The Bobby Lee Cook Show
Meet the seersuckersuit-wearing, hot-dog-eating, huge-fee-charging Summerville lawyer who may have inspired Matlock
Published in 2007 Georgia Super Lawyers magazine
on February 16, 2007
Updated on August 20, 2015
His hair is shorter, and the trademark seersucker jackets are stored for the winter, replaced by a natty three-piece brown suit; but as he nears 80, Bobby Lee Cook—dean of Georgia criminal defense attorneys, worldrenowned for his pounding crossexaminations, said to be the inspiration for TV’s Matlock—hasn’t lost a step. He can still quote the reference of a decision in one of his cases. “I believe it’s three-ninety-seven Fed. Supp. ten twentyfive,” he says, getting up to check. “But I could be wrong.”
He’s not. And he’s rarely been on the wrong side of a jury in his legendary 57-year career, notching a 90 percent acquittal rate. His client list includes the famous, the infamous and the unknown. He has represented Bert Lance in a civil matter, Wayne Williams in post-conviction proceedings, the Rockefellers and Carnegies in eminent domain cases and a fair number of Chattooga County bootleggers back in the day. He’s still at the center of two controversial cases, one in which American-born former workers at Mohawk Industries are suing the carpet manufacturer, claiming the company deliberately hired illegal workers to suppress wages. In the other case, Cook represents an investigator who faces criminal charges in a dispute with Albany’s Phoebe Putney Memorial Hospital that has the entire town abuzz. (The charges against the investigator were dismissed as we went to press.)
Although criminal defense isn’t his only practice—witness the case against Mohawk—it is his love. “I have always had a great and abiding interest in what I perceive to be fair play in the courts,” Cook says. “It is in criminal cases where you see liberty and justice analyzed at their best.”
If talking about liberty and justice sounds old-fashioned, that’s fine with him. His age, Cook says, makes him old-fashioned “under the best circumstances.” And when he talks about liberty and justice, you get a sense of his courtroom demeanor—courtly but intense, the cadence of his speech adjusted for maximum emphasis. “I have seen many changes in the law, and I think the defense of criminal cases is more difficult today than it was 50 years ago. There are many people who feel the constitutional rights we have and insist on keeping represent a ‘bleeding heart’ or a left-wing liberal. They certainly do not. If we cannot preserve the mandates of due process and a fair trial within the constitutional strictures we have, we are in terrible trouble.”
He continues: “I am worried about that. I am worried about the attitude of many people in the public domain, and even some lawyers and judges. You have some lawyers and judges who profess that they are originalists—meaning that they must interpret the Constitution exclusively by virtue of what the Constitution says. That, to me, is profoundly ridiculous. If that were so, Rosa Parks would still be sitting in the back of the bus.”
Cook insists he is not making a political statement—he’s been active in Georgia politics for half a century, and the Democratic Party of Chattooga County meets in his office—but he has no qualms about recalling a state Supreme Court candidate who “said he wanted to be a judge like Clarence Thomas and Antonin Scalia.” That, says Cook, “scares the hell out of me.”
The offices of Cook & Connelly (the four-person firm includes Cook’s son-in-law, L. Branch Connelly) could be an extension of the man himself. From the street it resembles a typical small-town law office, sharing a wall with the hardware store next door. Inside, it’s elegant, with sophisticated touches like a three-quarter rotunda filled floor-to-ceiling with law books.
Cook grew up on a small farm 10 miles south of Summerville, where he has practiced law since being admitted to the bar in 1949. A chemistry and classics major in college, he chose law because “I thought it would be interesting and something where I could do a little bit of good.” He uses his country lawyer persona to great success, and, at least, before his reputation was made, one imagines the woe of opposing counsel who mistakenly thought him no more than that. His courtroom technique has won him riches as well as fame, but he recalls that when he started, “for a good lawyer trying a murder case, if he could get $500 that was a hell of a fee.”
