“My law practice started to take off and I said, ‘What I need is a Learjet.’

F. Lee Bailey Q&A

Besides defending such clients as O.J. Simpson and Patty Hearst, he found time to pursue a lifelong passion for business aviation.

F. Lee Bailey argued his way into the American consciousness, having directed the defense at many of the most talked-about criminal trials of the last half-century. He represented Albert DeSalvo, the so-called Boston Strangler, as well as Dr. Sam Sheppard, the man widely believed to be the inspiration for the TV series The Fugitive. He also defended Patty Hearst and Watergate burglar James McCord. He was the supervisory attorney in the My Lai Massacre court-martial of Captain Ernest Medina. And he was on O.J. Simpson's "dream team."

Bailey won many of his famous cases, but he has also had notable losses—and at least one big career setback. That came when the government demanded possession of securities owned by one of his clients. Bailey insisted that he was entitled to appreciation in the stock as payment for his legal fees—and wound up going to prison for contempt for 44 days in 2000. The case resulted in his disbarment in Florida and Massachusetts. (He's currently trying to regain his license to practice law.)

We asked Bailey about that experience, as well as about some of his biggest cases. We also talked about his relatively little-known but lifelong passion for business aviation, which led him to—among other things—earn a pilot's license, acquire a dozen aircraft, become an airport manager, launch a Cessna dealership, work as a sales rep for Learjet, serve as executive director of an air-traffic-controllers organization, run a helicopter company,  and launch a flight school for minorities.

The following interview doesn't reveal how he found time to do all this—not to mention write 17 books—while also managing his high-powered legal practice. It does, however, cover why he still believes O.J. Simpson didn't kill anyone; which of his cases he found toughest and most satisfying; how he came to own the helicopter company; and what career he'd choose if he could start over.

When did you begin using business aviation?

Law school. I was a private investigator working for lawyers preparing for trial. I used to take aerial photos for them by renting a [Cessna] 172 and letting the slipstream keep the window open while I took shots.

Then, the minute I passed the bar, I bought a 172. I flew that until a lender offered me a repossessed Cessna 310 if I would pick up the payments. I had rebuilt two airplanes when I was in the service and I rebuilt this one. Then [my law practice] started to take off and in an article in Life magazine I said, "What I really need is a Learjet." Immediately after that hit the streets, I was in St. Paul and a Learjet [Model 23] showed up. A guy jumped out and said, "Bill Lear asked me to show you this airplane."

I bought it, and we got the factory to upgrade it because Bill had hired me to promote the Learjet. I also had a Merlin IV, which is a [Fairchild Swearingen] Metroliner tricked up for executives.

How did you use these aircraft?

One case I had was against attorneys general in 38 states and I was visiting them at the rate of three a day. I also did a lot of speaking and the only way I could guarantee I could be at these speaking engagements since the courts had priority, was to have an airplane to get out and back the same night. During the Hearst case, I flew to Las Vegas three nights one week because I was giving a seminar.

How did you happen to buy Enstrom Helicopter?

I got a call in 1970 [from someone who said], "I've got a chance to buy Enstrom and it's a great deal but I don't know anything about helicopters. If I buy it, will you run it?" I loved the company, so I said sure. I met him and we had a big ceremony about the rebirth of Enstrom, which had been shut down. Then his check bounced. So I raised the money and bought the company myself.

And did very well with it.

I did. We were at one time the biggest manufacturer of piston-engine helicopters in the world.

So why'd you sell the company?

I couldn't give it the proper attention. I designed and built a prototype, which [Robinson Helicopter Company] has now proved has tremendous marketability. But I didn't have the money to develop it so I looked for a buyer for the company. I gave it 10 years and enjoyed it, but I was getting tired.

At one point you formed a company to remanufacture [Piper] Twin Comanches as the so-called "Bailey Bullet."

I thought the price of fuel might go up so I looked for a miserly little twin [engine airplane] for businessmen who fly themselves and I picked the Twin Comanche. I still have the prototype and, now, with my affiliation with Oxford Aviation [a refurbishment and completions center in Maine], I'm turning the STCs [Supplemental Type Certificates from the FAA] that I've got over to them.

What's your role with Oxford?

I hold a position for marketing and business development. We're looking to go into big completions- BBJs and Airbuses. [Our facility] will hold six 737s at once.

What did you think of the PR fiasco that resulted when Detroit's automaker CEOs flew their corporate jets to Washington to plead for bailouts?

That was the most thoughtless disaster I could imagine. The saving grace is that Americans tend to have the attention span of a four-year-old. And the airlines are so bad now that business aviation [stays healthy] where before it would always cycle down when stockholders started complaining about the fancy toys. I think the fractionals have done a lot to diffuse that because nobody [with a fractional share] has an airplane on his balance sheet. You know that wonderful fiction: You own a sixteenth and you can still tell your customers, "This is my airplane."

How do you respond when someone says business jets are perks for the rich?

I'm very quick to explain that the productivity of the people at the top determines how many jobs there are for people not at the top. And when a guy misses an important sales meeting because Delta Airlines had a mechanical [problem] at Kennedy and it reverberated across the system and he winds up in Chicago in a fleabag hotel while the meeting's going on in Tucson...the airplane pays for itself.

You became a pilot when you were in the military. How did that come about?

The Korean War was raging and my grades at Harvard were such that the draft board was looking down my throat. I'd heard horrible tales of people in trenches in subzero temperatures in Korea and I found the idea of flying intriguing. I thought since I was going to have a military identity, [being a pilot] was probably the elite.

What did you think you'd do after the military?

