Former Yarmouth resident F. Lee Bailey, who gained fame as one of the country’s most renowned criminal defense attorneys, died Thursday at a hospital in the Atlanta area. He was 87.

Bailey had lived in Yarmouth since 2010 but moved to Georgia about a year ago to be close to one of his sons, a former law partner said.

During a career that spanned more than four decades, Bailey became a celebrity attorney by agreeing to take on some of the most controversial and high-profile cases in the country, defending former NFL star O.J. Simpson against murder charges, newspaper heiress-turned-bank robber Patty Hearst, and Albert DeSalvo, who confessed to being the infamous Boston Strangler.

Some of Bailey’s other high-profile clients included Dr. Samuel Sheppard – accused of killing his wife – and Capt. Ernest Medina, charged in connection with the My Lai massacre during the Vietnam War.

Kenneth Fishman, a former partner of Bailey’s who went on to become a Superior Court judge in Massachusetts, confirmed Bailey’s death to The Associated Press on Thursday. Fishman said Bailey had moved to Georgia about a year ago to be closer to one of his sons and had been dealing with several medical issues for the past few months. Fishman did not disclose Bailey’s cause of death.

“In many respects, he was the model of what a criminal defense attorney should be in terms of preparation and investigation,” said Fishman, whose legal association and friendship with Bailey dates to 1975.


Bailey, however, was no stranger to controversy and several times ran afoul of legal authorities irritated by his pursuit of publicity. He was disbarred in Florida in 2001 and in Massachusetts in 2002 for mishandling millions of dollars in stock owned by a convicted drug smuggler in 1994. He spent almost six weeks in federal prison charged with contempt of court in 1996 after refusing to turn over the stock.

He passed the bar exam when he moved to Maine and sought admission to the state bar but was denied the right to practice on a 5-4 decision by the Board of Bar Examiners, which concluded he had not demonstrated “by clear and convincing evidence that he possesses the requisite good character and fitness necessary for admission to the Maine bar.”


O.J. Simpson reacts as he is found not guilty in the death of his ex-wife, Nicole Brown Simpson, and her friend, Ron Goldman, in Los Angeles, as defense attorneys F. Lee Bailey, left, and Johnnie L. Cochran Jr. stand with him in 1995. Myung J. Chun/Los Angeles Daily News via Associated Press, Pool

Bailey petitioned  the state Supreme Judicial Court, and Justice Donald Alexander held a two-day hearing in March 2013 to review Bailey’s past, his character and his bar application. Alexander issued a 57-page ruling that April 19 that found Bailey was almost fit to practice law, except for an outstanding tax debt of nearly $2 million.

In 2016, Bailey filed for bankruptcy in federal court in Maine in an attempt to discharge a federal tax debt of nearly $5.2 million. Debts to the Internal Revenue Service are not normally discharged in bankruptcy proceedings, but Bailey told the Press Herald that they can be after a period of time and as long as he has complied with certain conditions, such as filing and paying his taxes on time since the original taxes and penalties were assessed.

He owed the money because of a dispute over his reportable income from 1993 to 2001 that stemmed from the stock dealings that led to his being disbarred in Florida and Massachusetts.

Stephen Schwartz, a Portland attorney who is the former president of the Maine Association of Criminal Defense Lawyers, said he got to know Bailey after he was selected to serve as overseer of Bailey’s law practice – if Bailey had been admitted into the Maine Bar. Though it never happened, the two lawyers developed a professional relationship that lasted for years.


“Lee was an expert cross-examiner and gave of himself willingly as a trial mentor to other defense attorneys,” Schwartz said in a telephone interview Thursday evening. “His only regret was that he wanted to live and to die in his later years as a licensed, practicing attorney and that did not happen.”

Another Portland-based criminal defense attorney, Timothy E. Zerillo, met Bailey about 15 years ago. They became professional acquaintances as well as friends during that time with Zerillo often visiting Bailey at his home in Yarmouth to confer on cases and strategy. Zerillo, also a past president of the Maine Association of Criminal Defense Lawyers, currently serves on the board of the National Association of Criminal Defense Lawyers.

“I was saddened to hear that he died,” Zerillo said Thursday night. “Lee was a legal titan. I don’t know that there is anyone out there with a resume that can match his.”

Zerillo said that Bailey came across as a tough cross-examiner, a trait that hid his softer underside – that of acting as a mentor and adviser to younger criminal defense lawyers.

“Lee had a reputation for having sharp elbows, but if you were his client and you were on trial for your life you’d want a lawyer like him with sharp elbows and a quick wit,” Zerillo said.

Zerillo recalled a story about Bailey that rekindled fond memories.


“Lee once told me that he believed that he never represented anyone who was guilty. I said, ‘Really? What about O.J.?’ He said if I saw the months worth of defense case that he would have put on in the Simpson trial, that I would have believed him to be innocent too,” Zerillo wrote in an email. “He believed, with every fiber of his being, that his cause was just, and that he was the only thing standing between his clients and a prison sentence.”

Bailey’s reputation soared after he served as a member of the so-called “dream team” that defended Simpson in what the media referred to as the Trial of the Century. Simpson was acquitted on charges that he murdered his ex-wife, Nicole Brown Simpson, and her friend, Ron Goldman, in 1995.

Simpson reacted to Bailey’s death Thursday by tweeting, “I lost a great one. F. Lee Bailey you will be missed.” Simpson also lamented the loss of Bailey in a video attached to this tweet.

One of the most memorable moments of the Simpson trial came when Bailey cross-examined Los Angeles Police Detective Mark Fuhrman in an attempt to portray him as a racist whose goal was to frame Simpson, the AP reported. Fuhrman denied using racial epithets, but the defense later turned up recordings of Fuhrman using racist slurs.

Bailey’s latest book, “The Truth About the O.J. Simpson Trial: By The Architect of the Defense,” is scheduled to be released on June 15.

Bailey was married four times and divorced three times. His fourth wife, Patricia, died in 1999. He had three children.

Related Headlines

Comments are not available on this story.

filed under: