The Verdict

The safe money had Robert Durst getting convicted of murder in seconds flat. How on earth did he get off? Two words: Dick DeGuerin.

A FEW WEEKS AFTER HE MASTERMINDED the acquittal of Galveston’s alleged killer-butcher Robert Durst, Houston attorney Dick DeGuerin lectured his second- and third-year students at the University of Texas law school on, you guessed it, the art of self-defense. Self-defense was the textbook strategy DeGuerin had used to win a not-guilty verdict for Durst, the heir to a New York real estate fortune. Durst confessed in open court that after his neighbor Morris Black was shot accidentally during a struggle over a gun, he cut Black into pieces and dumped his body parts into Galveston Bay. Open-and-shut case for the state, right? Everyone thought so—except DeGuerin and the jury.

The case that DeGuerin’s class was studying in late November was similar to the one involving Durst: The prosecution had a 911 tape in which a Thai teenager admitted to shooting four gang members outside his Houston home.

“What’s my rule when things look bad for your guy?” DeGuerin asked the class.

“Embrace the ugly baby!” they called back in unison.

“That’s right,” DeGuerin beamed, pleased that his message had stuck. “Make chicken salad out of chicken feathers.”

Sitting in the top row in the theaterlike lecture hall, I watched the students as they watched the famous trial lawyer. At 62, DeGuerin looked fit, trim, and relaxed, as much at home in the classroom as he is in the courtroom. In his tweed jacket, with a handsome head of graying hair, he was perfectly professorial but commanded the lectern the way a great actor commands center stage, knowing precisely when, where, and how to move. As DeGuerin played and analyzed the 911 tape, the students leaned forward, straining to catch every word. After a time the truth emerged: What the Houston cops accepted as a simple case of multiple homicide was clearly one of self-defense. “ Apparent danger,” DeGuerin said, emphasizing the phrase. “A person has the right to protect himself from apparent danger, whether it’s real or not.”

DeGuerin won the teen’s case, as he has so many high-profile cases, because he takes the time to know the facts and the law better than the police or the prosecution. No detail is too small to escape his notice, no scrap of evidence without its potential redeeming value. Those were a few of the things he learned from his mentor, Percy Foreman. “I think about Percy every day,”

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