The Great Defenders

How did natty, flashy Dick DeGuerin and his quiet, determined brother, Mike, become two of the best lawyers in Texas? By learning everything they could from their mentor, the legendary Percy Foreman.

“Man, does he ever need a lawyer.” Dick DeGuerin thought this last March as he stared at the image of David Koresh on the television screen: a 33-year-old misfit holed up in a compound known as Ranch Apocalypse, surrounded by an army of federal agents. To DeGuerin, a man comfortable with his reputation as Texas’ best criminal defense attorney, that first notion led quite naturally to a second: “He needs me.”

Unbeknownst to DeGuerin, the same thought occurred to another great lawyer thirty years ago, prompted by the misdeeds of another Texas misfit. After witnessing Lee Harvey Oswald’s murder on television, Percy Foreman announced to the press, “I go where I’m needed most. And right now, I can’t think of anyone who needs my services more than Jack Ruby.”

That DeGuerin would echo Foreman was fitting. Foreman had been his mentor, and since Foreman’s death in 1988, DeGuerin has made it a habit to ask himself, “What would Percy do?” whenever a new case crosses his path. DeGuerin does not doubt for a second that Foreman would have offered his services to David Koresh—and, for that matter, to Kay Bailey Hutchison, who has hired DeGuerin in the face of felony ethics indictments. The Hutchison trial stands to be one of the two most sensational courtroom spectacles in Texas this year. Competing with it for drama and headlines will be the trial of the Branch Davidian lieutenants, who happen to be represented by another Foreman protégé: Mike DeGeurin, Dick’s brother. (As a college student, Dick DeGuerin changed the spelling of his surname to the original French spelling.) Like his older brother, Mike DeGeurin is regarded as one of the state’s finest lawyers; like Dick, he habitually invokes the mentor’s wisdom. From 1976 until 1982, the old man and the brothers worked together under the same roof in downtown Houston. Inevitably, Dick, the rebellious prodigal son, left the demanding father figure in 1982 to seek out his own fame. Just as inevitably, Mike stayed behind and today still tends to the business and the honor of Foreman, DeGeurin, and Nugent.

Their apprenticeship is long behind them. Yet the state’s most famous sibling lawyers, in their distinctly separate ways, reflect the legacy of Percy Foreman, perhaps the greatest trial lawyer in Texas history and one of the very best who ever lived. By practicing The Law According to Foreman, the brothers have maintained a continuum spanning nearly seventy years of brilliant, often controversial criminal defense work in Houston. In the coming months, Dick DeGuerin’s representation of Kay Bailey Hutchison and Mike DeGeurin’s handling of the Branch Davidian case will underscore the differences in their styles and personalities. Yet beneath the strategy of each, one can expect to hear the Foreman credo: “You should never allow the defendant to be tried. Try someone else—the husband, the lover, the police or, if the case has social implications, society generally. But never the defendant.”

Seated at the conference room table in the Austin office of Kay Bailey Hutchison’s husband, Dick DeGuerin talks while eating his lunch, which today consists of Dots candy and coffee. (Tomorrow’s lunch will be popcorn and coffee.) His well-proportioned frame and youthful face suggest an imperviousness to long hours and dietary abuse. Both in appearance and conversation, the 52-year-old lawyer is engaging but always a little cool and loath to show his hand, even when the game is over. Today, however, he freely discusses his legal strategy for the defense of the embattled Senator Hutchison. “If [Travis County district attorney] Ronnie Earle is correct in his interpretation of what an officeholder cannot do,” he concludes in a rising voice, “then everybody who holds office is subject to being indicted. How do you decide whether speaking at a Republican women’s club is or is not state business? To try to enforce that kind of morality in the jury box, as opposed to the ballot box, is just improper. Even though Kay’s a very powerful person, she’s been terribly abused by those in power in the Travis County DA’s office.”

DeGuerin smiles. “And that’s my forte,” he says. “I like to help people who are being beat up on. I remember one time when I was eight and Mike was four and we were living in Austin and swimming in the West Enfield swimming pool, there was this big kid who stood on top of the pool ladder and wouldn’t let Mike get out. I went up to the big kid. And I held up my fist and I said, ‘You leave him alone.’ I see somebody get picked on, and that gets my juices flowing.”

Thirty years ago, as a University of Texas law student, DeGuerin watched Percy Foreman come to the rescue of a man the legal system was picking on. The defendant was a thoracic surgeon whose wife and two brothers sought to institutionalize him. Only Foreman stood between his client and the mental ward. The young law student could not take his eyes off the 61-year-old lawyer. Foreman was in every way a giant: six feet five, close to three hundred pounds, with hands like catchers’ mitts and a head one Houston lawyer described as “simply monstrous, the biggest in town.” The surgeon’s wife had hired two hotshot special prosecutors: Les Proctor, the former Travis County district attorney, and Frank Maloney, today a judge on the Court of Criminal Appeals. Foreman made them look like amateurs. Flaunting a giant horse syringe, the Houston lawyer declared that if the surgeon’s wife and brothers had their way, one of the great minds of medical science would, in the nuthouse, be reduced to gelatin. The jury found in favor of the surgeon, who left the courthouse with Foreman, along with several of Foreman’s attractive female admirers, in a long black Cadillac. Young Dick DeGuerin stood on the steps and watched them go, holding in his hands a Parade magazine cover story on Foreman, which the lawyer had autographed for him.

By that time,

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