Local Obituaries

Lester Burns Jr., high-profile defense attorney before going to prison, dies at 84

Attorney Lester Burns Jr. in his Somerset Ky law office, December 30, 1982. Lester Burns Jr., a one-time candidate for governor and one of the stateÕs most colorful, best-known defense attorneys before going to federal prison in a fraud case, died Tuesday July 7, 2015. Photo by Charles Bertram | Staff
Attorney Lester Burns Jr. in his Somerset Ky law office, December 30, 1982. Lester Burns Jr., a one-time candidate for governor and one of the stateÕs most colorful, best-known defense attorneys before going to federal prison in a fraud case, died Tuesday July 7, 2015. Photo by Charles Bertram | Staff

Lester H. Burns Jr., a one-time candidate for governor and one of Kentucky's most colorful, best-known defense attorneys before going to federal prison in the 1980s, has died.

Burns, who was 84, died Monday, according to Porter & Son Funeral Directors in Campton.

Burns had Parkinson's disease but died of cancer, said Prestonsburg attorney Ned Pillersdorf, a friend of Burns.

Burns, a native of Clay County, had lived much of his life in Pulaski County but moved to Wolfe County more than 10 years ago.

Burns started his career as a state police trooper in the 1950s, working full time while also going to law school at the University of Kentucky.

He was among the first attorneys in the state to handle a large number of coal miners' black-lung disability claims, then was a prosecutor in the 1970s before becoming a defense attorney.

Burns' high-profile clients included William "Okie" Bevins, who killed five people at the Mountain Truck Parts store in Floyd County in 1981, and former Harlan County Sheriff Paul L. Browning Jr., convicted in 1982 of plotting to kill political foes.

Burns argued for clients emotionally and forcefully and could be flamboyant — pleading on his knees, invoking Scripture and, in at least one much talked-about case, wrapping himself in the American flag.

He told an interviewer in 1983 that when he represented a woman charged with shooting at police, he held her infant child during his closing argument to gain sympathy for her.

Burns said he planned to pinch the baby so it would cry, but the baby burst into tears on its own and he placed it in the mother's arms.

"He was bombastic. He was outrageous," said Curt Davis, a lawyer in Somerset who was Burns' partner in the early 1980s. "From the minute he walked through the door, he dominated the courtroom."

Burns was rakish and flashy, bragging about the high fees he commanded.

He traveled the state in the early 1980s in a $250,000 motor home that was stocked with an arsenal of guns and could blare music outside, including singer Willie Nelson's On the Road Again. Burns employed bodyguards and was partial to gold and diamond rings and expensive cowboy boots made from exotic materials such as ostrich skin.

But Burns had substance to back up the show, Davis said.

"Lester knew the law," Davis said. "Underneath, he knew what he was doing when it came to the legal end of things."

Pillersdorf said Burns had a brilliant legal mind.

Burns ran unsuccessfully for attorney general as a Republican in the late 1960s. He entered the race for the GOP nomination for governor in 1983, but pulled out.

His high-profile career crashed because of an investigation of public corruption in Eastern Kentucky in the mid-1980s.

Burns was charged with trying to defraud insurance companies of $1.1 million by handling a lawsuit based on a phony traffic accident.

More than a dozen other people, including several public officials, were charged in the wide-ranging case.

Burns also was indicted in a separate case for helping transport $175,000 of the $1.9 million stolen from Letcher County physician R.J. Acker in 1985 during the murder of Acker's daughter, Tammy.

Burns represented Roger Epperson, one of three men charged in the murder and robbery.

Burns pleaded guilty in the cases and was sentenced to eight years in prison in March 1987, though a judge later cut the sentence by a year.

"I messed up, didn't I?" Burns ruefully told reporters the day he was sentenced.

Burns said he became involved in the crimes because his judgment was clouded by pain from an arthritic hip, an addiction to alcohol and painkillers, and loyalty to a friend who was having financial trouble.

It turned out the friend was cooperating with the FBI.

Attorneys who knew Burns testified at the time that his legal abilities began to slip in the early 1980s after he apparently developed an alcohol problem.

Burns served 32 months before being released in 1990.

He emerged typically unbowed, telling the Herald-Leader that it was difficult to be away from his family, but he had lost 90 pounds and had time to clear his head.

"It hasn't destroyed me because I developed a positive attitude," Burns said. "Prison, if one will, gives you time to do a lot of thinking, a lot of studying, and if you need to, to readjust your priorities in life.

"I feel that I needed to readjust mine. Some of the bums that I ran with, they need not knock on my door," Burns said.

He also hadn't lost his sense of humor. Burns was on a work-release program at a friend's farm at the time, and joked about mucking out a horse stable.

"Now that sounds like practicing law," he said with a grin.

Burns said then that he planned to get back his law license, and attended continuing education classes to lay the groundwork for that.

Burns wanted to do free legal work and help young lawyers if he was reinstated, said Patrick O'Neill, an attorney in Jackson who represented Burns before the bar in 2009.

"He just felt like he wasn't whole without his license," O'Neill said.

But the Kentucky Bar Association refused to reinstate Burns, saying he had failed to convince a committee that he was "worthy of public trust and confidence and that he possesses the good moral character" required to get back his license.

Burns remained in demand, said Pillersdorf.

"He was such a legendary figure people were always calling him up for legal advice," Pillersdorf said.

The two were once enemies, but became friends after Burns moved to Wolfe County. Burns referred several clients to him, Pillersdorf said.

Pillersdorf said that in recent years, Burns had given thousands of dollars to the David School, a private Floyd County school that helps students who struggled at larger public schools. Pillersdorf chairs the school's board.

Burns is survived by his wife, Eula Nickell Burns; a stepdaughter and stepson; and two daughters from his first marriage.

Visitation for Burns is scheduled to begin at 6 p.m. Saturday at Porter & Son Funeral Directors in Campton, with the funeral Sunday at 2 p.m. at the same location.

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