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Ghost of Hang 'Em High Harry lurks in halls of justice

If courthouse walls could talk, Hangin' Harry would say a lot

Published April 7, 2006

Sometimes, the ghost of Harry Lee Coe comes out of nowhere.

I can see him ambling down the long hallway of the Hillsborough County courthouse as he did every morning. Nearly everyone called him "judge," even years after he left that job behind. He was this smiling scarecrow in a suit who called everyone "pal," friendly but distant, a man with secrets.

He had, always, a Diet Coke in his hand, so much a part of him that they handed out Diet Cokes at his funeral.

His ghost is in the cases that came through his courtroom. Hangin' Harry, they called him back then, or for variation, Hang 'Em High Harry, for the epic sentences he handed down. Ninety-nine years was a favorite.

In a death penalty case, a jury would recommend unanimously, 12-0, no question about it, that the killer deserved to be sentenced to life in prison instead of death. Then Hangin' Harry would turn around and sentence the man to die.

His sentences got him another moniker besides that cowboy justice nickname: most reversed judge in the state. You could almost hear the appeals courts sharpening their pencils.

Didn't matter. In 1992, Hangin' Harry got elected to be Hillsborough's State Attorney. Next term, he did it again.

Coe's ghost is in the fifth floor office he left behind, the office where co-workers said he sometimes slept at night instead of going home.

His desk became a symbol of his quirks, like the odd quotes he sometimes gave reporters. (Once, when some of the agency's guns couldn't be accounted for, he said wherever they were, they were where they were supposed to be. Which confused everyone, and later became an infamous Coe-ism.)

Anyway, Coe kept his desk top completely barren, nary a paper clip nor a stapler, until he got so tired of people bringing it up that he added a Bible. That was Coe.

After he died, they found tucked in a cabinet behind his desk a greyhound racing form marked in his handwriting. It was a haunting souvenir of the tracks and Internet gambling sites he could not, could not stay away from.

Gambling, it turned out, was part of the end.

I see Coe's ghost every time I pass the apartments on Bayshore Boulevard where he lived. Behind them, off MacDill Avenue, you can see the ivy-covered pillar of the Crosstown Expressway where he sat down with a gun on a July night in 2000 and killed himself.

He left a six-figure debt. The governor had just asked for an investigation into his gambling habits.

Today, his ghost will be in the courtroom of Hillsborough Circuit Judge Daniel Sleet, in the case of a man named Leonard Duane Brown, whom Coe sent to prison.

In the early 1980s, Brown was sentenced to county jail and probation in two robbery cases. (One of them included an attempted murder charge, though records indicate another man, not Brown, had the gun.)

Later, Brown came before Coe accused of violating his probation by forging a check for $279.39.

Coe gave him 99 years.

Now, it appears that Brown was sentenced on the wrong kind of robbery charge, a more serious one, and that he should have been able to get out of prison 10 years ago.

Lawyers say it's likely he'll be released after today's hearing.

It's not clear exactly how Brown got sentenced on the wrong kind of robbery charge or exactly where the error occurred. Brown's lawyer, Darryl Rouson, blames the clerk back then, and you have to wonder about the lawyers who were there when he was sentenced, too.

That aside, when I heard the man's sentence started out as county jail and probation and ended up as 99 years in prison, I couldn't help but think: That's just classic Coe.

--Sue Carlton can be reached at

[Last modified April 7, 2006, 01:31:16]

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