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Author Interview: October 2010

Q: Sherry, why did you decide to write the book?

A: I wrote A Matter of Conscience because I wanted people to see who Bobby Hoppe really was…the man behind the mask. It is important to understand the kind of person he was --- a sensitive, caring, and generous man who carried a heavy burden in his heart. A man who lived with a split-second decision that burdened him without end.

Q: What is the book about?

A: Based on real life, our book tells of a football star who, in a moment of panic, killed a man to save his own life and then survived 31 years beneath a smothering cloud of guilt and fear. It’s a tale of a scandalous, abusive affair, a violent moonshine runner, a police force reluctant to tarnish the town’s golden boy, two cold-case detectives willing to build a case on lies and innuendo, and a Baptist preacher who betrays the most sacred trust. The book’s theme of a man coping with his conscience—played in contrasting ways by the guilt-ridden protagonist, the preacher who betrayed his trust, the surprise witness whose testimony is startling and pivotal, and the prosecuting district attorney—is universal and timeless.

Q: Please tell me who Bobby was?

A: My husband, Bobby, was a complex person who lived at the heights and depths of life. He thrived at the top of his high school and college football career, having as much fun and glory as anyone I have ever known. But, he also suffered through two traumatic experiences that bookended his adult life, and those events mercilessly marked him. He lived guilt-ridden for more than 30 years, a dark conscience coloring his personality in ways most people never understood.

More importantly, Bobby was the man I loved beyond measure. For almost 37 years, he was my constant companion and friend. He could make me weak from laughter; he held me tightly when I cried; and he loved me despite my weaknesses.

Q: Can you take me to the night of the shooting, and explain what happened? What Bobby told you?

A: After taking his girlfriend home around midnight on a sweltering July night in Chattanooga, he headed toward home. As he drove down a dark, winding road, a car with its lights out pulled up behind him. At first, Bobby thought it was just a friend trying to scare him, but then the car pulled up beside him and he saw Don Hudson pointing a gun at him before the car dropped back behind him, staying close on his bumper. Afraid for his life, Bobby remembered he had a gun in the back seat and pulled it across to the front, loaded it, and laid it across the window sill, hoping Hudson would see it and back off. But Hudson came around again, trying to run him off the road, pistol still aimed at Bobby’s face. Panicked, Bobby thought he would fire his gun into the air and Hudson, seeing the flash, would let him alone. After the shot sounded, Bobby looked in his rear view mirror and saw Hudson’s car hit a stone wall.

Q: What did he do when he heard that Don Hudson had been killed?

A: Thinking Hudson had lost control and crashed his car after Bobby fired the shotgun, Bobby was devastated when he heard Hudson was dead. He was shattered by the news that he had taken another man’s life. Overwhelmed and shocked, he returned to Auburn the next day and sought spiritual help.

Q: How was Bobby seen by the students and faculty at the time?

A: Because the incident was thought to have been the result of a whiskey runners’ feud, the story didn’t make the news outside Chattanooga. Consequently, very few people at Auburn knew about what had happened. Sentell Harper, Bobby’s roommate and best friend, recalls that Bobby never shared his burden and that he and others knew virtually nothing about it. He does remember, though, that Bobby changed after that summer --- that he became more withdrawn, spending more time off campus.

Q: When did you learn that Bobby shot someone?

A: Just before we became engaged to be married in 1971, Bobby told me about Hudson’s being killed in 1957 and that many people thought he had murdered him. Clearly troubled, he provided a few details about what had happened, but he had a hard time talking about it. I will never forget that after he finished, he looked at me with his steely blue eyes and said, “Sherry, I have never murdered anyone.”

More than 15 years later, his heart aching and apprehensive from the news that the 31-year-old case had been reopened, Bobby brokenly told me the full story of the night Hudson died.

Q: Did it change the way you looked at him?

A: Yes and no. I loved him as much as I did before he told me, and I thought no less of him than I had before. But, it changed how I saw the somber part of his personality, how I viewed his mood swings. What happened on the day he was indicted? How long had it been since that fateful night? Bobby was indicted in March 1988, almost 31 years after he killed Don Hudson. We had heard rumors that the case had been reopened, so Bobby had contacted a local Chattanooga attorney for advice. Through him, Bobby had been assured he would be allowed to turn himself in if an indictment occurred.

Bobby insisted he would turn himself in alone, not wanting me to have to face the media horde he knew would be waiting. Our priest and Bobby’s attorney were with him, offering visible and spiritual support. Handcuffed, Bobby was shoved into the back of a police car with cameras flashing as he was taken from the police service center to the jail building downtown for booking. Several hours later, he fell into my waiting arms again after posting bail and returning home.

Q: What are some of your memories of the trial?

