High-profile defence lawyers have often become celebrities in the US, starting with Daniel Webster and Abraham Lincoln and boasting ever more flamboyance since the days of Clarence Darrow.
F Lee Bailey, who has died aged 87, was one of the most aggressively self-promoting modern celebrity lawyers, achieving fame then maintaining it through the defence of notable clients. In the mid-1960s Bailey attracted headlines by winning a reversal for Sam Sheppard, a doctor convicted of the killing of his wife in one of US’s most important murder trials; one that provided the inspiration for the hit television show and film The Fugitive. He went on to represent, not always successfully, clients as notorious as the Boston Strangler, Albert DeSalvo, or as controversial as the heiress Patty Hearst.
But Bailey is now best remembered for his last major defence, as part of the so-called “dream team” defending the gridiron star turned actor OJ Simpson, accused of murdering his former wife Nicole Brown and her friend Ron Goldman in 1994. As Simpson explained, Bailey “was able to simplify everything and lay down what the case’s strategy was going to be … and it turned out to be true.” Bailey’s “simplicity” was an ability to identify the weak point in the prosecution case, then attack it relentlessly, complicating and confusing the issue as much as possible.
He was an intimidating cross-examiner, with the skills of an actor as he took juries through testimony. By the time Bailey finished defending Mark Gerard, a veterinarian accused in 1977 of switching horses to create a 57-1 betting coup, his obfuscating weaving of breeding, registration and medical testimony led to the jury’s finding Gerard not guilty, apparently out of relief.
His technique reflected an idiosyncratic approach to the law, which Bailey came to through his desire to be a fighter pilot. He was born in Waltham, a suburb of Boston, Massachusetts. His father, Francis Lee Bailey Sr, was a newspaper advertising salesman, his mother, Grace (nee Mitchell), a teacher. Bailey Jr attended boarding schools after his parents divorced when he was 10. He graduated from Kimball Union Academy in New Hampshire before matriculating at Harvard. After two years, in 1952, he left university to enlist in the US navy, eventually becoming a Marine Corps pilot. At Cherry Point Marine air base in North Carolina, he began handling legal cases for his fellows, eventually becoming the base’s legal officer.
He returned briefly to Harvard in 1956 before being admitted to Boston University law school, which accepted his Marine experience in lieu of an undergraduate degree. Starting his practice in Boston, he became a polygraph expert, which led to his defending, in 1960, George Edgerly, a mechanic who had failed a lie detector test when accused of murdering and dismembering his wife. Challenging the test to help create reasonable doubt, Bailey won his acquittal. Edgerly was later accused of rape and finally convicted of another murder.
Bailey took the Sheppard case in 1966. The Cleveland osteopath claimed to have been awoken by a burglar struggling with his wife, and to have been knocked unconscious after the thief had killed her. Bailey won a reversal of the verdict based on the judge’s prejudices (he had declared Sheppard guilty in a pre-trial interview) and the impact of pre-trial publicity on the jury. He then won a not guilty verdict in the retrial, winning national attention for his finest courtroom performance.
That brought him to DeSalvo, charged with the “Green Man” series of rapes and assaults in Boston. DeSalvo confessed to Bailey that he was in fact responsible too for the crimes of the Boston Strangler, who had raped and killed 13 women. Bailey used the confession to argue DeSalvo’s insanity; the move failed and DeSalvo was sentenced to life. He was killed in prison before his Boston Strangler claims could be proved, though later DNA evidence linked him to one of the murders.
Bailey briefly hosted a TV talk show in 1967. In 1970 he was censured by a Massachusetts judge for his “philosophy of extreme egocentricity”; the next year he was disbarred for one year in New Jersey for public disclosures from a case. That year Bailey wrote (with Harvey Aronson) The Defense Never Rests, followed by For The Defense (1975, with John Greenya).
His notoriety grew nationwide. He saved Capt Ernest Medina from court martial in the 1971 trial of the soldiers responsible for the My Lai massacre in Vietnam. Medina’s subordinate, Lt William Calley was the only officer convicted.
Then he represented Hearst, the newspaper heiress kidnapped in 1974 by the self-proclaimed Symbionese Liberation Army, who participated in two robberies, including a bank robbery in which a customer was killed. Hearst claimed she had been forced to, in fear for her life; she testified against the others in return for Bailey’s getting the death penalty removed. But Bailey failed to establish her innocence, and Hearst, citing his spilling a glass of water on himself during closing arguments, accused him of being drunk during the trial.
Bailey published a novel, Secrets, in 1978, and went on to represent victims of the Korean Airlines flight 007 shot down over Russia in 1983; he withdrew from representing families of victims of Pan Am 103, blown up over Lockerbie in 1988, after travelling to Libya to discuss defending two men accused of participating in the bombing.
The Los Angeles celebrity lawyer Robert Shapiro had won Bailey’s acquittal on a drink-driving charge, spawning Bailey’s book How to Protect Yourself Against Cops in California and Other Strange Places (1982). So Shapiro brought him to the Simpson team, where he faced down, “marine to marine”, Mark Fuhrman, the LAPD detective who found the bloody designer glove that was a key piece of evidence in the case. Catching Fuhrman in a lie about using the N-word, and helped by the Bailey-esque distortions of DNA evidence, Bailey set the stage for Johnnie Cochran to exclaim, in closing: “If it [the glove] does not fit, you must acquit.” The jury did acquit Simpson, though he was found responsible for the deaths in a subsequent civil case.
In 1994, Bailey represented Claude DuBoc, accused of drug-dealing in Miami. As part of the plea bargain Bailey negotiated, DuBoc was supposed to forfeit his assets, but Bailey had transferred nearly $6m into his own accounts, and refused to surrender them. He was disbarred in Florida in 2001 and, reciprocally, Massachusetts followed suit in 2003. His later appeals to be admitted to the bar in Maine were unsuccessful, and he declared bankruptcy there in 2016.
Bailey’s later books included a compendium on spouse-killers and a guide to cross-examination, both co-written with Jean Rabe, and The Truth About the OJ Simpson Trial (2021), co-written with Jennifer Sisson. In 2016 he was played by Nathan Lane in the TV miniseries The People v OJ Simpson and was a key interview subject in the documentary OJ: Made in America.
Bailey was divorced three times. His fourth wife, Patricia Shires, whom he married in 1985, died in 1999. He is survived by two sons, Bendrix and Brian, from his first marriage, to Florence Gott, and a son, Scott, from his second, to Froma Portney.