Rebel Without a Pause
Bruce Harvey is Atlanta’s preeminent long-haired, left-handed, anti-establishment liberal lawyer. He’s defended a long list of high-profile nasties, and it’s a dead heat as to what he’s known best for: his legal acumen or the ponytail.
Georgia Magazine | December 1995
On a late summer afternoon, Bruce Harvey is pacing the floor of a middle Georgia Holiday Inn, stripped of everything but his Alfani briefs, socks, and tattoos. Harvey is stalking the floor, flipping his ponytail off the back of his neck and cursing the air conditioner, the hotel, and the whole damn case that has brought him here and left him muttering over and over again, “Jones County… here we are in Jooooones County, Georgia.”
On top of the heat, Harvey is adrift from the comparative flash and flow of Atlanta, where he is well-known for both his legal acumen and sheer image-mongering, where he can deal. Here in Jones County, Harvey is an out-of-the-know attorney hooked up with a client who is facing a double life sentence for selling crack, but who thinks Harvey’s a Big City miracle worker and therefore won’t do the smart thing and cop a plea. Aside from this penny ante case, Harvey has his own problems.
“So wha’d’ya think?” he says, unpacking the neatly folded contents of a blue overnight bag. “Holey jeans and flip flops, or non-holey jeans and boots?”
Harvey (M.B.A. ’77, J.D. ’77) had spent the day striking a jury for the case. Not a bad jury, either—a good number of women and several minority members, with whom “the race card” could play well. But rest assured that if Harvey had it his way, this guy, who has already been inside once for selling, wouldn’t even be in court. Harvey would like nothing better than to see his client go skipping, “Yeah, I’d feel cool. I’d feel very cool that the system has worked how it’s supposed to work,” Harvey had said on the way to the hotel.
Even if he’s guilty?
Sure, says Harvey, because the man would have been tried by a jury of his peers.
“My job is not to set free the guilty. It’s to see that punishment is meted out appropriate to the crime.”
Harvey just happens to think that, as a matter of individual liberty, peddling crack ought not be a crime at all.
But the fact is that come tomorrow morning, his man is probably going to eat a life sentence because crack is a crime and, in reality, Harvey’s got no case. A state’s witness is scheduled to testify that Harvey’s client sold him the dope, and the narc cops “claim” to have subsequently pulled another sack from behind his client’s washer and dryer. So until then, there’s nothing left to do but head back into the Jones County Seat and see if the local band and a few beers can jar loose an opening argument.
“What’ll it be for night time in Gray, Georgia? Jooooones County,” says Harvey, mulling over the question of appropriate attire as if considering a new suit at Custom Clothiers or The Image Factory. Finally, he opts for the black leather riding boots and non-holey jeans look, and says, “You watch some TV, I’ll be right back.”
Harvey has a rendezvous with another client on a lower floor, someone whom he will not discuss because “Well, you know, it’s business.” He disappears down the smoke-dank hallway for fifteen minutes, then returns with his associate, David West, and a heavy-set, country-sounding fellow who calls himself Lee Stevens. The entourage heads first to Long Horn Steaks, where Harvey orders salmon because, as Atlanta’s preeminent long-haired, left-handed, anti-establishment liberal lawyer and quasi-vegetarian, he does not fancy “dead bovine.”
From there, the plan is to drive back into the small community of Gray and try to relax, even though Harvey knows that his client, a forty-something black man named Jesse Brundage, will not. Brundage insists on having his day in court, and by the high honor and plain economic realities of practicing criminal defense, Harvey’s gonna give it to him.
Since graduating from law school in 1977, Bruce Harvey has become one of the highest-profile criminal defense attorneys in Georgia. He is known for creativity in the courtroom, a keen knowledge of criminal law honed on years of hard-scrabble cases, and for applying what he’s learned with a zealot’s intensity.
“I’d see him down at the federal pen when he was just getting under way, working these little cases and losing them—as you do nine out of ten times anyway—then trying another one,” says Marietta attorney and state senator Charles Clay, who was a year behind Harvey at Georgia. “He’s a very diligent lawyer who has paid his dues.”
But it is Harvey’s courtroom volatility and his rebel image that make him stand out in the Atlanta legal scene, and they are as much a function of the lawyer manufacturing a style, as they are the essence of who Bruce Harvey really is.
In court or on TV, he’s decked out in thousand-dollar hand-tailored suits and monogrammed shirts. But he wears Hawaiian shirts and jeans around his office, which is located in an old downtown warehouse and is such a small operation that the receptionist also helps keep the books. Until recently, Harvey drove a black whale-finned Porsche with the vanity license plate ACQUIT. But he was tooling around Gray in a bone-white Corvette ZR-1 (“Better profile potential, you know; more Road Atlanta than Dunwoody Country Club”), and what he really wants is an old 442, maybe a GTO, something with red-blooded muscle.
Harvey makes a good living specializing in drug defense and has represented more than his share of high-profile nasties over the years— the Columbus Strangler, mail bomber Walter Leroy Moody, and Eddie Lawrence, the middleman in Atlanta’s highly sensationalized Sarah Tokars murder case. Harvey brokered a deal for Lawrence that could have him out of prison in as little as seven years, with a college education.
