WASHINGTON — The Alabama case seemed hopeless.
It was 1985, and a white federal prosecutor named Jefferson Beauregard Sessions had brought voter fraud charges against three black civil rights leaders in the Deep South.
Defending the trio was a team of NAACP Legal Defense Fund lawyers who didn’t fit in with the local culture — including a 28- year-old, black, Harvard-educated attorney who listed sailing and squash as hobbies. His name was Deval Patrick.
Against all odds, Patrick and the NAACP won that case.
He came away with not only a hard fought victory, but also with an enduring distrust of Sessions, whom he saw as an example of the dangers of overly zealous and unfettered prosecutorial power.
On Tuesday, that feeling played out in a national arena once again, as Patrick sent a sternly worded letter to the Senate Judiciary Committee, recommending against Sessions’ nomination as the US attorney general.
Patrick called the Alabama native “the wrong person to place in charge of our justice system.”
He recounted his experience against Sessions in the 1985 trial, saying the prosecutor should never have pursued the case.
“To use prosecutorial discretion to attempt to criminalize voter assistance is wrong and should be disqualifying for any aspirant to the nation’s highest law enforcement post.”
This is not the first time Patrick has moved to stop Sessions’ nomination to higher office. He did the same in 1986, testifying against Sessions’ nomination for a federal judgeship. Sessions was rejected for the job.
It remains to be seen if Patrick and the Democrats can stop Sessions again. Now a senator from Alabama, Sessions was an early supporter of President-elect Donald Trump and among the very first to be rewarded with a job offer in his administration. He’s also been for two decades a member of the Senate, part of the country’s most exclusive club whose members are loath to turn on one another.
The confirmation hearings have been set for next week, despite several pleas by the Democrats on the committee who want more time to investigate Sessions. The hearing is likely to be one of the most contentious, since Sessions will oversee the implementation of some of Trump’s most controversial proposals, including unconventional positions on torture and racial profiling. The Alabama branch of the NAACP is already protesting by staging a sit-in in the senator’s Mobile office.
At the center of the hearing will be the same civil rights case that played out over three weeks in Alabama and is now three decades old. Sessions has been accused of pursuing the case out of a racial motivation, a charge the senator has denied for years.
Sarah Isgur Flores, a Sessions spokeswoman, said the senator has spent his life upholding the rule of law and brushed off the accusations of racism that surround the 1985 case.
“These false portrayals of Senator Sessions will fail as tired, recycled, hyperbolic charges that have been thoroughly rebuked and discredited,” Flores said.
The 1985 case halted Sessions’ ambitions, at least for a time, and helped propel Patrick’s career.
Patrick would later run the Civil Rights division of the Justice Department, become a two-term governor of Massachusetts, become an ally of President Obama, and be considered as a possible running mate for Hillary Clinton.
Now a managing director at Bain Capital in Boston, he declined multiple requests over several weeks to comment for this story. He also declined the Judiciary Committee’s request to testify against Sessions in person, saying that he will be out of the country during the hearing.
But he wrote about it at length in his 2011 memoir, and, at least from Patrick’s telling, the details of the Perry County case hold cinemalike drama that stands out even three decades later.
They include FBI agents trailing Patrick and the other NAACP lawyers across the state on hot summer nights as they labored to convince reluctant witnesses to cooperate, a “come to Jesus” meeting in a wooden church, an arson that left a defendant’s home in smoldering ashes, and edge-of-the-seat courtroom suspense.
The three accused civil rights leaders included Albert Turner, a man who’d helped organize Martin Luther King Jr.’s 1965 march from Selma to Montgomery and was bludgeoned with King on “Bloody Sunday.”
Employing a then-new strategy to get out the vote, they were aggressively trying to convince black sharecroppers to vote absentee.
The prosecutors, under Sessions, accused the three of altering those absentee ballots cast by elderly black voters.
At one point, according to Patrick, federal prosecutors offered Albert Turner a deal: five years of probation and no jail time, as long as he promised never to do any more political organizing.
He said no.
During the case, Patrick was up against several forces. There was the clubby Southern culture, where Sessions, the prosecutor in the case, would have dinner with the judge in the case during the trial, according to Patrick.
“The whole thing felt too cozy,” Patrick wrote in his 2011 memoir, “A Reason to Believe.”
Sessions, as the chief federal law enforcement official in Alabama, also had the resources of the FBI on his side, and Patrick wrote in his memoir that the prosecutor deployed 50 FBI agents in Perry County to talk to 1,500 black families.
“The agents’ tactics spread fear and intimidation,” Patrick wrote. “For many it recalled the reign of terror they had experienced just 20 years earlier.”
But just as tough were the black people Patrick was trying to fight for. The problem was they didn’t trust him or his team of lawyers.
“It was tough to get people to open up to us,” Patrick wrote. “We were from out of town, unfamiliar in both appearance and dialect.”
Patrick’s client, Spencer Hogue, called a meeting one night. It was in a one-room structure on stilts with just a wood stove for warmth. Hogue wasn’t much of a public speaker. So standing in that room full of the people he was trying to lead, he decided to do something else.
“He closed his eyes and began by singing in a baritone wail,” Patrick wrote. “He started confidently, stomping his foot rhythmically on the rough wooden floor boards and clapping his hands.”
The audience joined in.
“It changed everything,” Patrick wrote. “Word got around. We started to get the information we needed to build our case.”
He described the case as “mean and nasty, marked by angry objections, lengthy bench conferences.”
The jurors came back in a day with their verdict: All of the defendants were not guilty.
“The place erupted with cheers and applause,” Patrick wrote. “One of the spectators yelled ‘Thank you, jury!’”
Sessions emphasized different aspects of the case in his written application to the Senate Judiciary Committee. He noted that a majority African-American grand jury approved the initial federal indictment and said it was the black candidates for office who voiced concern that the election was being stolen by the civil rights leaders.
He also wrote that 25 of the voters that his office interviewed said their ballots had been altered without permission. Sessions also wrote that accusations of witness intimidation were refuted.
The following year, in 1986, President Ronald Reagan appointed Sessions to be a federal judge.
The NAACP was still ready to fight.
Patrick was dispatched to Washington, where he appeared before the Senate Judiciary Committee to tell the tale of Perry County.
He recounted that Sessions allowed his underlings to make insinuations to the jury during the case, writing “WITNESS LYING” on a legal pad the jurors could see, moved the trial about 100 miles away to secure more whites in the jury pool, and continued to press aspects of the case even after the jury acquitted.
“These are some of the issues that arise from my experience litigating against Mr. Sessions and that cause me to question whether he has the temperament, judgment, and fairness appropriate for a federal judge.”
The Senate panel agreed. Sessions’ nomination didn’t go forward.
Patrick never forgot the episode. He wrote in his book that he was inspired by experiences like the Perry County case.
He described it as a moment when “the yearning for social justice was met with some affirmation against the odds.”