- Jane Musgrave Palm Beach Post Staff Writer
Sitting at the head of a massive wooden table in a lawyer’s conference room, famed attorney F. Lee Bailey portrays himself as a doctor trying to cure the nation of its 23-year plague of O.J. Simpson-loathing.
“I get them to listen in groups, but I think the inoculation wears off after a while,” the former West Palm Beach lawyer and Manalapan resident says with a rueful laugh. “They get the disease back.”
Now 84, stripped of his license to practice law and living in Maine, Bailey has lost none of the zeal that made his name a household word when he was part of a team of lawyers that persuaded a jury to acquit Simpson of the grisly 1994 stabbing deaths of his estranged wife, Nicole, and her friend, Ron Goldman.
The case Los Angeles police put together was “B.S,” prosecutor Marcia Clarke “wasn’t the brightest lawyer I ever met” and Americans “have the attention span of a 4-year-old,” Bailey declared on Porkins Policy Review, a New York-based podcast he did Tuesday from the Lake Worth offices of attorney John Romano.
His harangue, repeated in countless interviews and speeches since the nationally-televised “Trial of the Century” ended in 1995, is only partially aimed at rehabilitating Simpson, who is back in the news since he was paroled in October after serving nine years in a Nevada prison for armed robbery.
It is also a way to tell people of the wounds he said he continues to suffer from representing the wildly popular running back turned TV pitchman — arguably the most famous person in the country ever to have been charged with murder.
“Never in my life have I been punished more for getting an acquittal,” Bailey told those listening to the podcast. “Lawyers and judges have remonstrated with me for prostituting my talents because, they say, I was the reason O.J. got acquitted.”
Later when the two-hour show was over, he detailed the indignities: he was jailed for contempt, Florida and Massachusetts yanked his licenses to practice law and the IRS pushed him into bankruptcy.
“I am fully convinced that had it not been for the approbation with which the so-called success in the Simpson case was greeted that the feds would not have thrown me in jail, gone after my license and did a lot of bad things that have happened,” he said, his gravely voice and grandiloquent style at full boil.
His longtime friend, West Palm Beach private investigator Pat McKenna, who uncovered key evidence in the Simpson case, shares Bailey’s belief in Simpson’s innocence and joined Bailey on the podcast, agreed that the former Marine fighter pilot is a victim of his success and his never-say-die spirit.
“It’s like a chain of events,” McKenna said, ticking off other high-profile fights Bailey has had with the government. “It’s like a runaway train. Is it just the O.J. thing? That was the start of it.”
With the renewed interest in the case — stemming from Simpson’s recent release and last year’s popular television movies about the trial — both say they sense the time is ripe to push back by publishing their side of the story.
With the help of a ghost writer, another lawyer who was involved in both the criminal trial and the civil trial that ended when a jury ordered Simpson to pay $33.5 million to Goldman’s and Nicole Simpson’s families, they are shopping an idea to publishers for a book on the trial.
“We’re not writing this to make a fortune,” said Bailey, who earlier this year declared bankruptcy. “We’re writing this to ram it down the public’s throat until they understand what happened.”
The statement is typical of the lawyer who won accolades for his courtroom theatrics, criticism for his ego and penalties for his behavior long before the Simpson trial.
Early in his career — shortly after he snared headlines for reversing the conviction of Cleveland neurologist Dr. Sam Sheppard in the 1954 murder of his pregnant wife — Bailey was disciplined by the Massachusetts Supreme Judicial Court for what amounted to conduct unbecoming a lawyer.
“He is unwilling to concede that he could have been wrong; he believes that he alone should decide if ‘special circumstances’ exist to justify a departure from the established norms of conduct,” Massachusetts Justice Paul Kirk wrote in 1970, ordering that Bailey be censured. “These attitudes bespeak a self-esteem of such proportions as to challenge description.”
