Recently, Chief Justice of the Florida Supreme Court, Jorge Labarga, authored a piece about the effect of stress upon lawyers.1
According to the Chief Justice, “Stress without proper care contributes to the higher-than-usual rates of addiction, suicide, and mental illness we see among lawyers.”
These comments cause one to recall a certain former judge and state attorney by the name of Harry Lee Coe.
The local daily newspapers, The Tampa Tribune and St. Petersburg Times, on the morning of July 14, 2000 reported that Hillsborough County State Attorney Harry Lee Coe III had died of a self-inflicted gunshot wound to the left temple. The life of a well-known, successful, and popular (with most people) figure whose public life spanned three decades was over; but questions remained: Why would a man in seemingly robust health at 68 whose political future appeared secure sacrifice his life?2
Judge Coe attended High School in Lakeland, Florida. Recognition beyond Lakeland of his talent as a gifted athlete came when he received a combination baseball/basketball scholarship to the University of Florida. His pitching record at University of Florida stood for many years, and he was the first pitcher to be inducted into the UF Sports Hall of Fame. He signed a contract with the Detroit Tigers—the first individual from Lakeland to sign a major league contract; Boog Powell became the second Lakelander to be picked when he signed with the Baltimore Orioles. He pitched in the Detroit Tigers farm system for three years during the spring and summer seasons during the windup of his schooling at Gainesville.
In the late 1950s, while still attending law school at Stetson University, Harry Coe helped pay his way through that program by pitching baseball for the Tampa Tarpons of the Florida State League. Prior to his tenure as State Attorney, he was a circuit judge, serving in that role for 22 years.
Judge Coe ran the court over which he presided with firm determination to do what he felt was right and just. Contrary to the tag “Hanging Harry” seized upon and played up by the press, he was considered to be fair, particularly dealing with young persons having no significant criminal history. He believed in the familiar doctrine of “a second chance.”
Only Harry knew what prompted him to give up the prestige and security of his judgeship. But he did that in 1992 when, as a Democrat, he challenged the incumbent, widely respected Republican, Bill James. Harry Lee Coe was elected State Attorney.
Harry personally tried the case against Christopher Wilson. After the verdict of guilty in the case, one of the news services released a photo of State Attorney Coe embracing the victim of the crime and his mother. This was one of the most sensational criminal trials in Tampa’s history. Harry made a masterful closing argument, and both defendants were convicted of all charges. Shortly afterward, Judge Coe received a cherished letter from Gregory Peck. In the letter, Peck compares Harry to the famous lawyer from To Kill A Mockingbird:
When I saw this photo in the N.Y. Times, I could not help identifying with you, and thinking that in this case, you have played the role of Atticus Finch in real life, taken on the challenge, and won an important victory for all of us.
Harry Coe’s obsession with gambling in greyhound racing became such a dominate force in his life that in his waning years it is undisputed that he caged money from his subordinate associates to support his pathological problem.
The National Council on Problem Gambling based in Washington, D.C., which maintains a 24-hour toll-free helpline for those needing help or information, reports there is a strong link between suicide and pathological gambling. Las Vegas’ suicide rate is one of the highest in the world.
As Chief Justice Labarga’s comments reveal, the problems that confronted Harry Lee Coe are not isolated or rare. “Attitudes need to change. Lawyers must be realistic about themselves and their jobs. They must be encouraged to get medical care without hiding the problem until it gets out of hand.”3
1 Chief Justice Jorge Labarga. “When lawyers need help, let’s make sure they don’t fear getting it”. The Florida Bar News. May 1, 2018. Retrieved from: https://www.floridabar.org/news/tfb-news/?durl=%2Fdivcom%2Fjn%2Fjnnews01.nsf%2F8c9f13012b96736985256aa900624829%2F97184b778076867e852582770054a17b
2 This blog, with some editorial changes, was taken from: Buck, Morrison. “Harry Lee Coe 1932-2000.” Retrieved from: http://digital.lib.usf.edu.