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Courtroom Drama

Mimi Swartz talks about plaintiff’s attorney John O’Quinn, his outrageous lifestyle, and the bitter estate battle after his death.

By February 2011Comments

John O’Quinn wanted to be the best lawyer who ever lived. And for a while, it looked as if that was going to happen. He certainly was one of the most successful—and one of the richest. But the power he wielded and the money he spent didn’t lead to happiness. That changed when the Houston trial lawyer began seeing Darla Lexington, who friends say transformed his life for the better. The couple started traveling together, purchasing luxury homes, and collecting cars—about 860 of them valued at more than $200 million when the market was high. Life was good. Or so it seemed. On October 29, 2009, O’Quinn unexpectedly died in an automobile accident. The next day Darla found out that O’Quinn had left everything to his foundation. She wasn’t named in the will. Why would a man who spent ten years with a woman he claimed to love leave her nothing? Executive editor Mimi Swartz talked with Darla, friends of O’Quinn’s, and attorneys to find out the answer. Here’s the story behind the story.

Why now, almost a year later, did you decide to write a piece on the life, death, and controversy surrounding John O’Quinn?
Because the lawsuit was heating up, and so many people around town were talking about it.

Obviously you followed this story in the papers. Did your impression of Darla change when you met her for this piece?
Somewhat. The story wasn’t covered that deeply in the papers, but I heard stories about her that made me think she’d be an interesting person to write about.

What was the one thing you learned about O’Quinn during your research that surprised you?
The fact that he was so tight with his money, and so suspicious of people, and so punishing of them—again, I had heard stories, but the fact that I heard so many similar stories from so many people really surprised me.

In a story like this, with so many deep-seated opinions and strong emotions, how difficult is it to write a balanced piece?
It is extremely difficult, because in this case the two sides were so far apart.

Do you find it ironic that O’Quinn looked to Atticus Finch in To Kill a Mockingbird as a role model?
No, I don’t. He wanted to be the best lawyer in the world, and that was admirable. The fact that he couldn’t control his dark side, ultimately, wasn’t that surprising. But it is tragic.

Why do you think O’Quinn was so successful as a plaintiff’s attorney?
Because he had it all—the drive, the intellect, and the understanding of people, at least in the beginning.

What was the most difficult aspect of working on this story?
I think trying to be fair, and finding that balance when so many issues were contradictory. For some reason, too, this was a story in which sources appeared and then disappeared with some regularity, which hadn’t happened to me before.

Why do you think O’Quinn left Darla out of his will?
I have my ideas, and I think I won’t speculate. But many people believe that John never thought he was going to die, and just didn’t get around to adjusting his will.

What do you think will happen to Darla? Will she get what she’s asking for?
Again, I do not know, but I have been told that Harris County juries are sympathetic to older women, and especially older women who acted as caretakers, so, I guess we’ll see if that is true.

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