Stagger Lee, a song about a murder over a dice game and Stetson hat, was the number one song in America this week in 1959. Listening to it, I was reminded of how I won a jury trial by using its lyrics for my closing argument.
The song, recorded by New Orleans native Lloyd Price, told of two men who “gambled late.” One accused the other of cheating and lead to the shooting death of the other.
I represented a client who told me he was shooting dice outside of a Philadelphia bar when he won all the money from a fellow who had gambled late outside the bar.
My guy was arrested within hours of the dice game after the loser reported his money loss to the police, claiming the defendant stole it from him.
I was able to get the police report and it showed there was more than an hour delay from when the alleged crime took place and the actual call to the police. Most crimes are reported immediatley after they had occurred.
The so-called victim testified that he had not reported the incident until getting home and telling his wife that he did not have the money they needed because he was robbed. It wasn’t until his wife insisted he contact authorities about the theft that he called.
I called my client to the witness stand and asked no questions. But I also directed him to roll down a sleeve of his shirt. He slowly rolled down the shirt sleeve exposing a colorful tattoo of two dice – a five and a two – which made up the winning roll of a seven.
The witness denied having lost the cash by shooting dice but admitted under cross-examination to being in the bar, a place he often ferquented. However, he was unable to account for his delay in reporting his story.
I then “published” him to the jury by having him stand and walk over to the jury box for the jurors to get a good look at the tattoo.
That tattoo became winner when the jury deliberated and rendered their “Not Guilty” verdict. They disbelieved the victim and accepted my analysis of the incident particularly after I told them the story of “Stagger Lee” and recited a few of the song’s verses.
It was the right thing to do and I was surprised and filled with joy upon leaving the courtroom after the verdict as the judge – James Lineberger, one of my favorite jurists – said to me “Go Stagger Lee, go!”
I remember the song, and now I have to find it our YouTube music and listen to it again. The power of persuasion is a gift, and a lawyer who knows his clients innocence is guided to find those words – as you have proven here … Belated congratulations!
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Thank you, my good friend. It was one of my favorite jury trial experiences. The song was one of my favorites and it is among the best Rock & Roll songs according to Rolling Stone magazine.
It’s also based on the true story of a guy named Lee Shelton, aka Stack-O-Lee,” who shot and killed a guy named Billy Lyons on Christmas in 1895. No dice were involved but the victim was shot after stealing Lee’s stetson hat.
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That’s so cool!
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I had a lot of fun using the lyrics of the song in my closing argument. The defendant’s tattoo of the dice had a lot to do with it and I am grateful the jury agreed with our story!