The Life and Career of F. Lee Bailey, Chairman and CEO of IMPAC Control Systems, Inc.
by Regan Morris
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It seems hard to believe that anyone could manage to get back on top after being in trouble with the government on so many issues, but F. Lee Bailey is quite a character. The successful criminal defense lawyer once said, "I use the rules to frustrate the law. But I didn't set up the ground rules." It seems that Bailey has once again prevailed.
The practicing lawyer since 1960 is known for a string of spectacular wins and losses in his long career as a criminal defense lawyer. Some of the notable cases handled by Bailey include the cases of kidnapped-heiress-turned-bank-robber Patty Hearst, Albert DeSalvo (aka Green Man), wife-killer Carl A. Coppolino, My Lai massacre defendant Ernest Medina, and fraudsters William and Chantal McCorkle.
But this fame did not stop his debarment from practicing in Massachusetts and Florida more than 10 years ago. The basis was professional misconduct when he accepted $6 million worth of stocks in BioChem that Bailey said comprised his fee for his defense of accused drug dealer Claude DuBoc in 1994. DuBoc had made a plea bargain agreement with the US Attorney General for life in prison in exchange for turning over all his assets to the federal government. The government considered that Bailey should surrender the stocks, which by 2000 had increased in value to $20 million, and when he was unable to, was sent to prison for contempt of court. Bailey stayed there for 44 days before his brother managed to raise the money to set him free.
Then, Bailey moved to Maine in 2010. After passing the bar exam in February 2012, the state's bar examiners determined in November that Bailey failed to meet the standards of good moral character and fitness required of licensed law practitioners in Maine. Bailey has an outstanding case concerning the $2,000,000 he owes the government in back taxes. When Bailey appealed, Maine Supreme Judicial Court Judge Donald Alexander denied it, stating in his ruling that he would reconsider if Bailey paid his back taxes. The lawyer famous for the O.J. Simpson and Dr. Sam Sheppard cases may have succeeded in appealing the ruling that kept him from getting a license to practice in Maine. Later, Judge Alexander agreed to reverse the bar examiners' ruling on June 7, 2013, agreeing that a 1992 case where a woman disbarred in Georgia for stealing was granted a license to practice in Maine was a precedent. Judge Alexander stated that "the debt, by itself, may not result in a finding of lack of good moral character." This decision led to Bailey obtaining his Maine license in July 2013 just about a month after his 80th birthday on 10 June 2013.
Speaking to LawCrossing, Bailey says that his personal legal battles have left him embittered and that while he is still fighting to clear his name, he has no interest in returning to criminal defense work full time. Bailey was disbarred in Florida in 2001 and in Massachusetts in 2002 for the way he handled stock owned by a drug smuggler in 1994. He thinks he was unfairly targeted by in the case. Bailey's client, convicted drug smuggler Claude Duboc, gave Bailey several million dollars' worth of stock, which Bailey said he could have sold that day. But he didn't, and the stock's price rose considerably.
"They [the government] decided they wanted it back, so they created a story that I was holding it-for the first time in history, a defense lawyer holding property in trust for the government," he said. "And the judge said he believed that and put me in jail until I could raise enough money to pay the loans on the stock and give it to the government. So I am pretty embittered that that happened and, number two, that that was used by the bar to say, 'Well, you're guilty of trust violations.'"
Bailey is now chairman and CEO of IMPAC Control Systems, Inc.'s North American operations. And he is still a prolific writer and frequent lecturer. IMPAC's business is productivity improvement and management training. Of all his famous cases, Bailey said he was most gratified by representing Dr. Sam Sheppard and Capt. Ernest Medina. Sheppard was wrongfully imprisoned for murdering his wife, and his case is believed to have been the inspiration for the television show and movie The Fugitive. Medina was the commanding officer of Charlie Company, which was accused of the brutal My Lai Massacre of civilians during the Vietnam War.