A: Scenes from the trial turn like a kaleidoscope in my mind, distinct fragments with sharp edges casting color and shadows on my memories. I see clearly the primary witnesses whose faces, testimony, and eviscerating cross-examinations are etched in permanent ink --- Joseph Godwin, Odene Neal, Diane Shirley. I recall with more compassion than I felt at the time how fragile and pitiful Hudson’s parents looked. I’ll never forget the smug juror whom I later found out ignored the judge’s instructions and drove down Bell Avenue to make her own assessment of how the crime occurred. And Bobby’s seven hours on the witness stand under constant badgering by the prosecutor will remain a painful memory as long as I live.

Q: What witnesses stand out to you, either negatively or positively?

A: The Rev. Dr. Joseph Godwin will for all time be remembered by me as the man who betrayed Bobby’s sacred trust Odene Neal, a friend of the Hudson family, was both a comical and potentially devastating witness. Diane Shirley, a meek waitress, she came forward timidly but determinedly to refute Odene’s statement that Bobby had threatened to kill Don Hudson.

Q: Tell me a little about Bobby’s attorneys?

A: Bobby Lee Cook, a legendary attorney from Summerville, Ga., and Leroy Phillips, an outstanding Chattanooga attorney, comprised Bobby’s legal team.

Phillips was a hometown lawyer, well-known in local legal circles, and he brought his own brand of defense to the case --- tough and sometimes bullish. Growing up in a blue collar family forced him to earn his way through college standing over a steel furnace, and the experience hardened him to a flinty finish. He could be a tyrant when questioning witnesses. Cook, from a much smaller town but with world-wide experience, had a reputation for backing witnesses into a corner with their own words, often demanding, “Were you lying then or are you lying now?” His appearance --- a gangly, stoop-shouldered man with a white goatee—belied his intellectual quickness and his adroit handling of witnesses. Smooth as silk, his Southern drawl and charm often lulled them into thinking they had a friend until he got them where he wanted them. And then he masterfully gutted and filleted them.

Q: How do you think the judicial system worked in your husband’s case?

A: In a trial, twelve ordinary citizens are expected to put aside their predilections and make a judgment based only on what is heard in the courtroom. I’m disappointed that one juror, a vocal holdout for a conviction, violated the judge’s orders in that regard and no one reported her.

In an ideal ethical world, the prosecution should only present evidence it knows to be true. I’m disappointed that the prosecution in Bobby’s case put witnesses on the stand whom they knew or should have known to be less than truthful. I’m pragmatic enough to know this happens in courtrooms around the world, but it was hard to swallow when my husband’s freedom was at stake.

I always thought judges impartially ruled based on the law. I’m disappointed that the judge in Bobby’s case allowed privileged testimony to be heard even though many legal experts thought it violated state statute and would be fodder for an appeal if Bobby were convicted. I’m also disappointed the judge let the case go forward even though 31 years had passed --- witnesses had died, records had been lost, and memories had faded, making it difficult for both the defense and the prosecution. On the other hand, I can acknowledge, as painful as it was for Bobby and me, that the Hudsons had a right to know who killed their son, to see him go to trial.

Q: Did Bobby change after the verdict? Did he reach a peace?

A: In some ways, the trial served as a catharsis for Bobby. He told the world the shocking secret he had hidden in his heart for 31 years, and he no longer had to fear public disgrace. The humiliation was heart-wrenching, but it was behind him. He thus had less anxiety, but he still carried the deep burden that he had taken another man’s life.

Q: If you could tell the world one thing about Bobby, what would it be?

A: The man the world saw was often not the real Bobby. Behind the mask he wore, Bobby suffered in ways no one grasped. In spite of the yoke he wore, Bobby was a good man who cared deeply about his friends and family --- and passionately about his dogs. He helped students in ways others never knew, and he made a difference in myriad lives.

Q: What do you miss most about him everyday?

A: I should just say “everything” and stop, but I can’t. I miss him too much. I miss his beautiful blue eyes, whether twinkling or somber. I miss his charming and sometimes devilish smile. I miss silly things and serious ones.

What do I miss most about Bobby? Everything.

Q: Would Bobby be happy that his story is finally being told?

A: Bobby had many offers to sell his story after his historic trial ended in 1988, but he always refused, saying he did not want to make money from a tragic event. A couple of weeks before he died, he seemed reluctantly open to the idea of my writing his story. But in his inimitable way, he forewarned me, “Sherry Lee, you need to realize that even if I let you write my story, I may never let you have it published.” Although saddened beyond words that he was not here to bless or hold back the publication of his book, I am at peace with what I have written and hope he would be pleased. I pray that he is glad the whole story has now been told.

Q: Is this your first book?

A: No, I co-authored the biography of a remarkable woman who was a civil rights activist in the ‘60s, and co-edited four books, as well as writing chapters for them, two on spirituality in higher education, one on academic leadership, and one on service learning.

In addition, I have completed a book on grieving the loss of a spouse that will be published in April 2011.

Q: Have you any others you plan to write?

A: Yes, I have begun a biography on Bobby Lee Cook, the legendary attorney who defended my husband’s life at the 1988 trial. I also have underway a book of inspirational stories that I collected over more than 30 years.