Pip and the Judge: An Unlikely Friendship

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Retired judge and prosecutor Joe Pigott with his wife, Lorraine, in Jackson, Miss.

Retired judge and prosecutor Joe Pigott with his wife, Lorraine, in Jackson, Miss. StoryCorps hide caption

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Judge Joe Pigott served nearly two decades on the bench in Jackson, Miss. But he says no defendant confounded him more than the man nicknamed "Pip" — otherwise known as the late Willie Earl Dow, whose exploits often landed him in Pigott's courtroom.

Recalling those days with his wife, Lorraine, Pigott said that Dow had two bad habits: drinking, and stealing in order to support his drinking.

"You didn't have to try him, he always pled guilty," Pigott said. "And he was a likable person."

Dow also sent the judge an occasional letter. In one, he wrote from prison to tell Pigott, "I feel like I've been up here long enough this time, and I would appreciate it if you'd write the parole board and see if they'll let me out."

Pigott did so — and Dow was released.

But six weeks later, Dow robbed one of his friends, taking a watch and the keys to his car. The friend called the sheriff, and soon Dow was back before Judge Pigott, pleading guilty yet again.

"I am so disappointed I don't know what to say," the judge said. "I just don't understand you," he told Dow as he prepared to announce his sentence.

"Well, judge," Dow answered, "I'm disappointed in you."

"Everything in the courtroom got deathly quiet," Pigott recalls.

"When I was here four years ago," Dow went on, "you were sitting in that same chair, wearing that same robe, making that same speech."

"I figured a man of your caliber ought to at least be on the Supreme Court by now."

"I told him, 'Mr. Dow, I was going to sentence you to five years,'" Pigott recalls. "'But since you are so perceptive, I think I'll just give you three years,' which I did."

The next time Pigott saw Dow was at the time of his retirement, when a ceremony was held at the courtroom. And in strode Willie Earl "Pip" Dow.

"Mr. Dow," Pigott said then, "I am so glad to see you."

"Well," Pigott remembers him answering, "I heard they were going to hang Judge Pigott at the courtroom, and so, I didn't want to miss that."

Pigott then asked Dow how long it would be before he was back in trouble.

"He said, 'Judge, you're resigning; I'm resigning. I'm going to retire just like you.'"

That led Pigott to ask the new judge and the county sheriff to keep him informed about Dow, and to let him know if "Pip" was arrested for anything. And Dow kept his promise in the remaining decade or so of his life.

"Sometimes you make friends in strange ways," Pigott says.

Produced for 'Morning Edition' by Mike Garofalo. The senior producer for StoryCorps is Sarah Kramer.



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