Bobby Hoppe (”Hippity Hoppe” or “Robert the Rabbit”) was a legendary halfback who led Chattanooga’s Central High to many wins and championships in the early 1950s. In 1957, he was a star running back for the Auburn University team. Home for a few days between his junior and senior years, he was driving back from a date at 1 a.m. in his sister’s car when her former lover, a notoriously abusive moonshine runner named Don Hudson, appeared with his lights off. Hudson tried to run Bobby off the road and threatened him with a pistol. Bobby had a shotgun in the back seat and managed to retrieve, load, and fire it. The other car crashed, and Bobby left the scene, unaware until the following morning that Hudson was dead. There was a coroner’s inquest, but no hard evidence linked Bobby to the crime. He quickly returned to Auburn, where he led the team to a national championship.
By 1970, Bobby was established as a respected high-school teacher and coach back home in Chattanooga. He married fellow teacher Sherry Lee, and the couple adopted a son. In 1988, she was interim president of what is now Nashville State Community College when the Hamilton County district attorney reopened the unsolved case. New evidence had emerged: a woman who claimed to have heard Bobby threaten to kill his sister’s ex-lover, and the detailed testimony of the clergyman Bobby met for counseling. Bobby’s defense team, including the colorful celebrity attorney Bobby Lee Cooke, destroyed the prosecution’s witnesses, but thanks to a single stubborn juror the trial ended in a hung jury. The DA decided to drop the case, even without knowing about the confession of a shadowy caller who claimed to have done the actual killing after Bobby had fired and fled.
About two thirds of Sherry Lee Hoppe’s A Matter of Conscience is devoted to the high-profile 1988 trial. The rest covers Chattanooga in the 1950s—Bobby the boy and man; his family, friends, and acquaintances; and especially his illustrious football career. The book is both a biography and an enhanced memoir. Hoppe and her co-author, Dennie Burke, imaginatively and emotionally fill in the gaps between what the bare record shows: “I was shivering so hard I was afraid Bobby would notice, so I pulled my hand from his pocket,” she notes at one point. “My thoughts plummeted and tossed like a bird shot from the sky but caught in a swirling current.” But she also writes from her husband’s point of view at times: “His eyes flew open, his whole body trembled, remembering the roar of the car beneath him as he took off. His stomach clenching into a hard knot, he heard the other car slam into the wall.” The shifts in point of view make for gripping, thriller-like reading, though this story would have compelled attention even without the drama.
One of the central issues raised at Bobby Hoppe’s trial was whether he felt any actual anguish over the killing. The prosecution pointed out that he had gone on with his life apparently undisturbed by the unrelenting guilt that Sherry Lee Hoppe’s narrative repeatedly emphasizes. And he did not, after all, unburden his conscience by any public confession. Hoppe argues that Bobby maintained silence for thirty-one years not because he was unmoved by the death of Don Hudson but because a confession would compromise his family’s good name. Another person’s state of mind is difficult to document, of course, but Hoppe was in a unique position to know the real Bobby, who died in 2008. As a loving wife, she is hardly a disinterested observer, but a string of defense witnesses at the trial corroborate her picture of her husband. Her book is a moving testament to his character and her devotion to his memory.