"They tend to be bittersweet because none of them tend to end up in a bed of roses. Even the people that are acquitted have lost most of what they had, and people like Jay Leno like to make fun of them for the rest of their lives if they get away with something," Bailey said. "There is a great satisfaction watching the system work when it works properly, which is-I'm sorry to say-infrequent."
The system worked in the cases of Medina and Sheppard, although Sheppard did spend 10 years in prison for a crime he didn't commit before Bailey got him out. Bailey, who was a U.S. Marine Corps fighter pilot and legal officer, thinks military courts are preferable to civilian courts.
"In many cases, the military system is a better system even though not often credited with that because it has one burden that the civilian system doesn't: It's got to keep morale in the service, or nobody will reenlist; and then you either have a draft, or you don't have an armed force," Bailey said. "So it attempts to not only give the appearance of being fair and keeping innocent people right out of the system, and it does a pretty good job of it."
The civil courts, according to Bailey, are too political. "The civil system is much too politically infected to have such lofty ambitions," he said. "People get prosecuted on very thin cases because, number one, they're unpopular or, number two, they're important. Then the prosecutor can make a name for himself by going after them and appear to be a fearless crusader, not afraid of somebody with a buck."
Medina, who was not present during the massacre, was acquitted. But his military future didn't look too bright after that, so Medina went to work for Bailey at Enstrom Helicopter Manufacturing Company. This is the Menominee, MI, company Bailey owns and operates. Still an avid flyer, Bailey flies Lear jets, turboprops, and piston-engine airplanes.
Bailey's cross-examination skills are legendary. The secret, he says, is being prepared and developing a solid command of the English language. Too many young lawyers, he says, don't have the ability to communicate clearly and persuasively during a trial. "Anyone who wants to be a courtroom lawyer needs to do a far better job than most youngsters do getting a good education in English," he said. "Most judges will tell you they hear the language butchered on a regular basis, and it's discouraging. And also when it comes to juries and judges, saying things in a persuasive way is what the game is all about."
Asked if he missed being in the courtroom, Bailey said he would like to be in court as a consultant or just to cross-examine a witness or two, but he doesn't want the responsibility of "appearing like a jack-in-the-box every time a judge took it into his head that he wanted to have some proceeding."
Bailey said judges used to make courtesy calls to set appointments but now, especially in federal courts, they just make demands to appear-"even if you have pre-paid tickets to Disneyland for the family."
Despite his success, Bailey says if he were to go back in time, he might not be a criminal defense lawyer again. The courts, he believes, have become the property of prosecutors and draconian drug laws. "The risk of going to trial, for an innocent man, is so great now that many people plead guilty to avoid the risk because the sentences are just plain horrendous," he said.
During a trial, Bailey says he never takes notes because he likes to watch the witnesses, jurors, and judges to see if their expressions or body language hints at what they're thinking. In his many lectures and books, Bailey encourages young lawyers to put down their legal pads and look around. Bailey also writes nonfiction and is working on his second novel, which involves terrorism and a compromised judge. Writing well is crucial for an attorney, he says, but even that comes second to speaking well in public. Mentored by Edward Bennett Williams, the most famous lawyer of his time, Bailey has come a long way. Speaking on his mentor, Bailey said, "I asked him why he appeared from time to time to pull a rabbit out of a hat in the courtroom. And he said to do that, you've got to go get 50 hats and 50 rabbits and get lucky." As per Bailey, this is a "left-handed way of saying be prepared. Look under every stone; don't rule out anything."
Bailey is not only a highly successful criminal defense lawyer who, despite his four-score years, still retains a sharp mind and ready wit. He is also a noted author and personality on the legal lecture circuit. Bailey is also an author, writing fiction as well as non-fiction work. His newest offering by West Publishing with co-author and Massachusetts judge Kenneth Fishman, is a textbook entitled "Excellence in Cross-Examination" and will soon be released.