Judge Morison Buck wrote the “Chips Off the Old Bench” column in the Hillsborough County Bar Association’s publication, Lawyer. Judge Buck passed away in 2014; however his biographies of 58 Hillsborough County judges are preserved. They make fascinating reading.1
Perhaps the most interesting is the biography of Harry Lee Coe. The local daily newspapers, The Tampa Tribune and St. Petersburg Times, the morning of July 14, 2000 reported: Hillsborough County State Attorney Harry Lee Coe III was dead of a self-inflicted gunshot wound to the left temple. The life of a well-known, successful, and popular (with most people) figure whose public life spanned three decades was over; but questions remained: Why would a man in seemingly robust health at 68 whose political future appeared secure sacrifice his life?
Judge Coe attended High School in Lakeland, FL. Recognition beyond Lakeland of his talent as a gifted athlete came when he received a combination baseball/basketball scholarship to the University of Florida. His pitching record at University of Florida stood for many years, and he was the first pitcher to be inducted into the UF Sports Hall of Fame. He signed a contract with the Detroit Tigers—the first individual from Lakeland to sign a major league contract; Boog Powell became the second Lakelander to be picked when he signed with the Baltimore Orioles. He pitched in the Detroit Tigers farm system for three years during the spring and summer seasons during the windup of his schooling at Gainesville.
In the late 1950s, while still attending law school at Stetson University, Harry Coe helped pay his way through that program by pitching baseball for the Tampa Tarpons of the Florida State League.
Judge Coe ran the court over which he presided with firm determination to do what he felt was right and just. Contrary to the tag “Hanging Harry” seized upon and played up by the press, he was considered to be fair, particularly dealing with young persons having no significant criminal history. He believed in the familiar doctrine of “a second chance.”
Only Harry knew what prompted him to give up the prestige and security of his judgeship. But he did that in 1992 when, as a Democrat, he challenged the incumbent, widely respected Republican, Bill James. Harry Lee Coe was elected State Attorney.
Harry personally tried the case against Christopher Wilson. After the verdict of guilty in the case, one of the news services released a photo of State Attorney Coe embracing the victim of the crime and his mother. This was one of the most sensational criminal trials in Tampa’s history. Harry made a masterful closing argument, and both defendants were convicted of all charges. Shortly afterward, Judge Coe received a cherished letter from Gregory Peck. In the letter, Peck compares Harry to the famous lawyer from To Kill A Mockingbird:
When I saw this photo in the N.Y. Times, I could not help identifying with you, and thinking that in this case, you have played the role of Atticus Finch in real life, taken on the challenge, and won an important victory for all of us.
Harry Coe’s obsession with gambling in greyhound racing became such a dominate force in his life that in his waning years it is undisputed that he caged money from his subordinate associates to support his pathological problem.
The National Council on Problem Gambling based in Washington, D.C., which maintains a 24-hour toll-free helpline for those needing help or information, reports there is a strong link between suicide and pathological gambling. Las Vegas’ suicide rate is one of the highest in the world.
We will never understand fully why Harry Lee Coe took his life, but we can be grateful that such a fascinating and talented man walked this earth among us.
1 This blog, with some editorial changes, was taken from: Buck, Morrison. “Harry Lee Coe 1932-2000.” Retrieved from: http://digital.lib.usf.edu.