An Alabama lawyer was embroiled in his own contentious divorce case at the time he was murdered three weeks ago.
Robert Blake Lazenby, in fact, was involved in several hot-button legal cases when he died from multiple gunshot wounds. Did one of those cases contribute to his death? A review of public documents indicates the answer probably is yes.
The divorce case jumps out because records hint that at least two state judges were ruling in a biased fashion, favoring a lawyer over his wife--and multiple other lawyers had to know about it. That raises this question: Did our state's corrupt legal cartel finally push the wrong person too far, leading to the violent death of a party in a lawsuit? We would not be surprised if the answer is yes.
If our guess is on target, which case might have sparked deadly emotions? That remains unclear, but this much seems clear: Someone was very unhappy with Blake Lazenby--and Lazenby's life was not nearly as tidy as his legal colleagues would have you believe.
Lazenby, 54, was a partner in Thornton, Carpenter, O'Brien, Lazenby and Lawrence, one of the most prestigious firms in Talladega. A Web search indicates its a general-practice firm, with a focus on Real Estate, Probate, Trusts and Estates, Corporate, Banking, Municipal Law, Personal Injury, Insurance Law, Workers Compensation, Family Law, Employment Law, Medical Malpractice Defense, and Products Liability.
A prominent figure on the statewide legal scene, Lazenby had been a member of the Alabama State Bar's Board of Bar Commissioners in the 1990s. He joined the bar's disciplinary commission in 2000 and served as its chairman in 2003.
The Lazenbys had one child, a daughter named Madeline, and it appears that custody was not a major issue in the divorce case. Blake Lazenby's obituary lists his mother and daughter as survivors, with no mention of his wife--even though the divorce was not final.
The Lazenby murder case began to unfold on July 27 when law-enforcement officials discovered a burning vehicle in Tarrant, a working-class suburb of Birmingham. Tarrant authorities ran a check on the vehicle's license number and then contacted the police department in Sylacauga, where Lazenby lived. Officers went to Lazenby's home and found his body in the dining room. From the Talladega Daily Home:
Talladega County Coroner Shaddix Murphy said he received a call around 11:15 p.m. (on July 27). He arrived at the scene and pronounced Lazenby dead at approximately 11:45 p.m.
Murphy said multiple gunshot wounds appeared to be the cause of death. He also said it appeared the weapon used was a handgun, which was not found at the scene. . . .
Lazenby was reportedly last seen dropping off friends in Alexander City around 4 p.m., and then at a gas station on Alabama 21 in Sylacauga around 5:30 p.m.
Murphy said they found Lazenby in his dining room, wearing a suit and tie. No one else was home when he was found.
The Talladega newspaper reported six days ago that an investigation is ongoing and no new details have been released.
Friends and professional colleagues described Lazenby as a nice guy and top-notch lawyer:
Mike O’Brien, who worked alongside Lazenby for 30 years, described him as a great person and attorney. He said Lazenby was probably the nicest person he had ever met.
“If you needed anything, and he could help you with it, then he would do it for you,” O’Brien said. “Our profession is such an adversarial profession at times; it is just the nature of the business. But even in those situations, he was always nice to the opposing parties and a gentleman.”
Public documents, however, show that Lazenby's life had an element of disarray. He had about 10 speeding tickets on his record and twice was arrested for driving under the influence and driving with an open container. At the time of his death, Lazenby's most recent DUI was due to be heard in court on August 2.
Lazenby was serving as lead counsel for the City of Sylacauga in a lawsuit against REEF Environmental LLC. The complaint alleges that foul-smelling emissions are coming from the company's wastewater treatment facility.
Perhaps the most contentious and personal matter on Lazenby's plate, however, was a divorce case filed by his wife, Geanne Elder Lazenby. The complaint is dated October 24, 2008, and public records indicate the case had become rancorous in recent months.
At least four judges had been involved in the matter, and Geanne Lazenby had gone through a "Who's Who" of divorce lawyers from the Birmingham area. Plaintiffs' lawyers at various times included Mavanee Bear, Charles Gorham, Bruce Gordon, Gregory Yaghmi, and Kristel N. Reed. Documents indicate that several of Geanne Lazenby's lawyers quit or were fired. I've had experience with that kind of thing, and while it can be a sign of a difficult client, it also can mean the client is tough and smart enough to know she is being screwed--and the lawyers are unable, or unwilling, to fight the legal cartel.
Blake Lazenby, the defendant, also was pulling out the heavy artillery, including his law partner William W. Lawrence and A. Joe Peddy, of the Birmingham firm Smith Spires and Peddy. The Smith firm's Web site indicates it does not practice family law, and Peddy's individual page does not list divorce cases among his areas of interest. Why, then, was Peddy involved in the Lazenby case?
Based on our research, it is standard practice for a judge to recuse himself from a divorce case involving a lawyer who regularly appears before the court. It's clear that Blake Lazenby regularly appeared before the Talladega County Court, and his firm practices family law, presumably before Talladega judges. That means lawyers from Lazenby's firms routinely were before local judges on divorce matters. One can see why Geanne Elder Lazenby was concerned about receiving fair treatment in court.
District Judge Jeb Fannin almost certainly was required by law to step down from the Lazenby case. So why did he not do it? In 2011 alone, lawyers for Geanne Lazenby had filed two motions to recuse. Fannin, however, remained on the case at the time of Blake Lazenby's death.
What exactly was going on in Lazenby v. Lazenby over recent months? We will examine that question closely in upcoming posts. But a few key issues are clear:
* Settlement Dispute--Blake Lazenby was trying to enforce a settlement agreement that his wife claimed was invalid.
* Subpoena Power--Blake Lazenby's attorneys, specifically A. Joe Peddy, filed subpoenas seeking documents that seemed only tangential, at best, to issues in the divorce case. One of the subpoenas sought information about an individual who, on paper, appeared to have nothing to do with divorce matters. What was the purpose of these subpoenas?
* Recusal Rift--This was a dominant theme in the case. Based on the facts and law in the case, Judge Fannin almost certainly should have recused himself without being asked. Multiple lawyers for the plaintiff filed motions asking Fannin to step down and ask the Alabama Supreme Court to appoint a judge from outside Talladega County.
The Lazenby v. Lazenby file is filled with examples of curious timing. Consider this one: One of Fannin's most recent rulings involved three plaintiff motions, including a motion to recuse. Fannin denied all three motions, indicating that he intended to stay on the case for the foreseeable future--no matter what recusal law says.
Fannin's order was dated July 21, 2011. Six days later, Blake Lazenby was found dead.
(To be continued)
Below is a recusal motion filed by one of Geanne Lazenby's attorneys in January of this year.
Blake Lazenby Case--Motion to Recuse