‘I’ve shot better men than you’

I must apologize to Herb Shafer for misquoting him.

“I’m not going to have any jacklick judge get me to bow down,” I quoted him saying after he was released from the Douglas County jail (he was feuding with a judge, who tossed him behind bars). I pulled the 1994 story out of the file this week and, upon further review, it’s clear he meant “jackleg,” an out-of-date term meaning “incompetent” or “dishonest.”

But I shouldn’t feel bad. A judge once told me he kept a dictionary handy when Herb was in house. When it came to verbal expression, Herb was vociferous, polymathic and perspicacious.

My colleague Bill Rankin and I had been meaning to go see Herb for months now. Herb was sick and pushing 94, and you just don’t wait around to visit someone with a foot in the grave. Anyway, you know how this goes. Herb up and died last week before we ever got there.

You can’t make up stories like the reality that was Henriek Szczukowski, a Polish Jew who often remarked on his good luck for leaving his homeland before Hitler arrived.

He grew up to be Herbert Shafer, a lawyer who barely reached 5 feet but was aggressively unafraid of judges, prosecutors or even his clients, who included Mafiosos.

Well, not totally unafraid. Herb was once celebrating a legal victory at a friend’s office but seemed a bit distracted and kept glancing out the window. Finally he told Robb Pitts, the longtime Atlanta pol and drinking buddy, what was bugging him. The client had paid Shafer $50,000 in cash, and Herb fully expected the now-free criminal to return to rob him.

In recent decades, Shafer handled mostly drug cases. There were two reasons. First, drug dealers have money and are eager to pay upfront. But second, Herb believed the War on Drugs was turning his adopted country into a police state.

Herb became a constitutional rights zealot, a serial letter-to-the-editor writer and a lawyer ready to throw down with authorities. He figured that losing family members to the Nazi regime fomented such strong feelings.

“If we have learned nothing else from our dark and bloody history, it is this: absolute executive power leads, ineluctably, to tyranny,” he once wrote in a letter to The New York Times.

In 2008, while on break in a courthouse hallway during a drug case, Shafer admitted, “I’m irascible, I’m pugnacious, I’m verbose. I wish I could change, but I can’t.

“My mission is not to cuddle up to prosecutors. I want to make them as uncomfortable as possible. They get no free pops. My clients are the ones who put bread on my table.”

He once successfully argued before the U.S. Supreme Court in the 1980s on a case that helped open up courtrooms nationwide. But it’s his battles in Georgia courtrooms that are legendary in Atlanta legal circles.

Once, he angrily told a prosecutor, “I’ve shot better men than you.” That might be true. Herb was a gunner on a landing craft in World War II during four amphibious invasions, including at Anzio.

Another time he told an assistant DA, “I’ve seen some sleazy, slimy prosecutors in my life, but I have never seen one quite like you. You’re the basest, most contemptible piece of human garbage I’ve ever run into.”

Prosecutors could be worse than criminals, he said, because “you kill the truth. You kill the constitutional rights of citizens. That poses a far greater danger to our society than a drug dealer or a murderer. Yes, absolutely. I think you’re a menace.”

It was a moment that reads like a key scene in a courtroom movie. Copies of that deposition are in defense lawyers’ briefcases and on their hard-drives — partly because of exchanges like that, and partly because it includes 27 occasions where a naughty word describing sodomy is used.

But as much as Herb liked to go headlong against those running the show, he had compassion when they fell down. He’d been there.

In 201o, Judge Jack Camp, a white-haired federal judge known for meting out stiff sentences, was caught befriending a prostitute and paying for sex as they smoked pot and whiffed cocaine.

“No doubt a lot of guys who Judge Jack Camp sentenced to prison for drug-related crimes will be gloating,” Shafer wrote in a letter to the AJC. “But, at rock-bottom, the only one harmed by Camp’s dalliance, and simple possession of a drug, is Jack Camp. There, but for the grace of God, go a lot of us.”

In fact, the then-90-year-old Shafer admitted a bit of grudging admiration for Camp’s dalliances.

Women were a weakness for the four-time-married Shafer (a number his third- and ex-wife, Ann Shafer, disputes). Shafer left New York in 1970 after surrendering his law license following accusations of bigamy and gambling. The bigamy, he explained, was the result of a quickie Mexican divorce followed by a Hawaiian wedding.

Rankin and I met with Shafer at his favorite haunt, Alfredo’s Italian Restaurant, to celebrate his 90th birthday. Herb was accompanied by a buxom young lady in a low-cut dress who kept snuggling with him and calling him “baby.” We didn’t ask questions.

Another time, my wife met him for dinner. We came on time; he was early. On the table was a spectacular floral bouquet with an attached note: “Get rid of the Bum! I’m looking for wife #5. Herb.”

I assumed he was joking.

I called him about a year ago and asked if he still had any cases (I’m pretty sure towards the end he was the oldest Georgia lawyer still darkening courtroom doorways.)

“No, I don’t have too many. I only take on clients who will drive me to court.”

In June and again in July, Rankin and I promised to come see him. But we got busy, getting caught up with something that won’t stick with me as much as one last visit with a friend.