Book Review – A Matter of Conscience by Sherry Lee Hoppe

  • A Matter of Conscience
  • by Sherry Lee Hoppe with Dennie B. Burke
  • Publisher – Wakestone Press
  • Copyright 2010
  • 343 pages

Rating – 8/ 10

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Summary – Bobby Hoppe starred for the Auburn Tigers’ 1957 national championship football team. Just before that season, in July 1957, Hoppe was involved in a shooting in Chattanooga, Tennessee. Thirty-one years later, in 1988, Hoppe went on trial for first-degree murder in the case. In 2010, Bobby’s widow, Sherry, published A Matter of Conscience, her account of the case. The book is very good, but it leaves as many questions as it answers.

Review – Growing up in Auburn, Alabama, I used to enjoy going to the old McDonald’s on Opelika Road. It was just a McDonald’s, but in the dining area they had a bulletin board. Orange and blue are Auburn University’s school colors. The bulletin board’s background was dark blue. On the board, were ten orange footballs; each football had the name of one of Auburn’s opponents in the 1957 football season and the score of the game. Auburn had beaten all ten of those opponents and – the top of the board announced in orange letters – been crowned national champions.

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Football has always been huge in Auburn. Auburn football players and coaches are close to local royalty. Teams came and went, but the 1957 team remained special, because Auburn would not be #1 again until 2010.  (When we moved to Auburn in 1977, we lived next door to an Auburn assistant coach. To me, it sounded like he had a glamorous job – until Head Coach Doug Barfield and all of his assistants were fired after the 1980 season).

Back during the late 1980s, when I was a teenager, I heard that one of the members of the 1957 team had been accused of murder. I never got the details, but people whispered about what they heard. Sherry Hoppe’s book, A Matter of Conscience recounts that amazing case.

Bobby Hoppe

Bobby Hoppe was a star athlete in high school in Chattanooga, Tennessee. He was talented enough to earn a football scholarship to Auburn University. At Auburn, he continued to do well, and he would eventually be drafted by the NFL’s San Francisco 49ers.

Between Hoppe’s junior and senior years at Auburn, he went home to Chattanooga one weekend in July. Hoppe’s older sister, Joan, had become involved with a local bootlegger and ne’er do well named Donald Hudson – much the Hoppe family’s chagrin. On the night of July 20-21, 1957, Hudson and Bobby Hoppe were riding around in their cars. By sunrise, Hudson was dead from a shotgun blast.

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Bobby Hoppe is #20

The Case

And then, nothing happened in the case, at least on the surface. Hudson had been a very-rough character and he had many enemies who were also violent criminals. Sherry Hoppe describes Hudson’s misdeeds –

…Hudson kidnapped a black man and had a friend hold him at gunpoint while Hudson beat him to a bloody pulp, leaving him by the side of the road to die. It was said all three were moonshine-runners. And there were stories about Hudson losing fingers in a drive-by shooting. A hit-and-run accident where Hudson left behind his car, loaded with whiskey. Stories of Hudson, a spotlight on his car, chasing other bootleggers – making them think he was the police and then stealing their load of liquor. (P. 194).

For his part, Bobby returned to Auburn and helped the Tigers win the national championship. After a brief stay in the pros, he returned to graduate from Auburn and then became a successful coach. Along the way, he married Sherry and they adopted a son.

Though the case went cold, it was never 100% quiet. Instead, it always nipped at Bobby’s heels. After the shooting, there was a coroner’s inquest. But nothing came of it. In 1966, a North Carolina minister (Joseph Godwin) contacted Chattanooga authorities and told them that Bobby had confessed that he’d shot Hudson when Godwin was serving at First Baptist Church in Auburn in 1957. A grand jury heard the evidence, but declined to indict Hoppe.

Eventually, in the 1980s, Chattanooga authorities found additional witnesses and obtained an indictment against Hoppe. For his 1988 trial, Hoppe retained a local attorney named Leroy Phillips and Georgia’s Bobby Lee Cook. Cook was famous in legal circles for his many high-profile cases and for serving – in part – as the model for TV’s Matlock.

Sherry’s Side of the Story

The best thing about it is A Matter of Conscience is that it’s a compelling story – you want to read it. There are so many hooks in the story – big-time athletics, bootlegging, a cold case, Bobby Lee Cook, etc. – that the pages turn with ease.

As Bobby’s wife, Sherry Lee Hoppe was privy to his thoughts and to the thinking of the defense attorneys. However, this strength is also a weakness. When you read A Matter of Conscience you are getting one view of the case. Though the book was written years after the verdict (and after Bobby’s death), Sherry could not take a step back from the emotions surrounding the case. (If I were in her shoes, I doubt that I could have done so, either).

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Sherry Hoppe with Bobby’s letterman’s jacket from Auburn.

Sherry tends to demonize everyone who opposed Bobby. The book is particularly hard on prosecutor Mike Evans. She goes so far as to state that the authorities in Chattanooga have a reputation for railroading innocent people. Sherry’s assertions aren’t entirely convincing, given that Bobby admitted during the trial that he’d shot Hudson. (And, of course, the police take a dim view of people who shoot and kill other people).

The biases in Sherry perspective are apparent in her account Reverend Joseph Godwin’s testimony. She convincingly argues that Godwin was odious for revealing Bobby’s confession. Yet, she ignores the fact that Bobby’s defense had no way of countering the main problem presented by the testimony – Bobby admitted the shooting.

At one point, Sherry comes quite close to suggesting that Hudson deserved killing:

In 2008, the priest offered a confession: In 1957 no one wanted to arrest Bobby Hoppe. Perhaps it was due to vestiges of old common law that said if a man deserved killing and the person who killed him was the appropriate one to carry it out, then justice had been served (p. 174).

Another quibble with the book is that it could use editing. In addition to offering perspective, an editor might have help remove some of the small errors. For instance, several times Sherry uses the word “tact” when she means “tack.” At another point (p. 88), she uses “shuddered” when she means “shuttered.” These mistakes don’t amount to much, but they annoy the reader.

My Thoughts

After reading the book, I came away with a couple of conclusions:

1) If I’d been on the jury, I would have voted “not guilty.” The prosecution simply didn’t have a strong enough case against Bobby for a first-degree murder conviction.

2) Bobby was very lucky that the statute of limitations had expired for second-degree murder and for manslaughter. The jury had only two options – not guilty or first-degree murder. If other verdicts had been possible, Bobby’s defense – and the verdict – might have been different.

How Good Do We Have to Be? What Can Society Forgive?

I’ll close on a different note. The Bobby Hoppe story brought to mind a lot of my early-adult years, four of which were spent as an Auburn University student. For many of us, young adulthood is filled with high emotion and – on occasion – poor choices. Fortunately, most of us make it through those years without becoming involved in anything terrible. But – looking back – most of probably can think of some time when things might have taken a very-bad turn had circumstances been slightly different.

Bobby Hoppe’s story forces us to confront what happens when things “go bad” for young adults who are in the wrong place at the wrong time. A Matter of Conscience is well worth reading. But you have to find the answers for yourself.

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About mobilemojoman

I have been a Mobile resident for about a decade. Working as a college professor keeps me off the streets and pays the bills. I am married to a woman (the MojoWoman) who is a much better person than I am and we have two beautiful girls who keep us both jumping. My interests are varied - food & drink, sports, politics, exercise, books, travel, Mardi Gras, and all of life's rich pageant. In the future, I'd like to learn more about sailing, photography, Cajun/Creole cooking, making beer and wine, and writing.
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