Off the Press

Decades before two simple words—“me too”—became the mantra for victims of sexual abuse, trial attorney Robert Steadman defended a Flint woman who killed her husband after suffering years of intense abuse and misery.

Sixty-four years later, Steadman, 93, of Traverse City was inspired to write “I Killed Sam,” the fictionalized account of the trial based on his groundbreaking defense in 1957, when spousal rape was exempted as a criminal offense in most of the country. In this story, attorney Bob Nichols uses the same novel legal approach that Steadman did: claiming both self-defense and temporary insanity. On the surface, it seemed contradictory, but the strategy effectively allowed testimony of the horrific abuse to be heard during the trial.

Steadman said he felt compelled to write I Killed Sam not only to shed light on the difficulty victims often face in getting a fair trial, but also because knowledge of his legal approach in the 1957 trial might be beneficial to attorneys today.

“As I looked at some of the cases in Michigan, I realized my approach to the defense needed to be known.”

The novel is more than a legal trial; it follows a young, small-town lawyer who must juggle his obligations to his client and to his fledgling law practice. There’s also a romantic element—Nichols is in love with Betty, the defendant and his high school sweetheart whom he should never have let go. Nichols is tortured by the thought of losing his long-shot legal gamble, which would mean forever losing Betty to life in prison.

Even with the cultural shift in attitudes from the 1957 trial to the book’s publication, the tragedy of abuse continues and the story still resonates today.

“The trial still seems current because abused women are still getting the short end of the stick,” Steadman said. “I have a genuine concern about violence against women and hope my book helps change the culture in some small way.”

Though details of the case remain sharp in his mind and could have been shared effectively as a memoir, Steadman had his reasons for choosing a fictional approach.

“I have a clear memory of the case and believed it would be more impactful as fiction. I was able to add critical materials that helped the story without detracting from the message.”

Steadman grew up near Syracuse, N.Y., the second oldest of five children. The family moved to Michigan, where his dad was hired as the state’s financial controller.

Steadman graduated from Wayne University Law School in February of 1951, having earned his bachelor of arts, bachelor of laws, and juris doctor degrees in five and a half years, all while working nights on the Ford Rouge Plant’s engine line. Drafted in May of 1951 for the Korean conflict, he completed Officer Candidate School and was discharged as a second lieutenant late in 1953.

Steadman worked for one year as assistant prosecutor for Genesee County, where he had an intensive introduction to trial work.

While learning to fly at Flint’s Bishop Airport, he met and married his instructor, Bernice Trimble, already a famous racing pilot, in 1959. 

His aviation expertise led to a position as corporate and trial attorney for Airway Insurance Company in Ann Arbor, where he defended aviation death cases from Massachusetts to Alaska for several years. 

He turned down the company presidency in 1972 and chose to move to Traverse City instead.

Steadman was 81 in 2009 when he tried and won his last jury case, which awarded $400,000 for fraud against a local bank.