Sam Burnham, Curator
It’s a three word name that just about anyone in Georgia, Tennessee, or Alabama knows. A homegrown jurist with a sharp legal mind and a folksy presentation became a legend over a 65+ year career. Bobby Lee Cook died just a week past his 96th birthday. During his life he was an in-demand defense attorney who represented rural folks and international business magnates.
It seems unlikely that one of the world’s best lawyers would operate out of an office in Summerville, Georgia. He was born and raised in Chattooga County and returned there after completing law school at Vanderbilt. Despite the isolation of his hometown he would be sought out for high profile cases.
Cook represented Savannah antiques dealer Jim Williams in the 1981 murder of Danny Hansford. Although Williams was convicted, Cook was able to appeal and get the conviction overturned. The case inspired the book Midnight in the Garden of Good and Evil as well as the subsequent movie.
Cook also defended Wayne Williams who was convicted of the Atlanta child murders in 1982.
Cook’s legal career is believed to be the basis for the Andy Griffith television series Matlock, which ran from 1986-1995.
According to Gordon College’s President’s Report, Cook won approximately 80% of his murder cases. His annual income was estimated at $1 million.
Cook’s reputation makes him a bit of a folk hero...or villain, depending on who you ask. While Ben Matlock tends to suggest a benevolent mastermind working tirelessly to defend the innocent, defense attorneys are often demonized for defending the reprehensible.
In 2002, former president of California Attorneys for Criminal Justice Barry Tarlow told the Los Angeles Times “My dear friend, Bobby Lee Cook, the great lawyer from Summerville, Georgia once told me ‘the best defense in the world is the SOB deserved to die’” It’s effective but it isn’t particularly endearing. It’s probably a good way to accumulate some enemies and antagonists.
Cook’s success and influence in such a small town fueled rumors and tales of corruption. There are those that even suggest he ran the whole county, the local government securely tucked in his watch pocket. It wouldn’t be that unusual in Georgia as local political machines are fairly common. But rumors are notorious in their own right. So who knows for sure?
What is known for sure is that Bobby Lee Cook became a Georgia legend while remaining true to his small town roots. He chose a career and became one of the best ever at it. With Cook gone, defendants are probably in greater danger than they were with him here. Prosecutors are probably in an easier spot. It would be hard to imagine that his legacy would not go on in the legal system of Georgia.
And so Summerville and the rest of Georgia say goodbye to a giant. I’ll leave the major conclusions to biographers. Godspeed, Bobby Lee.
Historian, self-proclaimed gentleman, agrarian-at-heart, & curator extraordinaire