970. While the idea of the "celebrity lawyer" sounding off to the press about the cases he pursues may sound ordinary, it was highly unconventional at the time. Bailey's contemptuous words regarding a New Jersey ruling so outraged the Supreme Court of that state that he was forbidden to practice there for a year. Meanwhile, he was profiled in magazines much the way a film star might be, with his second wife, Froma—formerly his secretary—standing by. He divorced her in 1972, marrying Lynda Hart that same year.

Around the same time, Bailey defended Ernest L. Medina in a court-martial over the Vietnam War's notorious My Lai massacre, an incident of extreme violence against Vietnamese civilians that gave impetus to the anti-war movement in the United States. Bailey won Medina's acquittal after calling a vast number of witnesses—including Medina himself. This victory was one of his greatest courtroom triumphs. As Felsenthal observed, Bailey "already was gaining renown for his eloquent oratory, his nearly photographic memory and his mastery at cross-examining witnesses."

Again, Bailey used this renown to further his career, writing The Defense Never Rests and For the Defense, books on the lawyer's craft for a popular audience, in addition to writing legal textbooks. He also became publisher of Gallery magazine in 1972. Though Bailey lost his defense of Albert DeSalvo, a mental patient who admitted to being the Boston Strangler—a serial killer who had murdered 13 women—the case did not damage his reputation. The same could not be said, however, for his defense of Patty Hearst. The daughter of a publishing tycoon, Hearst was allegedly kidnapped by a terrorist organization called the Symbionese Liberation Army (SLA) and forced to participate in a series of bank robberies. Despite her claim that she was coerced, the heiress was tried for the holdups.


Defends Hearst

Bailey conducted a spirited defense, placing Hearst on the stand along with 71 witnesses. It was his intention to show that his client went along with the SLA to save her life. The jury felt otherwise, apparently, and convicted her; she served 22 months in prison and eventually hired another attorney, hoping to overturn her conviction on the grounds that Bailey had not represented her adequately. His insufficient attention to her legal needs, she asserted, was due in part to his focus on the book he planned to write about the case. President Jimmy Carter eventually commuted her sentence, and she abandoned her claim against the attorney. Even so, a San Francisco appeals court suggested that Hearst's argument had some merit. Bailey's loss marked a turning point in the public's perception of his courtroom prowess.

Bailey divorced Hart in 1980, waiting a full five years before getting married again, this time to flight attendant Patricia Shiers. He continued to publish books, including a book about flying and a novel, Secrets; he also lent his name to ads for a variety of office machinery, collected $10,000 per speaking engagement, and stumped regularly for one of his pet causes, the necessity of reducing lawsuits. "Americans are the most litigious people in the world," he remarked in an interview with U.S. News & World Report, asserting that a variety of reforms—fewer jury trials, restructuring of legal fees to discourage the padding of hours, laws forbidding the possession of large sums of cash, and other changes—would help accomplish this goal. In USA Today magazine, Bailey claimed that he had "never seen a major trial which lacked significant perjury, and I have yet to see that perjury punished." The government, he insisted, often overlooked such mendacity when it came from its own witnesses.

In 1982 Bailey was arrested for drunk driving in California; he was acquitted, thanks in large part to the defense conducted by Robert Shapiro, who would summon Bailey to the O.J. Simpson defense team some 12 years later. The drunk driving trial so enraged Bailey that he wrote a book, How to Protect Yourself against Cops in California and Other Strange Places, which alleged serious abuses by police and argued that driving under the influence of alcohol had become "a number, not a condition." He furthermore asserted that political pressure had motivated police to go after celebrities in particular. While Los Angeles magazine called it "a small (96 pages) gem of a book," Newsweek writer Mark Starr found Bailey's mini-opus less than compelling, calling much of its advice "impractical," "sophomoric," or "just plain obvious."

Another strike to Bailey's credibility came when he took on the case of aggrieved families of passengers on Korean Airlines flight 007, which was shot down over the Soviet Union in 1983. Though he made several public statements attesting to his commitment to the case, his firm put in a much smaller number of hours on the case than did the two other law firms working on it. Bailey aggravated other clients by traveling to Libya to discuss defending two men who were charged with blowing up Pan American flight 103 over Lockerbie, Scotland, even after undertaking the cause of relatives of that bombing's victims. To the latter, the expedition to Tripoli was a clear conflict of interest; Bailey denied that he intended to defend the Libyans, though a letter he had written to the U.S. government suggested otherwise.


