In Defense of Murder

This undated, provided photo shows the cover of ‘In Defense of Murder,’ a novel by Tom Dennard.

Tyler Tucker, attorney at law, is not real. He exists on the pages of another lawyer’s work of fiction.

Tucker is the protagonist in “In Defense of Murder,” Brunswick attorney Tom Dennard’s eighth book and his first work of fiction. He knows his subject because the novel is based on Dennard’s defense of an accused murderer in a death-penalty trial 50 years ago in Glynn County’s historic courthouse.

Depending your viewpoint on some sexual issues, Tucker is the villain or hero as he defends Marine PFC Tommy Jennings. It was indeed a homicide but usually killings are bad-on-bad or bad-on-good. Both the victim and the killer were good men in Dennard’s book, at least by the mores of 1973 when the fictional young lawyer got an appointment he didn’t want. If Tucker were to lose the case, Jennings would have likely gone to the electric chair for killing Calvin Livingston.

Jennings was a U.S. Marine hitching a ride back to Camp LeJuene after Thanksgiving leave just days before shipping out to Vietnam. Livingston was a local Brunswick man.

There are many parallels in the story to what happened in 1968.

Like the fictional Tucker, Dennard hadn’t been in Brunswick long when Judge Winebert D. Flexer Jr. appointed him and another young lawyer to defend a murder case. That’s another way things have changed. At the time, Flexer was the only Superior Court Judge in the five-county Brunswick Judicial Circuit. Now the circuit keeps five judges busy.

“In Defense of Murder” has all the elements of a non-fiction true crime book, but Dennard said the State Bar of Georgia advised him he should write it as fiction including the names. He was, after all, the lawyer and lawyers have information they cannot divulge.

“In fiction, you can embellish the hell out of it, and I did,’’ Dennard said.

He first wrote the book in 1989 but didn’t publish it.

“When I finished it, I knew I’d be kicked out of my family for writing a sex book,’’ he said.

His family members who would have been offended have passed on except for an elderly aunt so, Dennard said, “I pulled the book off the shelf and rewrote it. It took a year to rewrite and a year to edit.”

As for the aunt, she has a habit that disturbs Dennard to the point he didn’t even want her to read the book.

When she reads a passage she finds offensive, “she tears out the whole page,’’ Dennard said.

Figuring she would reduce his 331-page volume to 200 some-odd pages, Dennard didn’t offer her a book. Finally, someone did, and she read it, found it good but for a few rough spots, and told him so. To Dennard’s knowledge, his aunt’s copy remains as thick as the day she first started reading.

Much of the sex in the book is of a nature not widely accepted in the 1970s, but a lot of things have changed since then.

As he weaves his tale, Dennard creates the complicated lives of his characters from cradles to early graves. Born a Georgia country boy himself, Dennard weaves in many things familiar to southerners.

Instead of waving, a man “threw up his hand,’’ and, Dennard pointed out that racial integration didn’t extend to the grave. African Americans were buried in Greenwood Cemetery and whites in Palmetto. Gas was 35 cents a gallon and he wrote of eating at Albert Crews’ restaurant and shooting pool at Sonny Hall’s pool room.

A look back at other prices of the time shows a new Ford Mustang could be had for $2,395, penny loafers were $12 a pair and George W. Owens had men’s dress pants for $7 to $14.

Dennard also mentioned Cody’s, a restaurant on Gloucester Street. Before a fire gutted Cody’s decades ago, I was fortunate enough to have lunch there with Jingle Davis, now retired from the Atlanta Journal-Constitution. I followed her urging and had the fried chicken sandwich, which was as delicious as she promised.

Jingle was raising a family in 1968 during the real trial but remembers the attention it drew. It was on the TV news nearly every night, she said.

In Tucker, Dennard presents a character who is caught up defending a killer in a still biased society. Jingle liked the book, but Dennard says writing legal documents didn’t prepare him for fiction.

“My writing style can be a little stilted. When you write legal documents everything has to be just so,’’ he said. “I know I’ve got a good story here. Is my writing worthy of the story?”

Jingle Davis, an excellent writer herself, says it is.

“I think Tom is talented in creating colorful characters,’’ she said. “He showed empathy for both the victim and the perpetrator.”

I fully agree and, as someone who probably spent the equivalent of years in court, I found his recreation of the trial and the wait for the verdict compelling.

The two years spent in writing and editing is faster than most death penalty trials get to a verdict. But back in 1968, Dennard and his co-counsel had only a month to prepare and arrange for trial. He imposed the same limits on the fictional trial.

I won’t divulge how Tucker did in court but I will tell you Dennard won the real life case and his client went back to being a Marine. Dennard wouldn’t so much as give the name of his client in 1968 nor that of the victim, and I’ll honor that by not divulging the names I found with a little help.

The victim is buried in a cemetery just outside Brunswick in a grave marked with a bronze plaque. His body rests near his parents.

Glenn Thomas Jr., the district attorney who sought the death penalty in the case, had retired. In June 2007, Bobby “Rex” Stribling, angered over Thomas’ refusal to give him money, beat Thomas to death in his law office in Jesup. A Coffee County jury convicted Stribling of murder, but he was spared the death penalty.

“In Defense of Murder” is available at Amazon.com, at his law office at 1528 Ellis Street in Brunswick and on St. Simons at G.J. Ford Bookshop and Savannah Bee Co.

Terry Dickson has been a journalist in South Carolina and the Golden Isles for more than 40 years. He is a Glynn County resident. Contact him at terryldickson@gmail.com.

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