It was 12 years ago that I first met Bill Mason.
A Columbus attorney, he was running for city council against an entrenched southside incumbent, Mimi Woodson.
I remember asking him why he lived in Oakland Park. Back in 2002 not many attorneys lived in the historic old neighborhood that sprung up out of a need for single-family housing during the Vietnam conflict.
“Because that is where I have always lived,” he said.
Couldn’t argue with that.
Mason died Saturday in Columbus Hospice after being diagnosed with cancer less than four weeks earlier.
Brace Luquire knew Mason well.
He described his friend as a straight-shooter, honest, blunt, brilliant, no frills and hilarious.
That pretty much describes him.
“My wife always described him as a gruff teddy bear,” Luquire said.
Yes, he was. Mason, 56, was a lone wolf, never marrying or having children.
There will be a memorial service, but it has yet to be scheduled.
Mason’s paralegal Tracy Boswell knew him well. The two worked together almost 22 years, and one of the things she respected about Mason was “he didn’t try and sell you a dream; he told it to you how it was.”
Boswell is not sure how to describe Mason’s role in her life — it was part brother, part uncle, part father and part best friend.
“He was the most stable fixture in my adult life,” she said. “I could always count on him to tell me how he was feeling and he would always give me an honest answer, even though it might not be what you wanted to hear.”
But if you were in trouble — serious trouble or just a little scrape with the law — Mason was not a bad guy to have sitting beside you when a judge was sitting in front of you and a jury of your peers was to your left.
Columbus attorney John Roper didn’t know Mason well, but he knew what Mason did and who he did it for.
“This was a quiet, but huge loss, for the misrepresented, under-represented and just plain system screwed who traded 10 or 15 years of their lives for hell until somebody said ‘Oops, our bad’ after an expensive and complicated process,” Roper posted Monday morning on his Facebook page.
Ask Lathan Word what Mason means to him. Mason was the one who believed in Word.
In 2011, Word was freed from prison after serving 10 years for a crime he did not commit. Word, 29 at the time of his release, was convicted in 2000 for an armed robbery the previous year and sentenced to 15 years with no chance of parole.
Mason was Word’s attorney and believed in him when others didn’t. And in the end, not only was Word freed, but the Georgia General Assembly also voted to give him $400,000 for the injustice.
Mason didn’t win every fight.
In March, Mason represented Lonnie Jacob Ragan, who was convicted of murder in the 2011 shotgun slaying of his sister-in-law. Mason was appointed by Superior Court Judge Gil McBride to represent Ragan.
The jury acquitted Ragan of six of the 13 charges against him, and the bulk of those involved explosives he was said to have possessed.
I walked out of the courthouse with Mason that day. He was headed to his office in Heritage Corner, and I told him he won all of the charges where he had a chance.
He looked at me and said, “I usually do.”
He wasn’t bragging, just telling the truth. He was good at that.
Mason didn’t seek the opportunity to represent Ragan, but once he found himself in that courtroom, he became an advocate for Ragan. And it could not be easy as the eye-witness testimony mounted and Ragan began acting the fool inside and outside the courtroom.
Mason never waivered. He just did his job and represented Ragan until the jury spoke.
McBride could not talk about the Ragan trial, but he could talk about Mason.
“Bill did not worry about the popularity of his argument or the popularity of his client,” McBride said.
You couldn’t do what Mason did and worry about being popular.
McBride said when he and Mason were opposing counsel, he made sure to keep those files near the top of the stack on his desk.
“He could work opposing counsel pretty hard,” McBride said.
But when McBride was elected to the Superior Court bench, he looked at Mason in a different light.
“I really came to appreciate Bill as a constitutional lawyer — especially when it came to the Fourth and Fifth amendments,” McBride said.
Those two amendments — search and seizure rights and the right to remain silent — are among the biggest guns a criminal defense attorney carries into a trial.
McBride said there is a hole in the Columbus bar.
“The underdog in Columbus lost a friend and a champion,” he said.
No doubt about it.