Vol. VI, No. 3, Winter 1993


A Modern Country Lawyer

An Interview with Robert S. Wiley



Robert S. Wiley is an attorney practicing in Stone County, Missouri, and has written about the long-time 7th District congressman, the late Dewey Short.

Wiley was interviewed for OzarksWatch in his Crane office by Lise Truex.

OZW: Mr. Wiley, please tell us a little about yourself and about your own law practice in Stone County.

RW: I was born in Hurley, Missouri, in 1942, and went to undergraduate school at Southwest Missouri State and to law school at Washington University in St. Louis. I returned here in 1969 and set up practice, and I've been in practice here ever since. I started in a little office over by the drug store in '69 and built this office in '73. I've practiced pretty much by myself since them, although I have had associates over the years.

OZW: What kinds of cases are you involved in?

RW: I have a general practice. Real estate constitutes a large part of my practice now because of the lake, and because of the fact that I am part owner of an abstract and title company. But divorce work, adoptions and probate are quite common. Estate planning is becoming something that takes quite a bit of our time. Planning for wills or trusts, answering questions about living wills, answering questions about ways to avoid probate. And I've done all kinds of trial practice: criminal, personal injury and all types of other civil trials.

OZW: Are you the only lawyer in Stone County right now?

RW: No, but I'm the only one in Crane. When I came here there were only three other practicing attorneys in the county, and now there are seven or eight in the county. From 1970 through 1973 I was Prosecuting Attorney for Stone County. There has been a lot of change in that office. When I first became prosecutor in 1970, I think the salary was round $4800, and, of course, I was paying my secretaries more than I was being paid. When I ended the office, the pay had increased to about $6000 or so, and I believe now the prosecutor is paid between $25,000 and $30,000.

OZW: Did you do other casework on the side during the period you were the prosecuting attorney?

RW: You had to, because you couldn't have survived otherwise. It was supposed to be a part-time job, but to really do justice to the job, you needed to spend most of every day down there. And the workload and the role of the county prosecutor's office has increased tremendously since then. It's pretty much a full-time job for them, although they can do practice on the side.

OZW: Did you find you got more clients because your reputation was enhanced by having been the prosecuting attorney?

RW: Well, it helps to be prosecuting attorney. A lot of people go to someone because he is prosecuting attorney; however, I've had more than I could do from almost the start. There's enough for everybody to do, and this would be a good place for a young attorney who wants to come in and get established. There's plenty to do in a small county.

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OZW: Historically, has there been a lot of pressure on rural lawyers to run for elected office like prosecuting attorney?

RW: By the time I had come to practice it was almost an obligation that you had to take. Nobody really wanted the prosecutor's job at that time because of the low pay and the duties, you know, the obligations. So each lawyer in the county was kind

of expected to take a turn at it every now and then. OZW: As sort of a service to the community? RW: Yes. Prior to that, back in the '20s, say, and '30s, I think there was some advantage to being prosecutor, because it did enhance your business back then. But now there seem to be enough people willing to take the job without having to take a turn at it, because it does pay more.

OZW: Is the role of the country lawyer changing?

RW: Well, I think the country lawyer is, perhaps, a dying breed, or at least his race has thinned down some, because the country lawyer back then did about what I do now and what Emory Melton and Joe Ellis and others around do. You're here for the people to do basically about anything that you can for them. You just get people coming in for this and that and for things that you don't really even charge them for.

OZW: So you find that a lot of people just come to you for advice?

RW: Oh, yes.

OZW: So you're really like a neighbor and a friend as well as a lawyer?

RW: Yes, you really are.

OZW: In an earlier period was it common for rural lawyers in the Ozarks to run for political office or seek judgeships?

RW: Yes, or to serve in the state legislature.

OZW: Is it as common now for lawyers to run for the state legislature?

RW: No, I don't believe it is. It is uncommon for them to run for the legislature. The state legislature takes more time now, I'm sure, than it did then.

OZW: Are there many women practicing law in rural areas?

RW: More and more.

OZW: Are there some in Stone County?

RW: There are none in Stone County yet. It's just a matter of time, I'm sure, 'til there will be. But there are women lawyers in some rural counties. In Taney County, for example. That's something that has increased tremendously in the twenty-three years I've been in practice. There is no reason now why a woman lawyer can't come to a small town, and they would have plenty of business.