Joins O.J. Defense Team

When Robert Shapiro enlisted Bailey to join the defense team of O.J. Simpson, opinion among the throngs of professional observers was divided. The football star turned actor was accused (and later acquitted) of murdering his ex-wife Nicole and her friend Ronald Goldman in Los Angeles. In the words of Los Angeles Times reporter Bill Boyarsky, "a lot of lawyers and reporters wondered why the 'dream team' had hired a has-been." Although Boyarsky found these commentators "off the mark," he found that at times during his early Simpson trial appearances Bailey didn't follow the advice of his own books. After a grueling nine-month trial the jury on October 3, 1995, announced the verdict of "not guilty" on two counts of homicide, making it seem clear that Bailey and the rest of the team knew their jobs well.

Bailey's questioning of Los Angeles police detective Mark Fuhrman—alleged by the defense team to be a racist who hoped to frame Simpson, who is black—was one of the most anticipated moments of the exhaustively chronicled trial. The attorney, perhaps not surprisingly, gave himself high marks. "I'm not [stalwart television lawyer] Perry Mason," he stated in Time, adding, "nobody is. Other lawyers whom I respect told me that given what I had to work with, it was good. [Celebrated author] Norman Mailer called me and said it was flawless. So I feel good." Whether it was, in Los Angeles Times commentator Boyarsky's phrase, "Bailey's test, his chance to exhibit the skills he showed when he freed Sam Sheppard, to reclaim the reputation that was diminished after Patty Hearst, to prove that this is one lawyer who's not ready for retirement," remained to be seen.

Bailey and the rest of the Simpson team insisted that they had a witness who could attest to Fuhrman's racism, and Bailey himself claimed to have spoken "marine to marine" with the witness in question, Maximo Cordoba. Yet Cordoba's testimony was so inconsistent that in the minds of many observers it compromised the defense's Fuhrman strategy. Elizabeth Gleick of Time quoted prosecutor Marcia Clark's exclamation: "This is the kind of nonsense that gives lawyers a bad name."

Gleick felt that "the defining face-off of the trial was not exactly what most observers expected," adding that Bailey, "once America's most famous trial lawyer, was, by turns, sputtering, enraged and embarrassed. Instead of regaining his former glory after nearly two decades out of the limelight, he may in the end have scarred his reputation." Felsenthal of the Wall Street Journal similarly asserted that "Americans who recently named F. Lee Bailey the most admired lawyer in the country might feel differently now that they have actually watched him in action in the O.J. Simpson case."

Perhaps most off-putting to many observers was an apparent spat between Bailey and Shapiro. Though the two lawyers had been so close that Bailey had served as the godfather for Shapiro's child, reported Felsenthal, "Bailey was accused of getting involved in a whispering campaign to the media" against his colleague. Central to this controversy was an article in the New York Daily News that was strongly critical of Shapiro while reporting his demotion from the position of lead counsel in the Simpson case; Bailey was alleged by some to have been the article's primary source.

If the celebrated attorney had indeed leaked damaging information about Shapiro to the media, said a legal-ethics expert quoted in the Wall Street Journal piece, he "was putting his own interest ahead of those of his client." Bailey himself denied having said anything negative about Shapiro. In an analysis of the defense team—which also included Alan Dershowitz, a celebrity lawyer of a different sort—Newsweek's David Kaplan wondered how Shapiro and Bailey might "share courtroom time" and concluded that "there's no way both of them can play center stage." After the trial was over, Shapiro stated he would never talk to Bailey again, and People quoted Bailey openly assaulting Shapiro's courtroom skills. "All Shapiro knew how to do was plead [guilty]," stated Bailey. "He was not a trial lawyer." Shapiro denied considering a plea bargain for Simpson.

In a television appearance, Bailey argued—as he long had—that a person "in the business of defending criminal cases is going to live in controversy all of his or her life." Whether or not this is universally true, he has certainly been exemplary in this respect. At the same time, he has demonstrated unquestionable skills as a "trial maven," as News-week's Kaplan called him, and has been a trailblazer for the superstar attorneys that have followed in his wake. And after all, as Bailey noted to U.S. News, "each lawyer makes somebody unhappy either by beating him, embarrassing him or tying him in knots."

In 1996 Bailey's reputation again came under questioning. He was jailed after being slapped with contempt of court for failing to hand over illegally obtained shares of stock and money from a former drug-dealer client. The legendary defense lawyer was released from federal prison on his 44th day behind bars on April 16, 1996 after surrendering $16 million in disputed stock and his yacht.


Further Reading on F. Lee Bailey

Los Angeles, November 1982, p. 325.

Los Angeles Times, February 16, 1995, p. A14; April 20, 1996, p.A4.

Newsweek, November 22, 1982, p. 91; July 11, 1994, pp. 26-27.

New York Times, October 4, 1995, p. A18.

People, November 16, 1995, pp. 55-58.

Time, March 27, 1995, pp. 65-66.

USA Today, July 1988, Magazine, pp. 30-32.

U.S. News & World Report, September 14, 1981, pp. 72-73.

Wall Street Journal, March 20, 1995, pp. A1, A8.