Hours before showtime, he said the play could go on after ruling male nudity was art

A portrait of longtime Mecklenburg Superior Court Judge Marvin Gray hangs on the sixth floor of the Mecklenburg County Courthouse.
A portrait of longtime Mecklenburg Superior Court Judge Marvin Gray hangs on the sixth floor of the Mecklenburg County Courthouse.

Before he became a Mecklenburg County Superior Court judge, Marvin Gray was a trial lawyer who specialized in insurance cases. In one instance, his persistence in getting his client the best deal possible drove the opposing counsel to distraction, and delayed progress on a possible settlement.

Eventually, the presiding judge, Frank Snepp, ran out of patience. He asked the other attorney if it would it make any difference if the proposed agreement stipulated that “Marvin Gray is an SOB?”

Apparently, it did. In 1986, when Gov. Jim Martin appointed Gray to a seat on the Superior Court, Snepp swore him in. The elder judge used the occasion to laughingly note that Gray was perhaps the only court nominee anywhere “who had been judicially noted to be an SOB.”

Gray died Tuesday. He was 86.

Retired Superior Court Judge Richard Boner, who shared a desk and an office with Gray in the old Mecklenburg courthouse, can’t help but laugh when he tells the story of the swearing-in of his friend and mentor.

But in his 20 years on the bench, Gray handled some of Mecklenburg and North Carolina’s most high-profile cases – serving as a calm and steady arbiter of the law amid the inflamed sentiments of the state’s emerging culture wars as well as making a pivotal ruling that led to murder charges being dropped against Charlotte doctor Edward Friedland in the slaying of his wife.

“Marvin was a lawyer’s lawyer and a judge’s judge,” Boner says. “He was not afraid to make a decision. He heard cases all over the place. I don’t think he ever got angry, but he could give you a look that showed he really meant business.”

Gray was an eastern North Carolina native and a Wake Forest law grad. He was a veteran of the Air Force during the Korean War, which ended his football career at Wake.

Outside the courtroom he smoked a pipe. He was a Civil War buff who liked to read. He pitched in the bar’s softball league.

During trials, he kept a portable law library – in the form of a little black book – in which he routinely scribbled the rulings from other cases that might prove relevant to the matter before him.

Gray paced his trials not for lawyers but out of regard for jurors and the courthouse staff.

“He often used to say that ‘No one built any statues to honor judges who worked courtrooms overtime,’ ” prominent Charlotte defense attorney Jim Cooney recalls. “He knew that jurors who were not worried about childcare and other issues would pay more attention than simply pushing everyone to finish a case a day early.”

Gray never got a statue. But his portrait hangs in Mecklenburg County Courthouse. Given Gray’s role as the courthouse’s legal scholar, Boner recommended a spot on the sixth floor, outside the motions courtroom.

As a judge, Gray also took his time in deciding his opinions – except when speed was at a premium.

In 1996, while the city drew angry lines over the full-male-nudity final scene of the AIDS epic, “Angels In America,” Gray issued a last-minute decision that the play should go on without the threat of arrests on obscenity charges.

In customary fashion, Gray declined to pad his part.

“My decision was based on the law as enunciated by the U.S. Supreme Court in one or more decisions,” Gray said in explaining his order.

While critics decried the ruling as feeding the moral decay of the community, Gray said the law was clear.

“Nudity . . . in the play appears to constitute artistic expression. Such conduct is not properly the subject of criminal prosecution under theories of obscenity and/or indecent exposure,” he wrote.

Ed Hinson, one of the attorneys who defended Charlotte Repertory Theater’s right to show the play, said Gray was a conservative Republican “who one might have expected to line up against us on ideological grounds.”

Instead, Gray was persuaded “that the Constitution was on our side,” Hinson said. “The intellectual integrity and courage displayed by Judge Gray in deciding the case has been an inspiration throughout my ... legal career.”

Around the same time, Gray helped throw out a longstanding city ordinance that banned same sex nudity, even in locker rooms and health clubs. Gray said the law was vague, unconstitutional and intruded on innocuous situations.

In 1995, Gray was on the bench when the prosecution dropped charges against Friedland, who had been charged with the gruesome 1990 slashing death of his wife, Charlotte activist Kim Thomas. The district attorney’s office made the decision after Gray ruled a key piece of prosecution evidence inadmissible.

In 1997, attorney Landis Wade was involved in what at the time was one of the longest civil trials – four months – in state history. Wade lost. But he says he found the judge unflappable, unpretentious and unbiased – with “a solid strike zone when it came to calling balls and strikes.”

Boner says that Gray’s role in so many important cases was not happenstance. State court officials, he says, often sought out his friend for the most complex trials.

As a young lawyer in the mid-1980s, Cooney recalls spending afternoons with Gray in the hallways of the old courthouse listening to the judge tell “war stories” that Cooney credits with teaching him about trying a case.

Gray also could level criticism that bordered on the curmudgeonly. In 1996, he interrupted a proceeding to publicly lecture the associate of a lawyer who had mailed Gray a solicitation after the judge’s car was rear-ended on Randolph Road.

“It certainly doesn’t help the profession,” Gray said. “Tell him please, I do not want any more letters from him. Lawyers ought to get their clients on the basis of their reputations.”

After his retirement in 2000, Gray kept hearing cases as an “emergency” fill-in judge for the state court system. He officially remained on emergency status until May but hadn’t heard in case in several years due to advancing years, Boner says.

Wade says he had lunch with Gray about a year ago and found the retired judge, now in his mid-80s, reflective about his career.

“He told me he really missed the law,” Wade recalled. “He loved being in the courtroom.”

Gray’s funeral will be 11 a.m. Monday at Sardis Presbyterian Church, 6100 Sardis Road, Charlotte.

Researcher Maria David contributed.

Michael Gordon: 704-358-5095, @MikeGordonOBS