Retiring public defender looks back on tragedy, combat, murder and the law

tchitwood@ledger-enquirer.comOctober 6, 2013 

Bob Wadkins had heard stories of men who died the day they retired.

So when the 68-year-old chief public defender for the six-county Chattahoochee Judicial Circuit retired Tuesday, he told his wife he was glad he made it through the day.

"Well, the day is young, so there's still hope," she said.

He thought that was hilarious.

The shadow of death is nothing new to Wadkins, and not just from years of defending murder suspects who couldn't afford to pay a private lawyer. His father, a Columbus police officer, died of a heart attack at age 40, when Wadkins was 5 years old. His mother married another officer, a friend of the father's. A few years later, he killed himself.

As an Army engineer serving with infantrymen on Vietnam's Cambodian border in 1968 and '69, Wadkins three times was wounded in combat -- shot in the shoulder, and twice hit by shrapnel -- and three times helicopters were shot down with him inside.

As an engineer in a hot combat zone, Wadkins was on the edge of U.S. search and destroy missions, defusing tank bombs, setting ambushes, blowing up tunnels and bridges. It was tense, lethal work. But he was young, and he loved it.

"When you're 21 or 22, you just don't recognize danger like you probably ought to," he said. "It's an adventure."

Coming home

He took to it so well that he kept at it when his tour ended, and he came home a captain to serve as a Ranger School instructor and later a post engineer at Fort Benning.

And that got him in trouble.

One day a colonel told him to disassemble a creaky metal water tower thought to be a hazard. Wadkins placed a plastic explosive, C-4, on each of the tower's legs and set the charges off simultaneously, so the whole structure imploded. Then he had the pieces hauled off on a truck. It took about 30 minutes.

For this efficiency he was not lauded. He was chewed out because the explosion was near post residences where Army wives immediately called the commanding general to ask why a bomb went off in their neighborhood.

Fresh from the war, Wadkins thought such demolition routine. But his superiors made this clear: He wasn't in Vietnam anymore.

The story reminds him how hard it is for combat veterans to readjust to life at home. He was reminded again in 2006, when he represented one of the four soldiers implicated in the 2003 murder of Richard Davis, the case that became the basis for the movie "In the Valley of Elah."

Those infantrymen had just returned from Iraq, and on their first night out, they went off like a bomb, hitting a strip club, getting drunk, and then fighting each other until one stabbed Davis so deeply the knife point punched into his bones. Then the rest tried to burn and hide the body.

All that happened that night may never be known, because the survivors were so drunk, Wadkins said.

Boy on the beat

When Wadkins got out of the Army in 1970, he did not immediately take to the law. He did other jobs, as he had before, while growing up in Columbus. But the law was ever on his mind.

When he was a kid, he walked the downtown beat with Officer Corn Griffin, who held the little boy's hand while on patrol. Wadkins' dad, Officer Lynn Wadkins, rode a motorcycle, and Wadkins still remembers the powerful rumble reverberating from its engine.

But he did not choose a career in law enforcement, like his father. And he swore he would not do what his mother, Agnes, had to, when her husband died with no pension, before Social Security existed. She went to work in the Archer Hosiery Mill.

As a teenager, Wadkins, who grew up in the former Peabody Apartments housing complex and graduated from Columbus High School, could have worked summers in the mills. But as soon as he walked into one and witnessed the heat, the noise and the lint, he walked right back out, swearing he'd never do that.

Instead he worked for Buck Ice & Coal, handling 300-pound blocks of ice. It built up his strength.

At Columbus High, choral director Robert Eakle noted Wadkins' promising voice, a baritone. He groomed Wadkins for a career in music. Wadkins got a scholarship to the University of Cincinnati Conservatory of Music.

But that wasn't for him. The opera business is too cut-throat, he said, so he instead he joined the Army and shipped off to 'Nam.

"I wanted to be an Army hero," he recalled. "I just decided that I did not want a career in opera. It's a dog-eat-dog world, and it just wasn't for me."

For 10 years after he left the service, he bounced between jobs, working for a mortgage company, then laboring in a feed mill, then joining two partners in a business building houses. As the 1970s ended, he again started thinking about a career in law.