A year later, Bailey began a streak of attention-grabbing cases. He won an acquittal for U.S. Army Capt. Ernest Medina for his role in the My Lai Massacre during the Vietnam War. He defended newspaper heiress Patty Hearst, convicted of robbery in 1976 after she was kidnapped by the Symbionese Liberation Army. He had also represented Albert DeSalvo, known as The Boston Strangler.
Bailey’s fame wasn’t limited to the courtroom. A frequent guest on TV talk shows, he was also the host of two short-lived network shows: Good Company, a 1967 interview program, and Lie Detector, which aired in 1983 and featured guests who would take polygraph tests.
Tapped by his now estranged friend, Los Angeles attorney Robert Shapiro, to join Simpson’s so-called Dream Team, it was another case the two lawyers handled together that led to Bailey’s spectacular downfall.
A year after the Simpson trial ended, Bailey was jailed for contempt of court for 44 days for refusing a federal judge’s order in Gainesville to return $6 million he claimed he deserved for representing accused drug dealer Claude DuBoc. Bailey claimed that as part of a plea deal he negotiated for Duboc, federal prosecutors agreed he could keep DuBoc’s stock, which had tripled in value to $20 million. Government lawyers disagreed. Shapiro, who also represented DuBoc, testified against Bailey.
In 2001, the Florida Supreme Court stripped Bailey of his law license in connection with that case. Florida justices found Bailey guilty of using his client’s money for his own purposes, lying under oath, disregarding a judge’s orders and disparaging his client to the judge by calling DuBoc a “multi-millionaire druggie.” Later, Massachusetts used the case to yank his license there as well.
Stung by the defeats, he sold his Manalapan mansion and moved back to his native New England. But controversy followed.
In 2014, he passed the Bar exam in Maine. But his efforts to be licensed to practice law failed, in part, because of IRS claims that he owed nearly $2 million in back taxes.
The IRS is continuing to pursue him. In a bankruptcy petition Bailey filed in July to escape his tax liabilities, he claims his assets include a 2001 Mercedes Benz and a $380,000 heavily-mortgaged condominium. He said he has offered to settle with the IRS, but his payment plan has been rejected.
“I’ve been battling 23 years with the IRS and they keep saying give him nothing, take it down to the wire, we’ll litigate longer than he lives,” Bailey said. “That’s exactly their attitude.”
He now operates Bailey & Elliott Consulting in Yarmouth, Maine, with his girlfriend, Debbie Elliott, a hair dresser who has a master’s degree in management, according to the firm’s website. Using Elliott’s educational background and the wide-ranging skills Bailey developed as a lawyer, pilot and boater, the firm offers advice about how to purchase a yacht, learn to fly, run a business, pass a polygraph test and avoid litigation.
He is still in demand as a speaker. He was in Lake Worth last week to work with Romano to develop a course to teach lawyers how to become effective trial attorneys. “I hope it can become a legacy because I’ve been plumping it for 50 years,” he said. “It may come to fruition before I go to fruition.”
But teaching young people about the Simpson trial is more a passion than business. “My generation has their minds closed,” he said. “If Jesus came down and said, ‘O.J. is coming to my place because he didn’t do it,’ they’d probably throw him out.”
The millennial generation didn’t watch the nonstop trial coverage or listen to commentators who insisted Simpson was guilty. He said young people are more open to hearing his claims that Nicole Simpson was killed by mistake by “Colombian or Cuban assassins” who were hired to kill her friend Faye Resnick for unpaid drug debts. They will understand that the evidence — the glove that didn’t fit and racist police — proved Simpson was set up for a crime he didn’t commit.
While many lawyers walk away from cases, Bailey said that isn’t his nature — either as a former lawyer or a self-described healer.
“If a case is left undone, either on the judicial record or with the public vilification that O.J. gets on a chronic basis, and you know what the truth is … I think you have an opportunity to put your shoulder behind trying to get that out on the table where people can finally see it because they’ve had cataracts for a lot of years,” he said.