As his success grew, he learned to be more hard-nosed with fees. Steve Sadow, another renowned criminal defense attorney, has tried 40 cases with Cook. He recalls one case involving a bookkeeper who “had a big problem with illegal substances.” Sadow says, “Bobby asked me to come up to the mountains from Atlanta and meet with him. Bobby talked to the man briefly and said, ‘If you’d like me to represent you, it’s going to cost you $100,000.’ That was a decent amount of money then. And the man said, ‘I’ve got $85,000 with me, and I’ll bring you the other $15,000.’ Bobby just looked at him and said, ‘Sir, you didn’t understand me. I said I’d represent you for $100,000. When you have $100,000, come back and see me.’
“I’m sitting there as a young lawyer thinking, ‘I know I’m going to get a piece of that fee—what are you doing?’” Sadow says, laughing. “But of course, the gentleman came back with $100,000 and we proceeded to represent him. And that taught me a lot about how the practice of criminal defense should be done.”
Defending bootleggers—“they were not bad people, by and large, they just didn’t think it was any of the government’s damn business to prohibit moonshine”—and people accused of murder, Cook honed the skills that would persuade defendants to pay those kinds of fees. One of those skills was a lethal ability to cross-examine witnesses, zeroing in on any part of their testimony that was contradictory. “The perfection of cross-examination is absolutely critical in trial cases,” Cook says. His method includes two crucial elements: hours of meticulous preparation coupled with snap assessments of a person on the stand.
“If it’s a criminal case and I get discovery, I read every piece—sometimes five or six times,” he says. “Especially prior testimony, to lay the grounds for impeachment. It’s probably an oversimplification to say this, but there’s just no excuse for not reading everything you have and studying it in depth.”
He studies the witness, too, though he has much less time to do so. “Sometimes you have to make an immediate analysis of the person, and determine how he or she will react to a question or a setting,” he says. “You take advantage of whatever you can that’s ethical and fair.”
Sadow remembers one case where he and Cook “sat in matching chairs in a beatup hotel in Hattiesburg, Mississippi, for hours on end, making notes as we went over the statements of witnesses, marking them up with felt-tip pens.” Cook, he says, has an “absolute mastery of what a witness has previously said. His cardinal rule was, ‘Give me some paper, and I can do damage to anybody.’”
Sadow describes Cook’s cross-examination technique as “hit ’em over the head” coupled with an almost preternatural ability to know where the witness is going. “He was always able to play off exactly what the witness said in order to ask his next question,” Sadow says. “It really didn’t make any difference whether the witness was agreeing with him or not. When he heard where the witness was going, he’d just follow through. He has such a commanding presence that after a time the witness would basically think, ‘It’s a lot easier if I just agree with him and get this over with.’ … He just won’t take no for an answer. And he has impeccable timing.”
Cook says he loves to read people, whether it’s on the stand or in the jury box. He’s never used a jury consultant, preferring to make judgment calls himself. “The selection of a jury is an art, at best—it certainly is not scientific,” he says. “Many times a particular juror will answer all the voir dire questions in favor of your side, but you just have a bad feeling about that person. And if I do, and I have a peremptory challenge, I exercise it. It’s just something that hits me.”
He recalls a case tried in federal court in Chattanooga, where he defended C. H. Butcher against bank fraud in a 45-count indictment. The case received a lot of attention in the 1980s; Butcher and his brother, Jake, who had run for governor of Tennessee, controlled a vast amount of capital in the state. “We weren’t supposed to win it,” Cook says. “In the selection of the jury, my partner, Branch Connelly, and I were talking about a lady that was on the jury. She was about 82 years old. Branch and our local associate in Chattanooga said we ought to get rid of her. I said, ‘Well, I’m getting older myself and I sort of like her. She has a twinkle in her eye.’ So we left her on the jury. The jury found C. H. not guilty on every count.
“The U.S. Attorney thought he had the case won. He was there to make a speech. When the jury returned that verdict, he went out the back door of the courthouse. I went out the front, where all the cameras were. And that little lady came up and hugged my neck and said, ‘Mr. Bobby Lee, I was with you from the first day.’”
But Cook admits with a laugh that his instincts haven’t always been right. “I had been practicing about two years when I tried a local criminal case,” he says. “I had an uncle on the panel, and I left him on the jury. Great fellow—I adored him. It was a damn weak case, but they convicted the defendant. I said, ‘Uncle Will, that’s a case where you should have returned a not guilty verdict.’ He said, ‘Well, I didn’t want anyone to think I was doing you a favor.’”
