My old courtroom chum, F. Lee Bailey, the most famous lawyer in the United States in his time, is back in the spotlight for his role defending O.J. Simpson.
This month, he was a major player in ESPN’s five-part documentary, O.J.: Made in America. And earlier this year, he was portrayed by Nathan Lane in the ten episodes of The People v. O.J. Simpson on FX.
As a kid, I’d wanted to be a lawyer – like Gregory Peck in To Kill a Mockingbird, Spencer Tracy in Inherit the Wind, E.G. Marshall on The Defenders. Like Clarence Darrow. Like F. Lee Bailey.
When I watched David Janssen as Dr. Richard Kimble in The Fugitive, I knew Bailey was the hero. If he had not freed Dr. Sam Sheppard, accused of killing his wife, there would have been no series and subsequent movie.
And while my undistinguished two years of college failed to approach the bar for entry to law school, I became a chronicler of legal drama, with Bailey as the combative protagonist, in the summer of 1972.
I was a 25-year-old reporter for UPI covering my first murder trial.
Bailey’s client was Bill Phillips, 42, a New York City police detective charged with killing a pimp and a prostitute in a posh East Side Manhattan apartment on Christmas Eve 1968.
The trial began not long after Phillips’ star appearance as a witness before the Knapp Commission into NYPD corruption, a crooked cop turned celebrity snitch.
The case was right in Bailey’s sweet spot – lots of press, infamous client, New York, New York.
Two press tables had been placed in the large, stately courtroom on the 13th-floor of the Criminal Courts Building in Lower Manhattan.
The first day, I grabbed a seat at the one behind the defense table, drawn to Bailey.
He appeared older than his 39 years, his ruddy complexion reflecting another night of scotch and manly bravado, his chunky build packed into a well-tailored three-piece suit.
I had been told by one of the courtroom buffs that Bailey always slipped “the Perry Mason line” into his opening statement.
Sure enough, he took a deep breath, puffed up his chest, looked straight at the 10 men and two women in the jury box and declared:
“I know some of you may have heard of me, know my reputation. And I know most of you probably watch Perry Mason. Well, I’m not Perry Mason and this is real life, not TV. So don’t expect someone to jump up on the witness stand and scream: ‘I give up. I did it. I killed them.’”
That elicited the expected chuckles. Then, he planted the seed that other cops framed Phillips for breaking the blue code of silence, that the defense might produce the “real killer.”
Nowadays, it’s ridiculed as the some-other-dude-did-it defense, and you’d need 12 geezers to buy the Perry Mason opening.
But, back then, it was wonderful theater, and the jurors seemed spellbound.
By sitting right behind the defense table, the reporters on our side of the aisle chatted during the many breaks in the proceedings with Bailey, his co-counsel and Phillips.
We’d listen to their off-the-record bitching about the prosecutor and the judge. They made us feel part of the team.
And, if I was sympathetic to the defense, the judge’s charge to the jury put me firmly in its corner.
“If he is found guilty, the consequences of your verdict will not be upon you, but will be the results of his own wrongdoing,” decreed Justice John Murtagh. “You will then return a just and true verdict, no matter whom it hurts.”
Bailey was livid. “No matter whom it hurts”? Who the hell else could be hurt, except Phillips?
After filing my story, after the jury retired to deliberate, I met up with Bailey at the nearby office of his co-counsel, Eddie Orenstein.
Phillips and his family were there, as was Bailey’s very young and very pretty girlfriend Lynda – she’d become wife No. 3 of four – who’d sat in the front row on our side of the aisle throughout the trial, looking like a prom queen in a whorehouse.
“Tough day,” I said to Lynda.
“Lee’s really mad,” she said.
The booze was flowing, lubricating the anger.
Bailey looked spent, not interested in anything except getting his fee, getting out of town and getting with his girlfriend.
It turned out we had to wait another day – and a second night in Orenstein’s office.
That’s when Bailey proclaimed he had the scoop – the jury was 11-1 for acquittal.
“It’s that fucking woman, the one that smiled at me every day,” Phillips confided to me as the empty scotch bottles piled up. “I told Lee not to trust any women on the jury.”
It was just before midnight that the jury came out. Deadlocked. The judge declared a mistrial.
Phillips, Bailey at his side, ranted before the TV cameras, calling it a “mockery of justice” and trashing the judge.
Bailey didn’t say much, and looked like a man who had a ticket on the red-eye back to Boston – or maybe Barbados.
Phillips was tried again, without Bailey, and convicted. He served 32 years in prison before being paroled in 2007 at the age of 77.
In the early 2000s, Bailey lost his license to practice law, cited for some funny business with a client’s funds. Now 83, he’s a partner with his latest girlfriend in a consulting firm in Yarmouth, Maine.
A longer, more detailed account of this and many more stories are told in my book: The Expat Files: My Life in Journalism.