Harvey also does a lot of pro bono work. He and West are representing the plaintiff in a battle to remove the Confederate emblem from the state flag. He also tried the notorious “Shit Happens” bumper-sticker case in Cobb County as a free-speech issue, and was successful in bringing down a plaque of the Ten Commandments in the Cobb County courthouse. He has been an active watchdog in Georgia’s jury selection process, helping to ensure that everyone is called to serve, and he is a popular public speaker, recently discoursing at a seminar sponsored by the state bar on “How to Fight Injustice.”
Harvey talks about legalizing cocaine with as much self-entranced fervor as when he speaks of the horror of a ward full of crack babies. He’ll tell you capital punishment is obscene and immoral, but in the next sentence vow that if it were his wife that someone had raped and murdered, “Hey, the guy wouldn’t even get to the trial.”
And he takes such delight at confounding the system, at pushing the spirit of “innocent until proven guilty” so far toward the gray area between crusader for justice and self-serving egomaniac, that some may be left wondering whether Harvey represents a goodly part of what is wrong with the American justice system, or one of the few remaining things that is right about it.
BRUCE HARVEY MOVED to Athens when he was thirteen years old. He’d grown up in Worcester, Massachusetts, the product of a solid family, but surrounded by the late-fifties, northern industrial melting pot icons of zip guns, switch blades, and gangs. He landed at Alps Road Junior High, and as a Yankee Jewish city kid who wore pegged pants, a duck tail haircut, and pointy-toed “fence climbing boots,” Harvey’s die as an outsider was early cast.
Though he recalls sneaking out of bed at night as a kid to watch Perry Mason, Harvey says he had no real career focus until late in his undergraduate years at North Carolina State, where he studied economics during the late sixties.
As a collegiate swimmer, Harvey traveled to California one summer for a training camp. He was working part time at a place called Apple Andy’s Pizza Parlor and sleeping in the pool parking lot in the back of a Chrysler station wagon. One morning, while driving to the beach, Harvey did a slow rolling “Hollywood stop” at a red light. A cop hiding behind a billboard pulled him over. Harvey had an outstanding jaywalking ticket and the cop carted him to the courthouse.
“I told the judge, ‘This is bullshit,’ ” says Harvey. “And the judge says, ‘Nobody talks to me like that,’ and I ended up in jail. So here I am, a decent kid, not poor, not really doing anything wrong, and I end up in jail with all these people who have no money, who can’t take care of themselves. And I said to myself, I can do this. I can prevent this.”
It was his first awareness of the power of law, but Harvey was unable to get into law school. To prove he could do graduate-level work, he spent a year getting his M.B.A. at UGA, where his father, Irwin, was a business school professor. The following year he was accepted to the UGA law school.
Other than studying, Harvey says his only collegiate ambitions were rugby and sleeping. He didn’t want much to do with his peers, who were given to wearing ties and toting briefcases to class. “I mean, would you want to hang out with a bunch of future lawyers?” he asks.
After a year of law school, Harvey hit the road. He ran out of money in Idaho, got hired as a smoke jumper, and says he jumped into two fires in Idaho and Oregon. Convinced he’d rather make a living with his brain than his back, Harvey returned to law school, graduated, passed the bar on his second try, and began practicing in rural counties.
What may not be so clear, to some, is whether Bruce Harvey has just spared an undeserving man from the living death of prison, or helped put another crack dealer back on the street.
“I’ve heard him say how Judge (Jack) Gunter and the court reporter in Clarkesville and Habersham taught him how to practice law,” says his wife, Atlanta artist Paige Harvey.
It was in those small-town courtrooms, long before the salt-and-pepper ponytail and sartorial polish, that Harvey learned the value of an image. Once, while representing a client in Judge Gunter’s court, Harvey’s client began pleading and gesticulating excitedly before the bench, when, according to Harvey, the judge withdrew a sizable handgun from beneath his robe and leveled it in both fists atop the bench, warning the defendant to back off.
“I just dove out of the way and hit the floor,” says Harvey. “And then I realized that everybody in the courtroom was laughing, and Judge Gunter was barely concealing a laugh. It was his way of initiating new lawyers.”
It was also a lesson in the power of personal presence. Though certainly not the originator of the long-haired liberal lawyer look (a title that probably belongs to famed San Francisco attorney Tony Serra, whose life was the basis for the movie True Believer), Harvey is its shrewd practitioner. His loft-style office of exposed brick walls and pine beams on Nassau Street, in the shadow of the Omni, is as much a professional statement as it is a personal one. Sheets of white Plexiglas angle muted lighting at several Paige Harvey originals, which resound with ecological themes. The coffee table is strewn with copies of High Times, and a black 1979 Harley Davidson Superglide is parked under a stairwell that corkscrews upward through spiraled shelves of law books, up to Harvey’s office, where the attic-force heat is just “the price of being cool,” he says. “When people walk in, I want them to know that this is not the law office of the normal lawyer, with oriental rugs and Queen Anne chairs, sitting around serving tea.”