Love and law

While drinking with some friends one day, he asked whether they knew anyone who could help him pass the law school entrance exam. They did: Mary Jane Wynn. She had passed the test and been accepted to law school, but instead got a degree in history. She was teaching at Columbus State University.

They met the next night. "I think it was love at first sight," he recalled. She got him to enroll at CSU. He aced his courses, making straight A's. He was 30 hours short of an undergraduate degree when Mercer Law School took him straight in. He and Mary Jane married in 1981 and had a son in 1982. Wadkins passed the bar on his first try in 1983, and went to work in civil law, before asking to be appointed to represent indigent criminal defendants.

He won his first case, his client acquitted of a cocaine charge. Many more cases followed over the next three decades.

He collected a lot of tales along the way, this past week recalling a young attorney he had thought was ready to help him try a particularly gruesome murder case. Prepping for trial, she showed no shock or disgust at the crime scene photos or gory details of the slaying. But then came the prosecutor's opening statement.

He was dramatic in his condemnation of Wadkins' client, who sat on the far side of the defense table from Wadkins, the rookie lawyer between them. Wadkins heard her start to sniffle. Maybe she had a cold, he thought.

Then tears streamed down her face, and with the prosecutor at full rhetorical peak, she became so affected she began to sob loudly, in front of the jury, essentially proving her client was so guilty his own attorney couldn't take it. Wadkins rushed her out of the courtroom.

Balancing justice

What he learned over those 30 years was how hopeless a poor suspect's case could be. The government did not care to spend much on defending what it considered criminals, whether they were guilty or not. Wadkins once calculated a case paid him $3 to $4 an hour.

Attorneys with their own private practices to run could find themselves spending inordinate time on a criminal case, were the motion hearings, docket calls and delays to stretch on. The circumstances created pressure to resolve cases quickly, and some attorneys would accept plea deals when they should have gone to trial, Wadkins said.

In 2003, the Georgia General Assembly saw the system was broken and took steps to even the scales of justice through the Georgia Indigent Defense Act -- creating circuit public defender staffs to be paid market rates to represent indigent defendants full time. A public defenders' council here chose Wadkins to establish the circuit's new office in 2005.

Today Wadkins credits his crew of 15 attorneys and other staff for their collaboration in representing poor defendants as aggressively as the district attorney's office prosecutes them.

But that bright side has a flip side, he said: Suspects still spend far too much time in jail waiting for their cases to be heard. He had hoped to spur the system to be much more efficient by now, moving cases to trial or to plea, not only for speedy justice, but also to save taxpayers the millions spent warehousing those awaiting trial.

Still fighting

The combative spirit that served him well in Vietnam never faded.

"One time I told a judge I wished I was back in Vietnam," Wadkins recalled. "And he said, 'Why ever do you wish that?' I said, 'Because then I could shoot back at you.'"

Today Wadkins needn't worry too much about the perils of retirement, as he will not retire entirely. He will go into practice with his son Robert Wadkins Jr., and he has asked, again, to be appointed to some of the indigent defense cases the public defender's office can't take when it has a conflict of interest.

W. Travis Sakrison, executive director of the Georgia Public Defender Standards Council, has yet to name Wadkins' replacement. Wadkins has yet to finish cleaning out his office, where Wednesday he pulled out old black and white photos of his father, pictured standing proudly among his police colleagues, and sitting on his police motorcycle.

Wadkins has always kept those mementos close by, to trigger memories of his father, and of his own tough, hardworking youth, when he was as poor as some of the clients he later came to represent.

Related stories:

Michael Curry found guilty of murder

Update: Judge overturns death sentence in double murder case of Johnnie A. Worsley

Ledger-Enquirer is pleased to provide this opportunity to share information, experiences and observations about what's in the news. Some of the comments may be reprinted elsewhere in the site or in the newspaper. We encourage lively, open debate on the issues of the day, and ask that you refrain from profanity, hate speech, personal comments and remarks that are off point. Thank you for taking the time to offer your thoughts.

Commenting FAQs | Terms of Service