This article by Robert Loerzel originally appeared in the Chicago Sun-Times on April 6, 2008.
Husbands suspected of killing their wives seem to be in the news almost constantly these days. A new book by defense lawyer F. Lee Bailey and Kenosha journalist Jean Rabe compiles some of the most famous spousal murder cases into one bloody roll call of botched crime scenes, outlandish alibis and celebrity trials.
When the Husband Is the Suspect: From Sam Sheppard to Scott Peterson — The Public’s Passion for Spousal Homicides includes short narratives by Rabe on each case, along with Bailey’s commentaries. The cast of real-life characters includes a few suspects Bailey defended, such as Sam Sheppard and O.J. Simpson, as well as Robert Blake and other recent headline-makers.
Bailey discussed the book in a phone interview from his home in Massachusetts.
Q. What common elements do you see in these cases?
A. The most common one in the assassinations — the so-called hits for hire — is that otherwise intelligent people seem to hire the biggest idiots in the world to do the job. I represented some really classy assassins, all of whom, in fact, were trained by the government, and they’re almost impossible to trip up.
Q. But the typical person doesn’t have access to these professionals.
A. They really don’t have access to any specialists in the art. It’s like going in to get your brain surgery done by your local practitioner.
Q. You book also includes husbands charged with committing the murder themselves. They often plan what seems like a “perfect crime,” but then they always slip up.
A. These guys … come up with some cover-up story, like the most typical: pushing the wife down the stairs and having her injured in all kinds of places. … I would call it dumb. You have to add in a quotient that there’s probably a strong emotional factor at the time of the killing, and a lot of this is cover-up. But it’s really shoddy cover-up, in most cases.
Q. What are the common motives in these cases?
A. It’s kind of a selfish alternative to divorce. The stupid mistakes suggest a psychopathic, very greedy person who doesn’t want to pay the legal fees or the spouse’s share and thinks that this is a good way to avoid the divorce — and in some cases, to inherit money that wasn’t his. Money is a large factor in my view. Very few people will kill their wives if they’re not feeling pretty greedy.
Q. Does it make a difference to you whether you believe a client you’re representing is innocent?
A. It does. If I can’t satisfy myself that the client is telling me a straight story, I will almost always suggest that the client go and take a polygraph test. That, probably more than any other reason, has enabled me to compile a much greater acquittal record than most other lawyers in the United States — because I’m picking and choosing innocent people.
Q. Many people believe O.J. Simpson was guilty of murder, despite his acquittal. When you try to persuade someone that Simpson was innocent, what do you emphasize?
A. There are three things that stand independently and are all inconsistent with guilt. The first is the timeline. [In the book, Bailey argues that Simpson did not have enough time to commit the murders, return home and catch a flight to O’Hare, as prosecutors claimed he did.] The second was the demeanor, which is extremely important in cases where people known to be non-criminals are involved in a murder case. And the third was his statement to the police, which I think … no guilty person with his background could possibly have pulled off. He spoke to them for three hours … and never slipped one bit. And a guy who had just killed two people the way these two were killed could never have done that.
Q. How has media coverage of trials changed since 1963, when you persuaded an appeals court that publicity prevented Sam Sheppard from getting a fair trial?
A. The quality of news coverage has diminished, because giants of the print media are no longer being nurtured properly. Television reporting is too often a snapshot. There just is no way to devote an evening newscast to the depth of reporting that would describe in detail what the witnesses had to say.
Q. Your book doesn’t include the case of Drew Peterson of Bolingbrook, whom police have called a suspect, but haven’t charged, in the disappearance of his wife, Stacy. What are your observations of that case?
A. There isn’t any question that the circumstances are suspicious. There also isn’t any question in my mind that, with all of the pressures on the police, they don’t feel like they’ve got enough to get a conviction. If they don’t catch a break, this case could go on forever.
Q. Police have not found Stacy Peterson’s body, but as you write in your book, other people have been prosecuted in murder cases without a body.
A. You don’t have to have a body if you’ve got enough circumstantial evidence, so that is not going to be a barrier to charging this guy. But I’ve got to tell you, when you go to a trial with no body, it’s a powerful argument to point to the courtroom doors and tell the jurors: “You can’t be sure the victim won’t walk through there, can you?”
Q. What advice do you give to innocent people who are wrongly accused on how they should behave?
A. The classic mistake is to put up a false alibi, thinking, “Well, since I didn’t do it, it won’t be any crime to give a cleaner explanation of where I was than the truth, which is: I was out with neighbor’s wife, banging the hell out of her.” This is not the kind of alibi you want to bring to a jury, so a false one is made up. Those inevitably crumble, once the police bring pressure.