Representing the Notorious
Adult-film stars. Klansmen. Fourteen-year-old armed robbers. Somebody has to defend them. We talked to four attorneys who have done just that.
Published in 2006 Mid-South Super Lawyers magazine
on November 2, 2006
Updated on December 5, 2016
Defending Deep Throat
“People don’t like cops and lawyers, but when you are in trouble, who are the first people you call?” asks Bruce Kramer, a Memphis litigation attorney with Borod & Kramer who has represented his share of notorious clients.
Kramer may be best known for his defense of actor Harry Reems, who was charged by the Nixon justice department with conspiracy to distribute obscene materials for starring in the classic adult film Deep Throat. The case was brought in Memphis by Larry Parish, an ambitious and openly religious assistant U.S. attorney making a name for himself as a vigorous prosecutor of federal obscenity cases in the wake of the U.S. Supreme Court’s ruling in 1973’s Miller v. California.
Deep Throat was not even showing in Memphis in 1973. But on April 30, after watching a private screening of the film, a jury convicted Reems of distributing obscene materials.
The case fell apart when it was demonstrated that actors have no role in distributing the movies in which they appear. It set a precedent for protecting participants in adult films from obscenity distribution charges.
Are lawyers heroes for taking these kinds of cases?
“I think we are,” Kramer says. But that’s not why they do it, he says.
“We do it because it’s the right thing to do. Defending the First Amendment, after all, takes a pretty strong stomach sometimes, and may even require you to defend someone’s right to publish something you find grotesque.
“The price of freedom is eternal vigilance,” says Kramer, who’s walked the walk by serving for 15 years on the national American Civil Liberties Union board of directors and by doing pro bono work in civil rights cases.
Looking back on the Deep Throat trials, Kramer says that Parish was simply doing the bidding of the Nixon administration, which he says was legislating morality for political purposes.
Twenty years later, in the mid-’90s, Kramer successfully defended one of the first cases involving pornography on computers, which was brought in Memphis by federal prosecutors.
He sees a clear trend in the results of both cases. “The message going out there is, [you legislate morality] at your peril,” Kramer says. “This is censorship any way you look at it.”
Caught in the Whitewater
In the early ’90s, the Whitewater scandal was rocking the nation and damaging the reputation of the newly elected President Clinton. And Sam Heuer, a criminal defense attorney with Little Rock’s Coplin & Heuer, found himself right in the middle of it.
Heuer represented Clinton friend and business partner James McDougal in one of the first savings and loan cases involving the failed Arkansas company Madison Guaranty Savings & Loan. Heuer was successful in that defense, but he later dropped McDougal as a client when the man went against counsel advice and, to reduce his prison term for fraud, cooperated with the investigation of the Clintons by Kenneth Starr.
Heuer did get something out of the experience, though — he married Maxine Parker, the press secretary to then-Gov. Jim Guy Tucker.
Heuer was later called to testify in the Whitewater case and was hammered by federal prosecutors for the large number of calls made from his home phone to the White House. But, he explained, his daughter was a friend of Chelsea Clinton, who sometimes talked to her from the White House.
The People Versus …
Most of Hustler publisher Larry Flynt’s legal battles have been well documented. But First Amendment lawyer Rick Hollow of Knoxville’s Hollow & Hollow represented him in the 1980s in a couple of low-publicity cases in Tennessee.
In one case, a freelance writer interviewed a number of residents in the Appalachian region, telling them he was working on a story about poverty for the now-defunct Foxfire magazine. The people sued when the story was published in Hustler instead, saying the story disparaged their character and subjected them to public scorn because of where it was published, even though the story itself was sympathetic to their plight.
Hollow’s legal response was that they gave their consent to publication, no matter where the story appeared. The case was dismissed, setting a precedent that still protects journalists and publications today.
While Hollow is not personally a fan of Hustler, he says that if the freedoms of speech and the press mean anything, the law must protect the publication of subject matter that many people find offensive.
“I’m a First Amendment nut. I’ve represented First Amendment interests since 1969,” Hollow says. “And about 98 percent of my cases have been for the media, reporters or publishing entities.”
Hollow considers Flynt a pioneer when it comes to freedom of speech and the press. He says few publishers today would be willing to put forward the time and money it took to fight those early cases.
Representing a notorious client like Flynt “really tests you as a lawyer,” Hollow says. “While every client should receive the highest quality of legal representation, in a big case when a lot is at stake it really stretches you.”
“Everyone Deserves Representation”
In a 1967 trial, alleged Ku Klux Klan member Ernest Henry Avants was acquitted of murdering a black man named Ben Chester White in Mississippi — a killing that was said to have been intended to lure Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. to the state for an assassination attempt.
Avants — who is now serving a life sentence after being convicted in 2003 on a related charge in connection to the murder — was represented by criminal defense attorney Julie Ann Epps, a solo practitioner from Jackson.
“If the Constitution means anything, it means everyone is entitled to representation,” she says. “Even members of the Ku Klux Klan.”
Epps is also known for handling the appeal of Robert Earl “Bubba” May Jr., a 14-year-old who, along with three companions, was convicted of armed robbery for using a shotgun to rob two fireworks stands and a grocery store near Brookhaven, Miss.
In spite of his young age, May was sentenced to 48 years in prison with no chance of parole. He was only 4 feet 7 inches tall and weighed only 75 pounds at the time of his sentencing. Yet he was imprisoned along with 1,800 other felons at Mississippi’s overcrowded state penitentiary in Parchman.
“He was a terrified little boy who really didn’t understand what was going on,” Epps says. “While his crimes were horrendous, he did not deserve such a harsh sentence by an overzealous judge.”
Epps does not just represent Klan members and underage robbers, she says, and doesn’t necessarily want to be remembered that way, especially since she tends to be appointed to those clients by the courts. But she knows that it’s important to give those clients fair representation.
There is a difference between how justice is handled in America and how it is handled in many other countries, Epps says.
“They all deserve their day in court.”