Tattoos crawl along Harvey’s wrist, up the forearms. His latest is a serpent, with fangs barred, sprawled behind his right thumb.
“Yeah,” says Harvey, looking at the snake and wiggling his thumb. “Silent but deadly.”
Harvey may or may not be deadly, but he certainly hasn’t got the silence part yet. Out of court, he is as personable and often as subdued a guy as one could find, his office a meager offering to urban renewal, himself a Braves fan, a devotee of pop legal fiction, a guy who goes on birdwatching trips with his wife. But then there’s his other half who, in the heat of battle last spring in Douglas County, was sent to jail twice for contempt—the second time for ripping off his tie and challenging Assistant District Attorney Beau McClain to a fight right there in the courtroom.
The conflagration was over McClain’s closing argument in the trial of Jeff Henry, who stood accused of murdering his twin brother, with whom he had been entangled in a lifelong love-hate relationship. Harvey’s client admitted to the shotgunning after a drunken fight in the brothers’ shared apartment, but said it was an accident, and ultimately an act of self-defense after years of abuse from his brother. Harvey and co-counsel Billy Spruell attempted to apply a male version of the battered women’s syndrome argument to their case.
“[The defense] spent the whole trial speaking of the past bad conduct of the victim in order to devalue the victim’s life, to make it look like he deserved what he got,” says McClain, who in closing equated the defense argument with the views of a racist, to whom all lives are not equal.
At that, Harvey jumped up with a “major motion,” showering McClain with obscenities and challenging him to a fight. “He started taking off his clothes and got in my face and acted like he was going to hit me, but he didn’t,” says McClain.
The judge threw Harvey in jail for contempt, his second trip in that case alone. The first had been for refusing to turn over photos to the prosecution, a move that was calculated for its dramatic as well as legal impact.
Was this outburst just a stunt, too, a display of righteous indignation to galvanize the jury? Of course not, says Harvey, who continues to call McClain’s analogies “ludicrous, stereotypical redneck, and misogynistic.”
Legally speaking, the day went to Harvey and Spruell. The case ended in mistrial, with six jurors petitioning the district attorney not to retry the case, and to release the defendant. The D.A. accepted a voluntary manslaughter plea with first-offender status. Based on the two years he had already served, Jeff Henry, who shot his own brother in his brother’s own bedroom, is now a free man.
“I’m sure there’s some residual animosity [on McClain’s part],” says Harvey, “but that’s water under the bridge and we need to go forward.”
McClain acknowledges Harvey’s considerable legal skills, but sounds less forgiving.
“I guess when you spend your whole life defending criminals, it rubs off and you start acting like one.”
BRUCE HARVEY IS AT the Georgia Rib Company in Gray, doodling on a paper table cloth with a complimentary crayon. He pushes out a patch of color with no form or direction, sort of like his case. That morning, he had told the judge that he thinks his client is foolish and should negotiate. Harvey cites statistics on eligible African Americans who have been given life sentences for drug violations in the Ocmulgee Circuit (22 percent, according to Harvey), versus the percentage of eligible whites (0 percent).
It’s the race card, and Harvey will play it to the jury if he can. Anyway, he figures the prosecution is just foaming to use this case to show a long-haired city boy how it’s done down here on the banks of the mighty Ocmulgee. And when he talks, a great many of Harvey’s sentences are preceded by one of his favorite words:
Clearly, the system is prejudiced against the black man. Clearly, people ought to have the right to do with their bodies as they please. Clearly, alcohol and cigarettes are drugs, too.
But isn’t there a difference between, say, beer and crack?
“Just because one will kill you faster than the other?” says Harvey. “There is a difference between coffee and scotch, too, and they’re both legal.”
He looks at the menu, notices the special, which is quail, and says, “God, how could anybody shoot a little quail?” He wolfs down a sad looking tuna melt, and heads back to the courtroom, where he spends the rest of the day querying prospective jurors with surprising playfulness, coaxing laughter from even the sternest middle Georgia conservatives, making the ladies blush, speechifying where he can—and obviously enjoying himself.
One day after the trial was supposed to open, Harvey calls up with the news: ‘Mistrial, big boy,” he says. In an unexpected turn of luck for the defendant, Harvey says the state’s key witness told the judge, outside the presence of the jury, that his statement had been coerced. On the stand, he took the fifth. The prosecution then began asking the witness questions which Harvey argued were clearly illegal—intent, says Harvey, on a mistrial. The judge granted a mistrial over Harvey’s objection, but he now has a double-jeopardy defense.
“If the state goads you into a mistrial by doing something erroneous, the state may not be able to retry him,” he says. “There’s a chance the guy could skate.”
And so, from Bruce Harvey’s perspective, in this case, the system worked. The law was there, and the law was clear. What may not be so clear, to some, is whether Bruce Harvey has just spared an undeserving man from the living death of prison, or helped put another crack dealer back on the street.
“People should be happy that the system does work, that it’s working for the next time they or one of their loved ones gets into trouble,” he says. “The real winner here is the public. They just don’t realize it.” ✦