Long-time Chattanooga defense attorney Leroy Phillips died early Thursday morning after a long battle with illness.
He was 76 years old.
Phillips, who retired from the firm of Phillips & Caputo in 2005, was a fixture in Hamilton County courtrooms for more than 40 years.
“He could be a real bulldog in the courtroom,” said attorney Mike Caputo, who partnered with Phillips for close to 20 years. “He wasn’t afraid to champion unpopular matters. He was always very interested in civil rights and social justice.”
The depiction of an aggressive attorney passionate about defending the accused was echoed by former Chattanooga Times reporter Mark Curriden. He and Phillips wrote the book “Contempt of Court,” based on the 1906 lynching of Ed Johnson on the Walnut Street Bridge.
“Leroy was Atticus Finch come to life,” Curriden said, referring to the fictional lawyer in the novel “To Kill a Mockingbird.”
“He proudly represented the poor, the accused, the outcast of society. Leroy took on cases and clients that no other lawyer would touch.”
Some of the most controversial cases Phillips successfully defended in the 1980s included one in which two young black defendants were accused of killing a white couple; another in which an alleged leader of the Ku Klux Klan was accused of threatening behavior; and one involving the owner of an adult bookstore, said Curriden.
“Leroy told me the three cases had two things in common: He received several death threats involving all three cases, and none of his clients in the three cases could afford to pay him any money,” Curriden noted.