texasmonthly.com: What interested you in writing about the Texas Court of Criminal Appeals now? Is it the court’s apparent shift to more moderate decisions or the legacy of some of its more conservative judgments?
AT A RECENT BOOK SIGNING OF MINE at Murder by the Book, in Houston, I was pleased to see the legendary defense lawyer Racehorse Haynes making his way through the crowd. Little Jewford, the last surviving member of the Texas Jewboys, had just introduced me as "the next governor of the great state of Texas," and I had assured him that I would keep him on the short list for first lady.
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.
WHEN I LOOK BACK I'M grateful that I grew up in West Texas. It's a place where people value hardy individualism. People are good neighbors and they live by what they say. I rode horses on those stretched-out plains where the land was big, the sky was big. Nobody ever asked, "Who are your grandparents?" or "Where did they come from?" It didn't matter. All that mattered was who you were and what you could do. And there was a lot I thought I could do.
WHEN WARREN BURNETT, THE FAMOUS Odessa trial lawyer, died in September at age 75, memories flooded back of people accused of crimes, jailed labor organizers, segregated students, and countless others crushed by the boots of big business and big government. But mostly I thought of myself. Warren, the son of a Virginia miner, was a lifelong champion of the poor and the oppressed, and in 1968 nobody was poorer or more oppressed than me, or so I believed at the time.
texasmonthly.com: How and when did you discover the Ernest Willis case?
Michael Hall: I heard about it from one of the defense attorneys I initially interviewed, then read about it in the Dallas Morning News. I couldn't believe there hadn't been more written about him.
texasmonthly.com: What kind of research went into this piece?
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.
In February 1994 Texas Monthly published an article titled "The Twilight of the Texas Rangers." It described how the organization's legendary history and traditions clashed with the changing realities of the modern world, and a black and white photograph of Ranger Joaquin Jackson, taken by Dan Winters, graced the issue's cover.
EVEN THE BEST TRIAL LAWYER WILL tell you that juries are like snakes: They're hard to get ahold of and not necessarily fun when you do. That's why law schools concentrate on teaching the law. Aside from picking up a few rules of thumb—Episcopal clergy side with plaintiffs; Episcopal churchgoers side with defendants—law students have to learn about juries the hard way: by trying lawsuits after they graduate.