Decatur attorney wins against death
Mays honored for work on capital murder trials

By Sheryl Marsh
DAILY Staff Writer · 340-2437

He never patterned himself after TV's great defense lawyer Perry Mason, and he certainly never attempted any of the dramatics in the courtroom performed by the witty Ben Matlock.

John Mays won a lifetime achievement award as a defense attorney. 
The driving force behind John Edmond Mays' success in trying capital murder cases is the death penalty. 

"I absolutely, positively hate the death penalty. I've always opposed it for anybody, for any reason," he said. "I never paid any attention to TV lawyers because I knew that wasn't the real world." 

Mays, who defends many of the capital murder cases in Morgan County, received the Roderick Beddow Sr. lifetime achievement award recently from the Alabama Criminal Defense Lawyers Association. 

The award honors Mays mainly for his winning record in capital cases and for his devotion to criminal law. 

"This is the biggest award that our association gives, and I can certainly think of nobody more deserving," said Bruce Gardner, immediate past president of the association. "We consider a variety of things, including significant performance in the defense of criminal cases, particularly in capital cases. It's just not something because a person has had a great year. It is for the person's lifetime dedication to criminal defense." 

Of 20 capital murder trials in which Mays represented defendants, only three resulted in capital murder convictions. 

"The others were either acquittals or the clients were found guilty of charges less than capital murder," said Mays. "None of the three clients who were convicted were sentenced to die by a jury, but by judge overrides." 

Mays' most recent win was last year when he was co-counsel on the case of Brian Jones, a Trinity man whom police accused of beating a child to death. A jury acquitted Jones of the capital charges. 

Born in Richmond, Va., Mays, 55, grew up in Pikeville, Ky., and his initial interest in the field of law came from inspiration on the front porch. 

"Two doors down from my house was a lawyer named John Hatcher, who represented Randall McCoy, who had been involved in the Hatfields and McCoys feuding. The Hatfields were from West Virginia and the McCoys lived in my home county, Pike," Mays said. "I used to go visit Mr. Hatcher every evening after supper and have a cigar with him on his front porch. I used to love to talk to him about history, and that's when I first became interested in law." 

Mays went to military academies through high school and college. He joined the U.S. Army, and when he got out in 1973 he enrolled at Birmingham School of Law. He graduated in 1976. In addition, he received a master's degree from the University of Virginia School of Law. He also is a graduate of National Criminal Defense College at Mercer University law school. 

He was a judge advocate general in the National Guard for 17 years. 

He moved in 1977 to Decatur, where he has maintained a law practice. In addition, he is lead trial attorney for Birmingham attorney Richard Jaffe, who is representing alleged bomber Eric Rudolph. 

Mays' colleagues speak well of his career. 

"He has tried a lot of capital cases, and he doesn't take the easy ones where you're guaranteed to win," said attorney Brian White. "He doesn't select them based on whether they're going to be a cakewalk. He selects them because the defendants need help. In capital cases sometimes the win is they're convicted, but you're able to save their life." 

Morgan County Circuit Judge Steve Haddock said Mays has given much to criminal defense. 

"John has devoted a lot of time and energy to efforts to improve criminal defense practice throughout the state," said Haddock. "He has probably been involved in more capital murder cases than anyone else I know. He deserves the award." 

Mays has penned five books, which, Gardner said, other lawyers use for help in defending cases. 

The books are "Defending Death Penalty Cases in Alabama," "Defending Child Sex Abuse Cases in Alabama," "Defending Domestic Cases in Alabama/Crimes against the Family," "Drug Condemnations and Forfeitures in Alabama" and "Use of Computers in Criminal Trials." 

"Roderick Beddow Sr. was the greatest attorney Alabama ever produced, and to be granted this award is humbling," Mays said. 

He attributes his wins to his defense team - Gary Fox, a private investigator, retired from the Alabama Bureau of Investigation and a former state trooper; and John Taylor, his law partner - and his work ethic. 

"The only secret there is to winning criminal trials is not what is done in the courtroom, but what is done in preparation," Mays said. "You have to go over all the evidence and facts many times over before trial because you can never tell the jury that you intend to prove something that you don't prove." 

"The other part of the secret is never try to trick a jury because if they ever lose confidence in your case, you no longer have credibility with them."