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Bailey's high-profile cases often put him in the spotlight

The former Marine pilot still enjoys a good fight and never misses a chance to offer his views to the media.

By MIKE WILSON, Times Staff Writer

©St. Petersburg Times, published February 12, 1998

ST. PETERSBURG -- If the Rev. Henry J. Lyons is eventually charged with a crime, he may or may not get a successful defense.

But he'll definitely get a good show.

F. Lee Bailey, the newest member of Lyons' defense team, is the father of made-for-television lawyering, a deep-voiced self-admirer who never met a cameraman he didn't like.

Before Bailey, who lives near West Palm Beach, lawyers rarely commented on pending cases, saving their most eloquent arguments for the jury. After Bailey's explosion onto the scene in 1961, lawyers everywhere began spouting off in the media -- where, after all, they had no legal obligation to tell the truth.

Bailey has represented defendants in several Trials of the Century, with mixed results. His first major client, Dr. Sam Sheppard, was acquitted of killing his wife. The Boston Strangler went to the big house. Heiress Patty Hearst did time, and O.J. Simpson got a tee time.

"Of the 21 most highly publicized trials I ever tried, 17 were acquitted, two got what they deserved, and two got shafted," Bailey said Wednesday. Like a lot of the things he says, the statement was impressive and extremely hard to check.

Bailey, a former Marine pilot, always has enjoyed combat. He fights with everybody -- recalcitrant witnesses, opposing lawyers, judges, sometimes even his own clients. Some in the legal world hate him and others love him; some people feel both ways.

"I've worked with him and he's a terrifically talented lawyer. Beyond that I have nothing to add," Miami lawyer Edward Shohat said. Shohat used to have something to add: In an interview with the New Yorker, he described Bailey as a part of the male anatomy.

Whether Bailey will be a blessing to Lyons remains to be seen, but this much is clear: In Francis Lee Bailey, 64, the beleaguered Lyons has hired someone who knows how it feels to be in trouble.

In 1970, a Massachusetts judge censured Bailey for his "philosophy of extreme egocentricity" and said disbarment wouldn't be a bad idea. Another time, the New Jersey Supreme Court banned Bailey from trying cases for a year after he suggested prosecutors had bribed witnesses in a murder case.

Sometimes he infuriated even his own clients. Hearst challenged her bank robbery conviction on the grounds that Bailey did a poor job representing her because he was busy trying to get a book deal. Hearst eventually dropped the claim but not before an appeals court chided Bailey for creating a potential conflict.

Two years ago, Bailey spent 43 days in federal prison after he failed to account for $3-million in assets belonging to a client, drug smuggler Claude Duboc. He was released after handing over his yacht and $16-million in stock.

Bailey, who had maintained the stock was his legal fee, now is suing the government for $10-million.

The Florida Bar has been investigating Bailey's conduct in the Duboc matter for almost two years. Florida Bar lawyer Bill Hendrix would say only that the case is pending.

Bailey put a different spin on it Wednesday, saying the case is "dormant."

Though he has written 17 books, gets $10,000 or more for a speech and presumably commands a hefty legal fee (Bailey wouldn't disclose his retainer Wednesday), Bailey is not a rich man. In October, he filed an affidavit in a New York case saying "heavy reverse cash flows" have left him unable to pay his mortgage and his office rent.

A year earlier, the Internal Revenue Service filed a $243,528 tax lien against him, saying he underpaid his federal income taxes in 1990 and 1992.

"Lee's a spender. As long as I knew him, everything that came in, he spent," said David Schultz, who worked for Bailey at his West Palm Beach law firm.

Bailey said he's ready to fight for Lyons.

"Everybody's shooting with real bullets, intent on proving and vindicating his side of the case, and that is the way it should be," he said. "The best formula for justice in the United States is good lawyers on both sides of a tough case with a good judge in the middle. And you have plenty of those available at both the state and federal levels.

"So," he said, "let's keep it as clean as we can."

-- Times staff writer Lucy Morgan contributed to this report, which includes information from the Broward Daily Business Review, the Wall Street Journal, the New Yorker and the Associated Press.

©Copyright 2006 St. Petersburg Times.All rights reserved.