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When Fred Thompson played a real prosecutor

November 5, 2007 |  2:12 am

At a recent Republican presidential debate, Fred Thompson was introduced in a new way, as “former assistant U.S. attorney and senator from Tennessee.”

These days the newest GOP candidate has been boasting about his prosecutor's work, the real prosecutions, not the ones he portrayed as Arthur Branch in "Law & Order." Thompson served in the U.S. Attorney’s office in Nashville from 1969 to 1972.

So The Times' Joe Mathews scoured records through two different federal warehouses and turned up the 88 criminal cases that Thompson handled in those three formative years. He also talked to prosecutorial colleagues, defense attorneys, jurors and even some of the accused he prosecuted to draw a detailed picture of the personality and working style of the 64-year-old Tennessean who would be president.

There was little glamour. In a time and place when most major crimes were prosecuted in state court, the work of Thompson and his federal colleagues was limited to bank robberies, stolen cars, counterfeiting and, especially in the future candidate’s case, moonshining.

The U.S. attorney’s office was small, just eight prosecutors on the eighth floor of the downtown federal building. Court employees recall Thompson working out of a basement lunch room, where he prepared cases while sipping on RC Cola. He wore huge suits -- some even plaid -- that hung loosely on his 6’5” frame.

“He was awfully young. So was I,” recalls Martha Daughtrey, who had the office next to Thompson’s and went on to become a Sixth Circuit Court of Appeals judge. “Frankly, neither of us knew what we were doing.”

“Fred had a great voice and was smart, but he was just another lawyer,” says Dale Quillen, another lawyer who defended many bootleggers against Thompson. “I’d say he was competent, but...

not much more than that.” Court records show a hard-working young prosecutor who struggled with the rules of evidence, but one juror recalled Thompson as very cool.

While prosecuting one bank robbery, the frequent defense objections to Thompson's leading of witnesses brought the trial to a halt. “If your honor, please," said the defense attorney, "Mr. Thompson testified almost this entire witness.”

“Mr. Thompson, let’s stop it,” Judge Frank Gray Jr. said in desperation.

But Mathews found records revealing that Thompson also had a certain charm, and a gift for now familiar one-liners and jokes that could cover any mistakes. In one bank robbery case, he absent-mindedly asked the FBI agent, “Did you participate in the robbery of that institution?”

“Mr. Thompson," said the judge, "let’s don’t ask that question.”

“Did I say ‘robbery?’" asked Thompson. "I meant ‘in the investigation.’”

“That is better, I think,” the judge said.

“Glad I changed it," quipped Thompson, "before he had a chance to answer.”

More than any other criminals, Thompson prosecuted moonshiners, people who brewed and sold whiskey without paying federal tax. Federal agents liked and trusted Thompson, though he was a little green. The prosecutor had never seen a still, so one day Alcohol, Tax and Firearms agent Linzie Jones gave him a tour.

For the young prosecutor, the challenge of these cases was to get evidence admitted in court. The federal agents were engaged in elaborate cat-and-mouse games with bootleggers that resembled episodes of “The Dukes of Hazzard.” There were wild car chases. In one Thompson case, federal agents ran a defendant off the road by flashing a light in his eyes. And the on-scene searches of bootleggers’ cars were often contested in court.

“I don’t know why these officers are so allergic to going and getting a warrant,” Judge Gray snapped during one hearing. But even without that warrant, Thompson still managed to get the evidence admitted. He just did it his way.

--Andrew Malcolm