Longtime federal Judge Wilbur Owens dead at 80

U.S. District Judge Wilbur D. Owens Jr., who presided over major cases involving corruption in the Macon Police Department, several gambling rings and large-scale drug trafficking, died Wednesday. He was 80.

A graveside service at Riverside Cemetery is set for 1 p.m. Friday.

Owens served on the federal bench in the 70-county district for 35 years before retiring in 2008.

A senior judge since 1995, Owens had been hearing cases until he had emergency surgery in 2007.

Owens heard many notable cases, including the first case in which a sitting U.S. president was called to testify. Then-President Jimmy Carter testified in a 1978 trial by closed-circuit television.

He presided over cases involving school desegregation, civil rights, voting rights and jail abuse.

In the courtroom, Owens was known for his directness. He wouldn’t hesitate to cut off lawyers during a court session and ask questions of witnesses himself if he thought a lawyer had missed something or if a case was dragging.

After learning of Owens’ death Wednesday, U.S. District Judge W. Louis Sands of Albany recalled his days as a prosecutor trying a case before Owens in Macon and how “he and I got off to a good start because I said ‘yes’ at a real important time.”

At what Sands had expected would be an otherwise routine arraignment, a matter over whether some birds had been shot illegally, Owens surprised then-prosecutor Sands by, upon taking into consideration the defendants’ just-entered not-guilty pleas, deciding to hear the case on the spot.

Owens eyed Sands from the bench.

“Mr. District Attorney,” he said, “are you ready to proceed?”

“A little angel told me, ‘Say yes.’ So I said, ‘Yes, your honor,’ ’’ Sands recalled. “He was a tough judge, a very fair judge, but he was definitely in charge and expected lawyers to come to court fully prepared and capable of representing their case. ... I never thought I saw any fairer judge who really was concerned about being fair in a case to all the parties. He was tough, but he was tough on both sides of cases.”

Sands said the wisest counselors before Owens, when they stepped out of line, learned to recognize Owens’ gestures as warning signs and respond to the judge’s reprimands and signals accordingly. If a lawyer goofed again, Owens’ might render a second chiding “a little more forcefully,” Sands said.

For those brave souls who dared risk further censure, Sands said, Owens would remove his glasses and say, “Look, don’t do this.”

“The next step was, he would kind of take the arm of his glasses and kind of allow the glasses to fall back over his hand, holding one of the earpieces in his hand,” Sands said. “Now that was dangerous, because we knew what was coming next. Next time, if he took those glasses off and closed the earpieces down — you could hear them sound out — then someone was going to be in contempt or was going to jail. That was the point of no return.”

Sands said he does his best to emulate the way Owens carried himself at sentencing time for criminal defendants.

“You could tell he was always listening to what was being said to him. On occasion, you could see him thinking inwardly, and you could see maybe a change in the way a sentence might go,” Sands said. “It may be less or more than maybe you anticipated he was thinking because he was actually listening in a present way to what was coming in front of him.”

U.S. District Court Clerk Greg Leonard, who worked for Owens for more than a quarter-century, said Wednesday he enjoyed working for him more than trying cases in front of him.

“He was always just a gentleman to everybody, especially those who worked for him,” Leonard said.

“My recollections are going to Jeneane’s every day for lunch downtown and talking business. ... That’s the only place he’d go eat,” Leonard said. “He loved the pecan pie and banana pudding.”

Leonard recalled Owens as a tough judge who “you could just see mellow over the years.”

Folks often recognized Owens in his later years.

“Everywhere you went, he probably didn’t know these people, but they’d walk by him on the sidewalk, ‘Hey, Judge Owens, how are you?’ ... He’d just smile and say, ‘Hey, how are you?’ and he wouldn’t have a clue who they were, of course,” Leonard said. “But everybody could recognize him because he was of small stature, wore glasses, and he was a very recognizable and very pleasant person.”

When Owens retired, his former law clerks started a scholarship at the University of Georgia law school in his name.

“This is rare,” Leonard said. “Not many law clerks think enough of their judge to get together and do something like that.”

In a 2008 Telegraph profile of Owens, U.S. District Court Judge Clay Land said he viewed Owens as a role model and mentor.

“His advice and counsel have been invaluable,” Land said.

While Owens may have been shown respect because of his position, he maintained that respect because of his temperament, which was always firm but fair, Land said.

“He decided cases based upon the law, without fear or favor for any party,” Land said. “He was a dedicated public servant who made the federal judiciary look good.”

In 2008, U.S. District Court Judge Hugh Lawson described the retiring judge as a true gentleman.

“He was a favorite amongst the staff at the courthouse,” Lawson said. “He liked the staff, and they liked him back.”

In the courtroom, Owens let everyone have their say, he said.

Born in Albany in 1930, Owens graduated from law school at the University of Georgia in 1952 during the Korean War. After graduation, he served in the U.S. Air Force as a prosecuting attorney and staff judge advocate.

He returned to civilian life in 1954 and started work with his father at the Bank of Albany. But he soon found his talents would be better used if he returned to the legal profession.

Owens moved to Macon in 1962 to accept a job as an assistant U.S. attorney, where he worked for three years.

Assigned a case in which the government was suing a railroad over a regulatory dispute, Owens was introduced to Charles Bloch of the law firm Bloch, Hall & Groover.

He soon joined Bloch’s firm where he practiced law until being appointed to the federal bench by President Nixon in 1972.

Information from The Telegraph’s archives was included in this report.