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Judge Stevens known for life on the bench

Posted: Sunday, May 19, 2002

A piece of McDuffie County history was buried Tuesday when Judge Robert L. Stevens Sr. was laid to rest.

Judge Stevens, who died Sunday, was the retired senior judge of the Superior Court of Toombs Circuit, after serving on the bench for over 32 years. He was the senior judge in Georgia before he retired in 1996 and a lifelong resident of McDuffie County.

"The thing that stuck me about Judge Stevens was the image the public had of him was this super-tough, strong individual. That was true. He was as tough a judge as there ever has been," said Toombs Judicial Circuit District Attorney Dennis Sanders who has known Judge Stevens since 1973

"But as I got to know him and get close to him, there was a soft side of him that his friends and loved ones knew. He genuinely loved people. He would show compassion in some cases, but could hammer you in other cases."

Born on April 2, 1919, Judge Stevens was destined to follow in his father's footsteps. His father B.J. Stevens graduated from Cumberland University in Lebanon, Tenn. on July 4, 1910.

"After daddy got on into school, Granddaddy said one day, 'If you're going to be my law partner one day, you've got to learn to deal with the public. I've got you a job at Roger's Store, and you're going to work tomorrow,"' said Judge Stevens' son, Robert L. Stevens Jr.

"Roger's Store was on Main Street where the Dollar General is now. He went to work down there a barefoot school boy in the summer time."

Judge Stevens attended pre-law at Mercer University in Macon and obtained his law degree from Cumberland 1939. He began practicing with his father in 1939 until his father's death in 1963.

After practicing before Judge Earl Norman, he decided to run against him in 1964 and beat him in the fall election. Judge Stevens served eight terms and was only challenged one time.

"He was a tough judge, he did what was right and proper and when he made a decision he never looked back," his son said. "He always said that's the reason he stayed in office as long as he did. He always went by the law and what the law dictated."

Judge Stevens has presided over many infamous murder trials, including:

Jose Martinez High who murdered 11-year-old Bonnie Bulloch in Taliaferro County in 1976

The case of Robert Foster Wilson who murdered clerk Tracie Deaton at White Columns Inn in Thomson in 1990

The case of Johnny D. Jones who murdered Randy Reeves in Lincoln County in 1988

The mass murder case of Hill Rivers who slayed five people over the July 4 weekend in 1981

the case of teen-ager Eric Poole who murdered his step-father, mother and six-year-old sister in their McDuffie County trailer in 1987.

Judge Stevens was as known for the sentences he handed out - 10 days for a man who shoplifted a Nutty Buddy - as he was for his style on the bench, Sanders said.

He often used his position to council defendants in an attempt to bring "Peace in the Valley." Sanders said he was as much a marriage and family counselor as he was a judge.

"He was very unorthodox," Sanders said. "I have seen him do things like tell them to turn around and smile at each other or shake hands. He tried to remove the anger between them."

Judge Stevens was also an Army veteran of WWII, serving in the Burma, China and India Theater.

Judge Stevens, 83, was a member of Thomson First United Methodist Church.

Survivors include his wife, Margaret Stevens, Thomson; his daughter, Jane Chalker, Thomson; his son, Robert L. Stevens Jr., Thomson; four grandchildren, Traci C. Conner, Robert L. Stevens III, Steve Chalker, and Traylee Chalker; and one great grandchild, Hannah Chalker.

Graveside services were held Tuesday in the Westview Cemetery with Rev. Robert Gillespie officiating. Honorary pallbearers were members of the Toombs Circuit Bar Association and local law enforcement officers.

"It was never dull with him on the bench," Sanders said. "That's what made him such an interesting character. One time he said, 'I really love the world,' and I really think he did."


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