• U.S.

Lawyers: The Boston Prodigy

7 minute read

At 33, brash, bright F. (for Francis) Lee Bailey is the hottest criminal lawyer in the U.S. Last month he got a Cleveland jury to acquit Dr. Sam Sheppard of killing his wife; this week comes the sex-tinged murder trial of Dr. Carl Coppolino in New Jersey; after that, the Boston Strangler. Only six years out of law school, Bailey already compares himself to “Clarence” (meaning Darrow), though his monumental self-assurance might not yet convince William Jennings (meaning Bryan).

By his own account, Bailey has an IQ of 170, though he did “abominably” in school while growing up in suburban Boston where his father is a newspaper advertising man and his mother runs a thriving nursery school. Not until Bailey dropped out of Harvard College after two years and went into the Marine Corps as a jet fighter pilot did he find his vocation. Since lawyers are not required in most military trials, Bailey was able to become legal officer for 2,000 Marines at Cherry Point, N.C., and he tried more than 200 cases. With credit for his time in service, he was then allowed to skip further undergraduate study and gostraight to Boston University Law School.

Electronic Empire. Though Bailey was top man in his class at B.U. (’60), he graduated without honors because he refused to join the Law Review. Instead, he spent 60 hours a week running his own detective agency, which handled 2,000 cases for criminal lawyers while teaching Bailey his key skill—indefatigable investigation. After law school, Bailey attended Chicago’s Keeler Polygraph Institute, then helped an elderly Boston lawyer defend an accused wife killer who had flunked a lie-detector test. Bailey was hired merely to cross-examine the prosecution polygrapher. But during the trial, his boss, 72, collapsed of a heart attack. Bailey, then 27, took over and won the case. After that, he was hired by the four suspects in U.S. history’s biggest cash heist, the $1,551,277 Plymouth, Mass., mail robbery.* After one suspect had agreed to help postal inspectors bug the other suspects’ phones, Bailey got the tipster to agree to tape-record his bugging conversations with the inspectors, who have not yet been able to get an indictment.

Bailey knows all about bugging and hypnosis as well as polygraphy. Along with electronic gadgets, his jet-age operation includes five office cars and five investigators headed by the former chief investigator for Boston’s strangler bureau. Divorced and remarried (three children), he is rich in possessions: a Pontiac GTO, a Thunderbird, three sizable yachts, a 17-room ranch house and 80 acres in Marshfield near Boston. The whole empire is connected by two-way radios that keep the boss in constant touch as he swoops around the country in his Cessna 310 airplane.

Victim’s Victim. Bailey’s passion for preparation helped win the Sheppard case, which he tackled for sheer challenge at the urging of Sheppard’s friends as far back as 1961. With no promise of a fee, he scoured 9,808 pages of briefs and testimony, won a Supreme Court reversal last June on historic grounds of “prejudicial publicity.” Then he discarded the 1954 defense theory that Marilyn Sheppard’s killer was a stranger. For. the 1966 retrial, he says, “we had to destroy Marilyn.”

Toward that end, Bailey even used a hypnotist to help him pick and “psych” jurors, presumably by silent brain waves. Actually, the jury was impressed by his total grasp of details. Bailey was cool, quiet, subliminally brutal. He popped particular questions for particular jurors, stopped when attention flagged and played to the next juror. Bailey’s innuendo based on investigation soon pictured Sheppard as the innocent victim of Marilyn’s implied infidelity. The killer, argued Bailey at the trial, was a left-handed woman (Sheppard is right-handed), who was the jealous wife of Marilyn’s lover.

Not content to stop with Sheppard’s acquittal, Bailey has since informed the police just which neighbors he thinks were involved. With the blessing of Prosecutor John Corrigan, who wants Bailey to do his talking “where it counts,” a Cleveland grand jury last week reopened the case for possible prosecution. Moreover, on the theory that “somebody owes Sam something,” Bailey now talks of slapping a $150 million lawsuit on assorted Cleveland newspapermen for their 1954 role in jailing Sheppard. Even for Bailey, that project seems highly dubious; still, a big verdict would obviously enrich Sheppard, who could then pay his lawyer a big fee.

Brilliant Bind. Not that Bailey is interested in money alone. Last week he earned not a dime in the case of Life Prisoner Mary Hampton, who had falsely confessed to two Louisiana slayings during her boy friend’s cross-country murder spree in 1960. Bailey won freedom for her and considerably more fame for himself by proving that the two slayings occurred while she was in Florida (where her boy friend now awaits execution).

In Freehold, N.J., this week, Bailey’s trial style will be on display in the case of Dr. Carl Coppolino, who stands accused of two murders—that of a New Jersey neighbor, Army Lieut. Colonel William E. Farber, and that of his first wife in Florida. Bailey will focus hard on Coppolino’s accuser: the colonel’s widow, who was Coppolino’s close friend before he married his second wife. However sordid that trial may be, Bailey may well top it in the extraordinary case of Albert DeSalvo, who is named in Gerold Frank’s bestseller as The Boston Strangler. DeSalvo’s trial next month is not for murder but on charges ranging from rape to robbery. It involves only those victims who have actually pressed charges. The police suspect DeSalvo of having assaulted at least 300 women, and he himself claims a lifetime score of 2,000.

It was Bailey who fingered DeSalvo last year as the strangler who terrorized Boston from 1962 to 1964 by killing 13 women, aged 19 to 85. For three years, the combined police forces of Massachusetts toiled so hard to catch the killer that at one time the state even hired a Dutch extrasensory perceptionist. As it turned out, DeSalvo was already locked up in a state mental hospital with another of Bailey’s clients, to whom he compulsively confessed the stranglings. Though DeSalvo had another lawyer at the time, Bailey took over the case and called the police. As he tells it, he wanted to preserve DeSalvo as a one-man laboratory for the study of “irresistible impulse.”

Whatever the truth, Bailey has the state in a bind. Unwilling at first to believe DeSalvo, state officials asked him five key questions about the crimes. To protect his client’s privilege against selfincrimination, however, Bailey first made the interrogators agree not to use the answers. Thus, when DeSalvo insistently babbled his guilt in the stranglings, the state was still bound by its agreement. It could not use DeSalvo’s “unofficial” confession, which is the only evidence against him. Bailey was willing to break the agreement, but only if the state sought an acquittal on grounds of insanity. Not surprisingly, the state refused to permit any seemingly “rigged” trial. And for his part, Bailey says that “I will not permit DeSalvo to make a legal confession.” As a result, the strangler case is probably dead.

Quite alive, however, are the charges against DeSalvo for the rapes committed after the stranglings. In those cases, Bailey plans a novel trial tactic: if permitted to do so, he will call psychiatrists to testify that his client is insane, and use DeSalvo’s hospital confessions to strangling 13 women as documentation. If Bailey is successful, DeSalvo will merely go back to the hospital. Not only will Bailey win more publicity, but his strategy may actually do the prosecution a service. In effect, the naming of DeSalvo as the strangler would officially “solve” the case and get the state off the hook.

* Boston’s 1950 Brinks robbery involved $2,775,395.12, but only $1,218,211.29 was in cash. The world’s biggest cash robbery was Britain’s 1963 Great Train Robbery ($7,000,000).

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