“The Trick Is Not to Act Like a Lawyer.”

That’s just one of the secrets of Rusty Hardin, the latest in Houston’s long line of flamboyant defense attorneys—and the man every wrongdoer in town wants on his side.

Rusty Hardin, Houston’s defense attorney of the moment, the lawyer to whom the powerful and the privileged turn when they run afoul of the law, was ducking out of a Rockets game last winter when a fan yelled down at him, “Screw you, Rusty!” Rusty stopped and grinned as more abuse was heaped upon him from the stands. “Screw you, Rusty!” “Yeah, screw you!” Had Rusty sprung another celebrity client to walk free on the streets? Had another jury succumbed to his charms? Not this time: The heckling was a perverse kind of praise. Earlier that day, in probate court, Rusty had cross-examined former Playboy pinup Anna Nicole Smith, whose legal battle for the fortune of her late husband, J. Howard Marshall II, had succeeded in captivating Houston with yet another hometown morality play about sex and money. For hours on the stand, the platinum blonde had striven mightily to convince both the jury and Rusty, representing Marshall Petroleum, that she had married the 89-year-old billionaire for love. After one of her more mawkish declarations of affection, during which she tearfully clutched his photograph to her gravity-defying décolletage, Rusty asked her, “Mrs. Marshall, have you been taking new acting lessons?” Her retort, which was replayed that evening on the local news and circulated around Houston, was soon to be repeated by Rusty’s friends, fellow lawyers, Rockets fans, and even the occasional guy on the street: “Screw you, Rusty!”

Houston loves its criminal defense lawyers, who are defiantly flamboyant and always in the thick of the city’s intrigues. A hothouse of legal talent and court dockets that spill over with tales of mischief and human vice have given rise to a remarkable number of celebrated defenders. The most dazzling among them achieve first-name status: the late, great Percy Foreman, Racehorse Haynes, and now Rusty. He is all things a great defender must be—raconteur, showman, charmer, tactician, egotist—and he has a ferocious charisma that a rival once described as “slicker ‘n deer guts on a doorknob.” Having defended the city’s institutions (Rice University), athletes (Warren Moon, Scottie Pippen), and politicians (nearly a dozen in the Houston area), he has a knack for being in the midst of whatever trial is dominating Houston’s newscasts and the collective consciousness. As a Harris County assistant district attorney years ago, he pursued the city’s lawbreakers with just as much flair, once managing to wring a surprise confession from a defendant on the stand and, in a capital murder trial, persuading the accused murderer to step from the witness box and reenact his crime before the startled jury. As a defense attorney, the sixty-year-old lawyer has enjoyed his share of what Andy Drumheller, an associate in Rusty’s firm, calls “Perry Mason moments, where the witness admits something astonishing and the jurors’ mouths are hanging open,” and he can be shamelessly theatrical, once promising to jump off the Empire State Building if his client was found guilty. (His client was acquitted of all charges.)

Rusty rarely loses, but this summer he found himself on the unlucky end of a verdict in the Arthur Andersen case. Even that loss, in which the Justice Department prevailed in its prosecution of the accounting firm on obstruction of justice charges, has not dampened Rusty’s perennially good mood. Though his career has required him to plumb the depths of human behavior—as a prosecutor, he sent fifteen men to death row—he is relentlessly upbeat, with little patience for any dark nights of the soul. His favorite color is yellow, and he shades his life in its hues, from the lemony sheen of his foulard ties to the buttery gloss of his West University home. Understandably, then, he remains equanimical about the Andersen case, in which losing was not entirely a washout. What was supposed to be an open-and-shut case for federal prosecutors nearly ended in a hung jury, when the jurors announced on the seventh day of deliberations that they were deadlocked; only after the judge sternly ordered them to render a decision regardless did they later return a guilty verdict. Rusty was credited with undermining the government’s case so thoroughly that jurors were at an impasse for ten days, enlarging his reputation well beyond Houston’s city limits. CNN’s Lou Dobbs gushed on the air, “Your performance there—absolutely remarkable.”

Twelve days after the Andersen verdict, Rusty is holding court at La Griglia, in the full rush of the power-lunch crowd. Waiters dart about, trying to fill his water glass, as a who’s who of Houston’s legal community approach his table to pay their respects. Between firm handshakes, fellow lawyers shower him with praise and lusty backslapping. Texas Southern University law school dean John Brittain strides over (“Hello, counselor! Good to see you again, brother!”), followed by former State Bar chair Vidal Martinez (“Rusty, you must live here!”). Bankruptcy court judge Manuel Leal passes by with a genial smile and nod, and defense attorney Robert Sussman dashes over (“Rusty, you did great!”) to swap war stories. Like a politician, Rusty feeds off the energy of the crowd and the press of the flesh; he receives each visitor with the enthusiasm appropriate to a comrade whose company he has been deprived of for too long, no matter how fleeting their separation has been. “If you’re going to get a dose of humility, it’s better to get it on a smaller scale,” he tells well-wishers with an aw-shucks grin. Privately, he whispers between kudos, “I’ve never lost a case and had so many people act like I won.”

After the restaurant has cleared of its lunch crowd and the clamor has subsided, Rusty lingers, holding forth on the practice of law. It is a lazy summer afternoon, and he is in a meditative mood. “Think about what we do,” he says. “We ask twelve strangers to decide what happened in a given situation that they know nothing about, based upon what a few people they’ve never met before tell them. Then we ask them to agree on

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