Good time Charlie

The don of Dallas criminal lawyers, Charles Tessmer reshaped justice through decades of hard-fought cases and hard drink

His bright red hair has turned ashen with age, bereft of the pompadour that once gave him a more towering presence in court. His hawkish blue eyes appear puffy and sullen, clouded by too many years of litigation and liquor. His back hurts, his arthritis is killing him, and too much aspirin has made his blood so thin that he recently was admitted to the Baylor Medical Center emergency room to stop the nosebleeds. Yet at 79, after half a century as a criminal lawyer -- some say the best there ever was -- Charles W. Tessmer still struts around the courtroom as if he owns it.

He has arrived on the fifth floor of the Frank Crowley Criminal Courts Building this November morning at an hour early, dressed as flamboyantly as ever, opting for a pink shirt, tan tie, and brown sport coat. Ever the Southern gentleman, he plays courtier to the court, offering coffee to one lawyer, welcoming others.

Tessmer has never shied away from tough cases, and today is no exception. His client was convicted of injury to a child -- "splitting open the intestines" of his 10-month-old boy, as the prosecutor put it. The father, little more than a boy himself, had told the authorities conflicting stories about how the baby's injury occurred. Lying never plays well with a jury, which found him guilty despite Tessmer's claim that the injury was the result of an accident. Dallas juries are hard on abuse cases, so Tessmer elected to go to Judge Gary Stephens for punishment. With probation a legal impossibility for his client, it was just a question of time: five to 99, or life.

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Mark Graham
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Tessmer represented more than 175 people charged with the death penalty and never lost a single client to the executioner.
Tessmer represented more than 175 people charged with the death penalty and never lost a single client to the executioner.

Tessmer has faced worse odds. Since 1949, he has represented hookers and homemakers, judges and bookies, doctors and vagrants. They came seeking his counsel for larceny, burglary, robbery, arson, and rape. But his signature crime was murder: the jilted husband, the insane wife, the ex-girlfriend who shoots blindly because "that son of a bitch just needed killin'."

"Anyone who had trouble and money would find Charles Tessmer," Dallas attorney Don Scoggins says.

He was the whole package, a master magician both at trial and on appeal. He tried more than 1,000 cases; he represented more than 175 people facing the death penalty and never lost a client to the executioner; more than 160 appellate court opinions list him as attorney of record; at one point in the early '70s, he appealed 28 state convictions and won 14 reversals; he argued three cases to the U.S. Supreme Court, winning two of them. As president of the Dallas Criminal Defense Lawyers Association and later the National Association of Criminal Defense Lawyers, he attempted to bring integrity to a profession that was often accused of being as criminal as its clients.

And he did it all in Dallas, where at one time you could get a life sentence for possessing marijuana and a death sentence for robbery or rape; where cuff 'em and stuff 'em juries sided with the prosecution more than 90 percent of the time. And he did it against former District Attorney Henry Wade, whose office was notorious for its go-for-the-throat prosecutions.

Tessmer possessed the stage presence of an Olivier, the oratorical skills of a Greek philosopher, and the liver of Nicolas Cage in Leaving Las Vegas. He celebrated his wins by going on lengthy drinking binges, and he was always winning -- and buying. He was Good-time Charlie to his friends, and everyone was his friend.

Why did he never achieve the celebrity of famed lawyers such as Percy Foreman, Richard "Racehorse" Haynes, or F. Lee Bailey? Why is there no chair endowed in his honor at Southern Methodist University Law School, his alma mater? Why is Charlie Tessmer, who should be in the distinguished graying years of a brilliant career, still trying street crimes at bargain prices?

In the child-abuse case, it's Tessmer's turn to argue punishment, and he rises slowly out of his chair. He seems uncertain, walking over to a blank sketchpad mounted on an easel beside the judge. Tessmer rips aside the first page, and beneath it is a chart -- the old fox got up early so he could secretly prepare a diagram of the evidence.

Tessmer hammers hard at the prosecution's case, almost as if he is arguing guilt or innocence again. Perhaps if he can convince the judge that the evidence is borderline insufficient, the judge may take a more lenient view of punishment. "This is a very thin case, your honor," Tessmer says. "Credibility [his client's lack of it] is no evidence of guilt."

Age and alcohol have done nothing to diminish Tessmer's mellifluous voice, its silky texture subtly persuading you that he knows what he's talking about and you damn well better listen.

Judge Stephens listens. He looks at the chart. He thanks Tessmer for his "very vigorous argument," and he sentences the defendant to 12 years in prison. Tessmer's face doesn't register his displeasure with the punishment or his own performance, though later he admits, "I seem to have lost my fastball."

In the old days, he played to packed houses, but today the gallery is empty, save two lawyers sitting on the first row. As Tessmer leaves the courtroom, one whispers under his breath, "That was Charlie Tessmer" -- as if the man exists only in the past tense.

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