Ardor in the Court
I love Racehorse Haynes for the same reason his clients do: He's one of the most colorful silver-tongued devils to grace Texas since God made trial lawyers.
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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. It was at that point that Racehorse came up to the microphone and, in true lawyerly fashion, managed to endorse my candidacy without actually endorsing my candidacy. He said his real views on the Kinkster were “privileged and must remain privileged.” Then he introduced his wife, Naomi, as “the widow Haynes.” I was commenting on what an honor it would be to have Racehorse in a Friedman administration, working pro bono to fix the broken criminal justice system, when David Berg, a protégé of Racehorse’s and a brilliant lawyer in his own right, suddenly leaped from his seat. “The words ‘Racehorse’ and ‘pro bono,'” he shouted, “are never used in the same sentence!”
Why are so many legal eagles—or buzzards, as the case may be—big fans of my books? Do they see me as the thinking man’s John Grisham? How the hell should I know? All I’m sure of is that quite often at my book signings, a long line of lawyers will surreptitiously snake its way past the little old ladies with their aluminum Jerry Jeff Walkers. Whenever this happens, I find the lawyers in contempt of bookstore and send them to the back of the room. Still, so many of them turn up at these events that I’ve almost had to standardize my book inscriptions to them. While they are perverse enough to like “From one left-handed Jewish homosexual to another,” they appear to more deeply appreciate something that acknowledges their oft-maligned profession. Thusly, to borrow a bit of legalese, two favored inscriptions for lawyers have evolved. The first is “Where there’s a will, there’s a lawyer.” The second is “May all your juries be well hung.”
There is, however, a small but growing pantheon of lawyers I have come to know and, yes, admire—from Jim Schropp, a corporate attorney in Washington, D.C., who has spent the past ten years campaigning vigorously to get Max Soffar off death row (The Last Roundup: “Case Open,” March 2004), to David Epstein, a Southern Methodist University law school professor who routinely includes a random question about the Kinkster each year in his national bar review courses. But one name on this list has always shone brightly: the aforementioned Racehorse Haynes. If he hadn’t owned a yacht, Racehorse would be my candidate to be the Atticus Finch of Texas. In past years, in fact, I sailed with him on said yacht, the Integrity. “For those,” insists Racehorse, “who say I haven’t any.”
Racehorse, indeed, is one of the most successful and most colorful silver-tongued devils to grace Texas since God made trial lawyers. When Racehorse was growing up, his Houston family was so poor that, in Moses-like fashion, they had to leave him in the bulrushes near San Antonio, where his granny—who was just a hair over four feet tall—taught him everything he needed to know while drinking a pint of gin every day. (Just to be clear: She was the one drinking.) When it came time to attend elementary school, Racehorse filled out all the forms himself and bypassed the first and second grades. In case you’re wondering, his real name is Richard, which also happens to be the Kinkster’s real name. (Possibly because of Richard Nixon, we grasped at any nicknames we could get.) He got his nickname from a disgruntled junior high school football coach after failing to break the line of scrimmage on two consecutive plays and galloping rapidly for the sidelines. “Goddam,” said the coach sarcastically. “What do you think you are—a racehorse?”
It would not be possible in this column to do justice to Racehorse’s many subsequent victorious battles in the courtroom. “I don’t get people off,” he once told me. “The jury acquits them.” One of the people the jury acquitted was T. Cullen Davis, the richest man—by 1976 standards—ever brought to trial on a murder charge. Davis allegedly shot and wounded his wife, Priscilla, and croaked his stepdaughter and Priscilla’s lover with a .38 in his $6 million mansion on 181 acres near little old downtown Fort Worth. At the time, Davis claimed to have been Sirhan Sirhan, party of one, by himself in a movie theater watching The Bad News Bears.
Another famous client of Racehorse’s was Dr. John Hill, who allegedly fed his wife an éclair laced with E. coli bacteria. Toxic shock syndrome was undiagnosed in those days, but experts now agree that Racehorse was once again on the right side of the scales of justice. Then there was the infamous Kerrville “slave ranch” trial, involving drifters who were kidnapped, tortured, and in one instance, allegedly killed with a cattle prod. Racehorse put on quite a show for the local Kerrverts in front of the courthouse one afternoon. Ever the dedicated defender, he shocked himself repeatedly with an electric cattle prod. “It hurt,” he says, “but it wasn’t lethal.”
In dealing with his famous and not so famous clients, there is one rule Racehorse holds inviolable: He almost never allows the defendant to say anything in court. He learned this lesson from a personal experience as a young lawyer. “I believed my guy was innocent, and apparently the jury agreed,” says Racehorse. “So when the bailiff handed the verdict to the judge, and the judge declared, ‘Not guilty,’ I shook hands with my guy and told him he could thank the jury if he wished. So he stands up and he says to the jury, ‘Thank you. I’ll never do it again.'”
Racehorse has become every year’s model for what a successful trial lawyer should be. He is part Clarence Darrow, part Perry Mason, and part, well, Racehorse Haynes. Yet despite the fact that he has a mansion in River Oaks, sailed until recently on the yacht, and owned a large former slave ranch in the Hill Country (payment for rebuffing those drifters), his lucrative and high-profile triumphs are not what motivate him. That distinction belongs to the case he can’t forget, one in the early fifties that earned him no publicity and no fee. In what Racehorse felt was a frame-up, a black man was charged with stealing construction materials. When the jury rendered a verdict of not guilty, the defendant, accompanied by his six little children and his 250-pound wife, began screaming with joy and rushed to hug the young lawyer.
Racehorse went to a party that night at a company shack on the poor side of town. The hors d’oeuvres consisted of leftover barbecue and Coca-Cola. The man was there with his wife, all the kids, and the old grandma. The place was appropriately decorated. The kids had taken their crayons and written on the walls, “God Bless You, Mr. Racehorse.”