It could happen any time in his courtroom: The judge with the slow Southern drawl, the one they called Preacher Bob, would look down at a defendant and see something that maybe reminded him of himself.
"This court," as Hillsborough Circuit Judge Bob Anderson Mitcham liked to call himself, "knows heartache," and so would begin the story of Butterbean.
Butterbean was his friend from the mean streets of Atlanta. Yes, the judge would say, as a youngster this court had seen the inside of a jail cell, had tasted jail baloney sandwiches, had lain awake at night, afraid.
But unlike the judge, Butterbean did not escape temptation. Butterbean "took the low road," got stabbed and ended up "on a cold, hard slab" in the morgue. By then, the courtroom was usually pretty quiet.
This court, he said, would never forget the day they buried Butterbean, the sound of dirt hitting his coffin. At this, the judge would rap his knuckles on the bench: Thump. Thump. Thump. The place would be silent, the defendant staring up at him.
In a courthouse brimming with colorful characters, Mitcham was one for the books. In fact, after he retired in 2001, he wrote one, Justice from Buttermilk Bottom, about his rise from that rough neighborhood through his legal career.
As a lawyer, he represented alleged mobsters, a judge, a doctor. The first time I saw him, he was arguing the case of a college student accused of killing her newborn. No way would she be acquitted. She was acquitted.
Once, the feds set their sights on him and allegations that he didn't report for tax purposes money a client paid him. Against his lawyers' advice, he went to the grand jury and talked. The case was closed without charges and with this Mitcham quote: "Never have I been more proud to be an American than I am today, because the system does work."
In criminal court Division B, sentences tended to be tough. (Just ask the guy who got life after robbing a Girl Scout of her cookie money.) Sometimes, listening to details of the terrible things that happened in the world, the judge would lift his eyes heavenward and sigh, "We are living in times worse than Sodom and Gomorrah," separation of church and state not always being the main concern in Division B.
He spoke often of his wife Lupe, the woman to whom he would be married for 40 years, and his kids. If Lupe tried to slip in the back of his courtroom to watch proceedings, he might well stop everything to pay attention to her.
Always, his courtroom seemed to get the blockbusters and potential circuses: the incestuous, murderous Sexton clan. Lawrence Singleton, who chopped the arms off a hitchhiker and later murdered a prostitute. Three young friends accused of pulling up a stop sign as a prank, causing the deaths of three young men who drove into the path of a Mack truck. "I shall never forget this case," the judge said at the end.
The hip he broke at age 65 — trying to field a ground ball in a judges-against-bailiffs softball game — led to his retirement. He had surgeries and other health problems. When they talked of such things, he told his wife funeral flowers died in three days — I would rather it go to "God's work, or the Hillsborough Bar."
He died this week at 76, the courthouse less colorful for it.