Q&A: William Massey

Memphis-based Bill Massey of Massey McCluskey is one of Tennessee’s top criminal defense and death penalty attorneys, but he still makes time to teach young lawyers

Published in 2009 Mid-South Super Lawyers magazine

By Ross Pfund on November 9, 2009


What inspired you to become a lawyer?

I like the idea of working with a jury to resolve conflicts between a citizen and the government. When I got out of law school those citizens became real people that would sit across my desk, and I would get to know them and their families, and it became much more real instead of abstract.


What draws you to high-stakes death penalty cases?

It’s really just a follow-up of what attracted me to criminal defense work initially. It’s just that the stakes have gone up. I think as I became more involved, I noticed what appeared to me to be inconsistencies in the rules that the government followed versus the rules that the defense was held to. For example, psychologists disagree on so many things. But the one thing they all seem to agree on is the theory of primacy and recency, which means that people remember most what they hear first and what they hear last. And it’s just coincidental, I guess, that the prosecutor gets to argue to the jury in closing argument first, and then they get to argue last. What people don’t remember or have the hardest time remembering is what’s said in the middle, and that’s where the defense lawyer is placed.


So it’s a natural disadvantage.

It can be, unless you take the steps to learn advocacy skills and strategies. And they don’t teach them in law school. So we’re active in teaching other lawyers how to litigate cases. We believe in climbing the ladder and lifting while we climb.


Of all the cases you’ve tried, do you feel that one has been the most important or memorable?

I would have to say one of the most fulfilling cases would be one we tried just a couple of years ago, a first-degree murder. We took it pro bono because we felt that the government was acting badly, and at the end of two weeks of trial, the jury convicted, but they convicted of a misdemeanor. We went from facing life in prison to 11 months and 29 days of probation.


Was that the case involving the day care worker who forgot a child in a van?

Yes. I think the reason that was so memorable to me was that that lady had never been in trouble before in her life, she loved children so much and she deserved to be exonerated and set free from that charge. It was the right thing to happen. It was a wonderful feeling to be a part of bringing that into being.

We have tried many, many a murder case and have gotten “not guilties” left and right. But that misdemeanor conviction, despite it being a misdemeanor conviction, is probably one of the most memorable to me. That case, just a smidgeon of background: at that time, the attorney general’s office had lobbied through the legislature to include aggravated child abuse into the federal murder statute. And, of course, this lady was on duty at one of the day cares when the child was left in the day care van. They charged her with first-degree murder. This was an “inner-city” lady. A little while later, a suburban man, if you can translate that, pulled up to his church and left his child in the back while he went to talk to his preacher, and very unfortunately his child died in the back of his car, but they didn’t want to charge him. They were feeling his grief, and we’re going, why aren’t you treating people equally here? What’s the difference between this? Why are you charging one with first-degree murder, and one you’re patting on the shoulder?


If you have a motto, it seems to be “offer the olive branch, grip the sword.” Can you explain what that means?

In our office we have a picture of the Victorian Lady. She has an olive branch extended in her left hand and a sword in her right and she’s looking rather sternly. I show that to clients often, and this is what the picture says. “Law and Peace. Olive branch extended in offerings of peace, she resolutely defends the law.” That’s nice and that’s noble, but that’s not at all what the lady’s saying. What she’s saying is, “We can do this easy or we can do this hard, but we’re going to do this.” And if you look in her eyes, you can see she’s not playing. She will put that sword on you in about half a second.


How has the legal world changed over the course of your career?

I’m afraid the practice of law is becoming more and more run as a business as opposed to a profession. I do not want to be just a money changer. I want to be a lawyer and a good one. And there are many good ones out there. I’ve told every lawyer that’s come through the doors of my office, “If you take care of the profession, the business will take care of itself.”

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William D. Massey

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