I'd planned on being a writer. Then I was made a second-assistant legal officer [in the Marines]. I took the job because I'd found out the second assistant didn't do anything. A week later, the first assistant's plane blew up on takeoff and the legal officer's wife threatened to leave him if he didn't turn in his wings. The commander called me in. He said, "Who are you and why are you now my legal officer? Here's a manual for courts-martial. Read it over the weekend. You're trying a case on Monday." Prior to that, I'd never given the law much thought. But [by the time I left the Marines] I'd tried enough cases to know this is what I'm going to be good at.

Did you consider becoming a prosecutor?

Prosecution doesn't fit too well with my way of thinking. Prosecutors have kind of a mundane job of building blocks. Defense lawyers have the job of shooting holes in them.

You seem to have gravitated to high-profile cases.

I never intended that, but if you're winning cases, the business just pours in. They get the impression you're a magician. Sometimes they want to know the acquittal date so they can schedule a party, when in fact the chances of acquittal are remote.

What are your memories of the Hearst case?

It was the worst case I've ever tried. Patty was allegedly involved in so many crimes that you had to walk on eggs. Every time you stepped forward on one case, you might be stepping into another.

That was one of your losses.

No, it wasn't. It was a substantial victory but nobody knew it until she wrote a book admitting it. I was hired to avoid a first-degree murder conviction, on which they had her cold. I got her immunity for that. The bank robbery case we might have won if her name wasn't Hearst. But I arrived in San Francisco for my first meeting with Randy Hearst and I asked the cab driver what's going on with this Hearst case. He said, "Oh, they've got plenty of money. They're gonna hire some hotshot to get her off and she's guilty as hell."

What was your most satisfying case?

The My Lai Massacre case. It was a military trial and they're always the best. Number one, the military jury is disciplined. When they're told, "If you have reasonable doubt, you have to acquit even if you think he did it," they're capable of that. Civilian juries are not. Second, they're all college graduates. Third, they can't hang: two-thirds convict; otherwise, it's an acquittal. And military courts are very particular not to convict an innocent person because that can destroy morale.

Speaking of innocence, you've said you still believe O.J. Simpson's innocent and that the public didn't get the whole story.

They didn't. They never heard from a number of critical witnesses and the DNA was flawed. The tests that implicated O.J. were in some cases planted and we proved that. In some cases, the work was sloppy and contaminated. The fellow who got the Nobel Prize for inventing PCR [a technique for analyzing tiny specks of DNA] would have testified that these results are worthless. The public never got to see that, nor did they see O.J. testify. He would have been a very credible witness. Everybody I've had him have lunch with has completely turned around. They say, "This guy didn't kill anybody."

Have there been times when you felt guilty clients were lying to you?

If I think my client is lying, I'll get him to take a polygraph or give me a reason why he can't. I got a very high percentage of innocent clients because of my association with the polygraph. For instance, John DeLorean thought about hiring me. Then someone told him, "If you hire Bailey and don't take a lie-detector test, everyone will think you're guilty." And I have strict rules about people who are guilty. Most of them go away when I tell them they can't put on an alibi defense or claim self-defense if it isn't true. They can't commit perjury to raise reasonable doubt.

You spent 44 days in federal prison yourself because you refused to turn over- 

I didn't refuse anything. I had encumbered a client's stock [to cover my fee] and the judge gave me 30 days to raise the money to pay off the encumbrance so the stock could go in a [court] bank account until we litigated. I didn't have $3 million so he put me in jail and I raised it from inside the jail. And I'm going to be candid: I do not believe that [I would have gone to jail] except that people were so angry with me over the Simpson verdict.

You've used the media much more than most attorneys.

It's funny: I've had people almost break down my door to get an interview and then write an article saying I used the media. I've tried all kinds of cases where the media didn't bother to show up, so they weren't tracking me-they were tracking cases. And once the media start to report a case, you can either let accusations against your client go unanswered or you can try to mention things the prosecution left out and show why the media ought not to be presuming him guilty.

Your latest book's subtitle is "The Public Passion for Spousal Homicides." You seem to have a passion for those cases yourself.

Getting a bunch of those cases if you're a criminal lawyer isn't unusual. I thought [a book about them] would be interesting, provided it crossed the spectrum from guys who were so reprehensible you'd like to shoot them in open court to people who were absolutely innocent.

Such as?

Dr. Sam Sheppard. The good thing was, by the time I got him out and retried his case everybody knew he was innocent because they thought he was [the star of TV's] The Fugitive, and everyone knew he was innocent.

How does your public image differ from the real F. Lee Bailey?

I'll tell you the most common comment: "Gee, I'm surprised to find out you're really a nice guy." People have an image of a brash, aggressive, I'll-cut-you-to-ribbons kind of uncaring lawyer who wins cases even if he shouldn't. Clients find out quickly—that dream world doesn't exist. If the evidence is bad, you're going away.

People that I meet socially generally come to an attenuated view because I'm not terribly impressed by myself and I have a good time doing things a lot of people like to do-particularly in aviation, which is a much more rewarding field than the law. If I had it to do all over again, I would have stuck with aviation from the outset.

To say that after all your success as an attorney is quite something.

Well, in the legal field, we say we're concerned about protecting the innocent but we don't really do a good job of that, even in capital cases. We're turning up people
on death row who couldn't have committed the crime because of new DNA evidence.

In aviation, I have not seen any advocates of the opposite to safety. That's the guiding principle of all certification, operation, regulations, and so forth. If something is unsafe, it's verboten. So I think that's a noble enterprise.