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A Part of Nashville History: Hal Hardin

published April 23, 2007

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Joseph Mercer, III, was shot dead in an apparent struggle for a .22-caliber handgun with which he threatened his wife, Hope Mercer, in 2005, according to Mercer's account.

Mercer's attorney and former criminal law professor, Hal Hardin, represented her in the trial that came to a triumphant ending in early April 2007 when she was acquitted of the murder charges.

Ever since Hardin was "an itty-bitty boy," he knew that the law was his calling. As a small boy growing up on a farm in Tennessee, he could usually be found preaching to other children in the farm's cornstalks.

Hardin's mother had hoped he would pursue a life as a preacher, but he found a compromise in becoming a lawyer. "I felt like it was the only thing that I could succeed at, and I was always attracted to it," he said.

Hardin was able to get a diverse legal education by attending the University of Tennessee Law School as well as Vanderbilt University Law School, which had very different philosophies at the time. During law school at the University of Tennessee in 1966, Hardin worked as an administrative assistant to prominent Nashville lawyer and businessman John Jay Hooker, Jr., who was running for governor at the time.

After the race, which Hooker lost, Hardin was asked to work at his firm, Hooker, Hooker and Willis, as a clerk and assistant for Hooker's next campaign for governor. In addition to allowing Hardin to make contact with influential lawyers all over Tennessee, this professional relationship presented him with the opportunity to transfer to Vanderbilt University Law School, from which he graduated in 1968.

While waiting to take the bar exam after law school, Hardin served as the acting director of the St. Louis Job Corps Center. Since he had been a part-time investigator for the D.A.'s office, he was asked to return in 1968, which he did on the contingency that it would let him work on one of the most well-known cases at the time, State v. Powell, a murder trial that accused the vice president of a large corporation of killing the president. Hardin worked as an assistant district attorney until 1970.

After going into private practice for five years, Hardin became a circuit court judge, a presiding judge, and then a special judge for the Court of Appeals. In 1977, Hardin was appointed as a U.S. attorney by President Jimmy Carter.

<<In 1981, after the Carter administration ended, Hardin returned to private practice and eventually became a law school professor. He started teaching at the Nashville School of Law in 1992 and still teaches there today as an adjunct professor.

Little did Hardin know that one of his former law students, Hope Mercer, would later come to him in need of legal representation in a case that charged her with the murder of her husband.

When all eyes turned to Mercer after her husband's death in 2005, she called on Hardin to defend her side of the story.

"After about three days of interviews with the police, she [Mercer] said, 'I don't think they believe me,' and I said, 'They do. Don't worry about it.' And I was wrong; I didn't think they'd indict her."

Thickening the plot even more, Mercer would lose her license to practice law if she decided to plea bargain.

"I think she was over-charged. I think they thought it was going to be plea bargained down and we could reach an agreement, but we didn't do that for several reasons. If you're an attorney and you plead to even a judicial diversion, you lose your license. It's hard to plea bargain when you have all that at stake. Plus, she has some children, and that was a factor. Plus, we just felt like she was innocent," he said.

Developing a solid case was much simpler for Hardin because Mercer is an attorney, which streamlined his research and preparation.

"She was very helpful. I make all of my clients work; I think it helps them in addition to helping me. I think it familiarizes them with the case. She was a family law attorney, but she got interested in it. She helped me a lot in doing research and some writing. So she was a big help in that sense," he said.

"I think [lawyers are] a little harder to represent than most people. We have knowledge of law. We're not as prone to listen to other lawyers when we have a little bit of knowledge ourselves."

Based on the defense's strong testimonies and expert opinions, Hardin and his team had the case in the bag from the get-go. According to Hardin, even the prosecution's state witnesses ended up strengthening the defense's case. "Their case kind of disintegrated, I think," he said.

Back when Hardin was still a young law professional, he was mentored by John Jay Hooker, Jr.'s father, John Jay Hooker, Sr. Hooker was best known for representing Jimmy Hoffa in the 1960s.

"He was the perfect lawyer. He set a standard that I can't live up to—such a civility, such an orator, such a knowledgeable person who cared about young lawyers. All the other lawyers in town called him 'the lawyer.' He walked with presidents, princes, and paupers all over the world. He was quite a man," Hardin said.

Q. What are your hobbies and interests?
A. Well, at 15, I gave up chess, golf, and poker because I thought I'd be addicted to all of them. I still don't have a lot of hobbies. I have a farm, and I like to spend time on the farm. Also, my fiancée and my family.
Q. What CD is in your CD player right now?
A. I just got an iPod, and I'm so excited. We have some songs that we play when we're going to trial—like songs from Rocky and The Magnificent Seven.
Q. What is your favorite TV show?
A. I normally watch the news channels, The History Channel, Discovery, and The Animal Channel. That's about it.
Q. What was the last magazine you read?
A. The Bar Journal.
Q. Who is your role model?
A. I have several heroes. Mr. Hooker would have to be in there. Winston Churchill and John F. Kennedy, Jr., and Mother Teresa. John Kennedy was one of the most charismatic people I ever met in my life. I met him when I was a teenager, and he changed my life. I was a Republican, and I met him and decided I was joining the Peace Corps. I was so impressed with him, and I dropped out of college and went to the jungle for a couple of years.

Although Hardin will be the first to admit that law is a stressful and life-consuming profession, he has never thought of going in another career direction.

"I think you've got to keep your imagination vivid, and you've got to work hard, and you've got to play hard," he said. "Keep in mind your family. We have a tendency as trial lawyers to neglect our families. It's easy to do, but we sometimes forget them too much."