OZW: "Boss" Greene was a magistrate judge in Shannon County. In the 1978 movie Shannon County: Home he said, "A city lawyer's got no business trying a case in the country, and a country lawyer's got no business trying a case in the city. They don't speak the same language somehow." Do you think that is true?

RW: Well, I'm sure it was true back then. To some extent it's still true and may always be true. I had an unfortunate experience as a younger lawyer in traveling a distance to try a case before a local magistrate. You learn very quickly that you generally don't do that. That's even if you're a country lawyer going to another rural county, because in the old days, especially, it helped if you were local and if you knew the judge. Not that there was anything dishonest going on, but the judges tended in those days to tend to their own people, of course. It's less true now, I think, in the rural counties. We have some excellent judges in this circuit, and I think anybody whether they're from city or county can get a fair hearing here. And the same would be true up in Springfield in Greene County.

OZW: Do rural attorney's have the luxury of picking and choosing cases?

RW: Well, when you're in a small town, you always don't have that luxury, no. Although as time goes on you get to where you turn down a lot of cases that when you were young you probably would not have. But still you're thrust into situations that involve friends or neighbors or family that you are obligated to become involved in whether you want to or not.

OZW: Are most small town lawyers in the Missouri Ozarks born and raised here?

RW: I was raised just six miles from here. And that used to be the case. Anymore that's not the case, because in thinking of the lawyers who are here in Stone County, of the seven or eight lawyers here, I guess there are only two of us who were born here in the county.

OZW: What kind of family backgrounds did rural attorneys come from in earlier times? Were their fathers lawyers or were their fathers farmers?

RW: Just a little bit of everything. There were a lot of lawyers whose fathers would have been lawyers, but there were a lot of the people who could go to the mail-order college or the short-course college, and so people of very humble origins could become attorneys back in the old days. And did.

OZW: Could you tell me something about court week?

RW: What I know about that is what I've read and what I've heard. But they did have terms of court, and usually there were only two terms a year back then. The judge had his circuit which would include anywhere from three to five counties and he would go there and stay for two or three weeks, if need be, until all the cases were tried. In those days, as I understand it, they tried more cases than they do now. Ifa person was charged with a criminal offense-- I'm sure they had plea bargaining like they do now -- but it was more common for a defendant to take his chances with the jury.

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OZW: How was the jury selected? Did they just pick them off of the street?

RW: Well, I'm sure they did, although there was a procedure for it whereby they were supposed to select them at random. But you hear stories of people just being called from the courthouse lawn or wherever to serve on the jury.

OZW: Do you know of any criminal cases of notoriety in the Ozarks?

RW: Well, the most notorious one here in Stone County was the trial of Red Jackson. There must have been a change of venue, because I think he committed the crime over in Taney County. He was charged with murder.

OZW: Didn't he murder a salesman?

RW: Yes. He was convicted of murder, and he was hung down here on the courthouse lawn in 1937. I believe that was the last hanging in Missouri. A neighbor of mine who was married to my cousin and who just died a few years ago, was on that jury.

OZW: Do you know of cases where prosecuting

attorneys would refuse to take unpopular cases to court just because it was a case against someone who was popular in town or someone who was relatively well off?.

RW: That's not been a problem in my time. I do know in those days a family could hire an attorney to help prosecute someone, the family of the victim, for example. And that was done. It can't be done now, it's forbidden. I think the practice was discontinued about the time I started in law practice.

OZW: One last question. What would have been the most common type of case tried in this area before World War II?

RW: I think then trying criminal cases was very common. I know if you look at the records down here back during the days of prohibition and there were a number of cases that were tried before a jury where somebody was charged with making or possessing liquor illegally. Back then divorce was not as common as it is now, but if there was a divorce it was usually a bang-up case, because you had to prove certain grounds back then to get a divorce.

OZW: Divorce cases weren't as common back then.

RW: No. Now it's become, unfortunately, too common.

[Interview by Lise Truex. Transcription by Mary Ellen Suits.]

In 1889 near this spot three Christian County men, members or a vigilante and terrorist band known as the Baldknobbers, were hanged for murder. The county was deeply divided then, and has remained unquiet to the present, over the question of guilt and innocence.

The legend on the wooden plaque implies this ambivalence, saying simply that those executed "were accused of wrong doing and were hanged." It does not say they were convicted of murder.

The Christian County Baldknobbers took the same name as the better-known organization in neighboring Taney County; but they were a quite different group.

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