Charlotte defense lawyer Harold Bender didn’t flinch under public scrutiny. He wasn’t afraid to take on the tough and unpopular cases.
Bender defended former PTL evangelist Jim Bakker, who was accused of bilking followers of his TV ministry out of millions of dollars. He also defended the late Mecklenburg County commissioner and minister Bob Walton, who was charged with sexually assaulting a teenage boy.
Among Bender’s other high-profile clients: NASCAR team owner and Charlotte car dealer Rick Hendrick, who was accused of mail fraud, former Monroe police officer Josh Griffin, who was convicted of murder, and Fred Coffey, who was twice sentenced to death for the murder of a 10-year-old girl.
Bender died Sunday at New Hanover Regional Medical Center in Wilmington. He was 70.
Bender had been battling cancer and most likely died from a heart attack, his daughter, Currin Bender, told the Observer on Tuesday.
Those who knew Bender called him “a Southern gentlemen” and “a consummate professional.”
“Harold was a fierce defender of those accused of committing crimes,” Mecklenburg District Attorney Andrew Murray said Tuesday. “He took some of the toughest cases. He wanted to make sure the system worked like it was designed to and that justice was served.”
U.S. Chief District Judge Bob Conrad called Bender a legend.
“He had a larger than life persona,” the judge said. “He had a gift for talking to jurors. He was like a preacher in a pulpit. … He was the master – loved by all – prosecutors, judges, juries and most of all the defendants he represented so well. He was passionate, and entertaining in his advocacy.”
Bender was at his best in front of juries. Speaking in his Southern drawl and walking back and forth, he liked to make eye contact with each juror. Sometimes he raised his voice. Other times, he whispered.
He also looked forward to aggressive cross-examinations. During Bakker’s trial, Bender had been peppering a former PTL vice president for 35 minutes when the key prosecution witness collapsed on the stand.
Bender thought the witness had died. It turned out the witness apparently blacked out from lack of food.
Defense lawyer George Laughrun called Bender a stalwart of Mecklenburg’s bar and recalled trying his first death penalty case with him.
“I learned from Harold how to prepare for a trial,” Laughrun said. “I learned how to talk to – not at – a jury.”
“If the devil came to Harold and said ‘I need a lawyer,’ Harold would say, ‘Let’s go to court and try your case.’ Harold believed everybody – even the worst of the worst – ought to have a good lawyer.”
Over the course of his career, Bender defended preachers and pornographers, cop killers and sex offenders.
Some of Bender’s highest-profile cases:
• PTL evangelist Bakker was sentenced in 1989 to 45 years in prison and fined $500,000. He’d been convicted of defrauding supporters who gave $158 million in return for promises of free lodging at PTL’s Heritage USA retreat. Bakker cowered under Bender’s office couch during the trial.
“Those of us who do have a religion are sick of being saps for money-grubbing preachers,” U.S. District Judge Robert Potter, who was Catholic, told the hushed courtroom during the sentencing. Bakker’s prison sentence was later reduced to eight years.
• Rick Hendrick was sentenced in 1997 for his role in the bribery and kickback scandal at American Honda Motor Co. He pleaded guilty to mail fraud for sending $20,000 to a Honda executive and was sentenced to 12 months confinement to his home in Charlotte and placed on probation for three years. He also was fined $250,000 and ordered not to have anything to do with his auto dealership empire or his NASCAR racing operations during the home detention. President Bill Clinton pardoned him in 2000.
• Former Monroe police officer Josh Griffin was sentenced in 1998 to life in prison instead of death for kidnapping and brutally murdering Kim Medlin, who disappeared while driving home from her waitress job at The Men’s Club in Charlotte. Her body was found the next day in a field at the end of a deserted cul-de-sac. She had been strangled and her neck was broken.
• Samuel Mahatha was sentenced to life in prison rather than death in 2001 for the murder of Mecklenburg Sheriff’s Capt. Anthony Stancil, who was shot to death outside a grocery story after confronting a shoplifter. Mahatha was accused of trying to steal $11 worth of crab legs. The murder outraged the community and touched off an extraordinary outpouring of public support. Impromptu fund drives and other contributions brought $500,000 for the support of Stancil’s widow and education of his children.
Bender and co-counsel James Wyatt had pleaded with the jurors not to impose the death penalty. They portrayed Mahatha as mentally retarded, with a third-grader’s mind.
Bender’s obituary in the Wilmington Star-News called him “a mentor to a generation of younger lawyers who learned how to practice law by following his example.”
“He was a passionate advocate for his clients and took seriously his vow to defend even those accused of terrible crimes, saying simply ‘in order for the system to work for the best of us, it’s got to work for the worst of us,’ ” the obituary said. “The system requires that lawyers sometimes take on unpopular causes and do the absolute best we can.”
Bender moved to Southport in 2010, where he maintained a small law practice and continued to enjoy mentoring young Brunswick County lawyers, according to his obituary.
Bender is survived by his wife, Nita Robertson; a daughter, Currin Bender of Syracuse, N.Y.; two stepsons, Ford Robertson and wife Ashley of Raleigh, and Bradley Robertson and wife Niki of Bristol, Tenn.; two brothers, Bob Bender and wife Ruth of High Point, and Ralph Bender and wife Sherrie of Houston, Texas; and five grandchildren, Margaret Robertson, Abigail Robertson, Ella Robertson, Grady Robertson and Catherine Robertson.
A memorial service will be held at 2 p.m. Thursday at St. Philip’s Episcopal Church in Southport. The family will receive friends from 6 p.m. to 8 p.m. Wednesday at Peacock-Newnam & White Funeral Service. Observer staff researcher Maria David contributed.