Talking with Cook about past cases is like reviewing headlines from the past half-century. Two in particular resonate: one a local murder case, the other an international scandal.
The murder of two pathologists in Cobb County in 1971 received extensive press coverage. It was, Cook recalls, a brutal murder; five people were indicted on the strength of testimony from a witness who, under hypnosis, said she participated in the crime (she was granted immunity). The five were convicted, with four receiving life sentences and one the death penalty. The convictions were appealed to the state Supreme Court and upheld. Cook, representing two of the men who had been sentenced to life, appealed again. “I went into federal court after a tremendous amount of investigation,” he says. “We ultimately had an 18-day evidentiary hearing. All the convictions were set aside, and not just on technical grounds. The judge found the whole trial had been fabricated, that it was founded on perjury and that these people were innocent.” Tapes showed the witness had been fed information while under hypnosis.
“Now, the five people who were innocent were not very nice people,” Cook says. “But they sure didn’t commit murder, and they were improperly convicted.” Cook calls the case “one of the seminal victories in habeas corpus proceedings” and goes on to warn that it wouldn’t happen today. “If they had been convicted last year and the Georgia Supreme Court had affirmed the convictions, because of recent U.S. Supreme Court decisions limiting appeals, I never would have gotten a damn hearing,” he says. “Five people would have served life sentences.”
Cook’s most famous case is one that still stirs his pride and outrage: the scandal of the early 1990s that revealed that the U.S. and British governments had been supporting Saddam Hussein in the Iran-Iraq war. The Atlanta branch of one of Italy’s largest banks, the Banca Nazionale del Lavoro (BNL) had been channeling loans to Iraq—loans that were supposedly for agriculture but were used to buy weapons. Those same weapons were used when Iraq invaded Kuwait, beginning the first Gulf War.
Immediately after the war ended, U.S. officials raided the Atlanta branch of BNL and indicted the branch manager, Christopher Drogoul, among others. “It was a massive indictment—345 counts,” Cook says. “Drogoul thought BNL would get him a lawyer, but the bank backed out. So he was appointed a public defender, who allowed the Justice Department to come in and debrief him. Drogoul agreed to plead guilty to 345 counts, which under the sentencing guidelines would have been a life sentence. Hell, it would have been five life sentences.
“Some of the story I can’t tell, but the Justice Department officials were telling Drogoul, ‘You have to say this,’” Cook says, tapping the table for emphasis. “‘You have to say that.’ And Drogoul said, ‘I can’t—it didn’t happen. What I was doing was approved by the president of the bank in Rome, and the CIA knew about it. If I say that to the judge, he’ll know I’m lying.’ They said, ‘We’ll take care of that.’”
Cook got a call from Drogoul and, after hearing his story, decided to represent him pro bono. “We had a massive hearing in front of the judge. We were able to show and prove that this whole thing was bullshit. And the government was in it up to their necks and knew what was going on from the beginning,” he says. Drogoul withdrew his guilty plea, and was later sentenced to 18 months.
But for all that, Cook says the cases that have been the most fun were the plain ones—“cases you would not know about, that didn’t receive any attention in the press. The ones where the rights and liberties of ordinary people were involved.”
As befits a man who speaks so easily about liberty and justice, Cook has paid attention to those ordinary cases. For 45 years, he held an open house on Saturday where anyone seeking legal advice could come in. Though he’s now stopped that practice—“After all those years, I decided to take Saturdays off,” he says—he remains committed to the Georgia Innocence Project, serving on its board, and he speaks regularly at symposia, addressing new generations of lawyers who know him by reputation.
That reputation has even entered popular culture. One can’t help asking him about the Matlock rumors—that Cook was he prototype for Andy Griffith’s portrayal of a Southern lawyer who wore seersucker suits, ate hot dogs and charged huge fees (three actions Cook is famous for). “That’s what they say,” he says. “I can neither confirm nor deny. But I can tell you this—they used a lot of my cases.”