Counsel for the Defense

At 76, flamboyant criminal lawyer Racehorse Haynes keeps doing what he does best--winning

Show me the phone, lend me a dime

I ain't rollin' over, I ain't doing no time

Ain't coppin' no plea, I'm hip to your game

Richard "Racehorse" Haynes approaches his boyhood home in Houston, which he recently purchased.
Mark Graham
Richard "Racehorse" Haynes approaches his boyhood home in Houston, which he recently purchased.
Haynes, a former welterweight,  
is "tough as a floor safe"  
in the courtroom.
Haynes, a former welterweight, is "tough as a floor safe" in the courtroom.

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I ain't talking to no one 'cept Racehorse Haynes

--from the song "Racehorse Haynes" by Tom Russell/Andrew Hardin

When attempting to examine the legendary life of Richard "Racehorse" Haynes, a man generally considered one of the premier criminal defense lawyers in modern judicial history, it seems prudent to first clear away some of the old wives' tales and outlandish myths; to offer up, as they say, the truth and nothing but the truth.

So, no, despite the fact there are alumni who will swear they were on campus that day and witnessed the event, Haynes did not jump from a plane and parachute into the University of Houston fountain as a publicity stunt during his successful campaign to become student body president. And, no, he didn't really nail his own hand to the jury box railing while defending members of a biker gang alleged to have "crucified" one of their female companions. Still, one need not look hard to find people who insist they were in the courtroom and saw it with their own eyes.

We'll deal later with the time he supposedly stood before 12 stunned jurors and drank deadly insect poison and another when he is said to have repeatedly shocked himself with a cattle prod in defense of a man charged with keeping an unsuspecting drifter locked away at his Texas ranch-turned-slave camp.

Seated in his Houston office that looks more like a museum than workplace, walls and shelves cluttered with plaques, books, framed photos and mementos of all manner of professional achievement, Haynes, now 76, puffs on his ever-present pipe, smiles and offers up an innocent shrug. Hey, there is some measure of reality to each of the stories, he explains. If he didn't actually do everything you've heard, he did, at least, seriously consider such theatrics before abandoning the ideas in the name of common sense and physical well-being.

And, he'd like it part of the official record that he's not the originator of such embellishments. Oh, maybe sometimes, after hearing the stories retold for the umpteenth time or reading them again in a newspaper or magazine account of his career, he doesn't always dash to the phone to quickly set things straight. What's the harm?

Even the true origin of his nickname has been lost in fuzzy folklore. True, it was given to Haynes by a junior high football coach when he was growing up in the blue-collar Sunset Heights section of Houston. But it had far less to do with the youngster's speed afoot than the fact he seemed interested in carrying the ball only from sideline to sideline rather than advancing it up field. "You a football player or a damn racehorse?" the coach is said to have bellowed.

Haynes, as anyone with the mildest interest in modern Texas history knows, became the latter. Today when asked for his autograph by trial-goers or admirers he encounters on the banquet circuit, he adds a quick cartoon drawing of a horse's head to the signature. Best-selling books--Tommy Thompson's award-winning Blood and Money, Steve Salerno's Deadly Blessing, Mike Cochran's Texas vs. Davis, Gary Cartwright's Blood Will Tell, etc. --have recounted high-profile cases he's worked; so have numerous made-for-television movies. He's been involved in everything from the Watergate investigation to the shutdown of La Grange's infamous Chicken Ranch, which was immortalized on Broadway as The Best Little Whorehouse in Texas. Every organization from the International Society of Barristers to the American Academy of Achievement has honored him. Time magazine has named him one of the six best trial lawyers in the country.

Such is the way bigger-than-life legends are seeded and grown, part of the backdrop that has provided the flamboyant ex-welterweight boxer, South Pacific war hero, motorcyclist, sailor and millionaire with a reputation that has grown to 9 feet tall and weighs in at a junkyard dog mean 500 pounds. Like the songs and stories say, if you're in deep trouble--and have deep pockets--you contact Racehorse Haynes. It has been the remedy of desperate people for more than 40 years.

Only days earlier he had returned from Virginia Beach where he successfully defended a young man accused of stalking and solicitation of capital murder. Which, of course, raises the question of why, at his age and with his legacy and finances in good order, he continues to put himself through the grueling demands of being a trial lawyer.

"I like the feeling I got when that verdict was announced," he explains. "In preparing for the trial, I'd met that boy's mother and father, his brother, his aunt...all really nice people, all devastated by the situation they found themselves in. By doing what I could to see that my client didn't spend half his remaining life in prison, I felt I was able to make that family whole again. When that happens, it is just as rewarding and as much fun as it was when I started out."

Keeping people out of jail or prison is what Haynes does. And the style and flair he has historically displayed in doing so have been met with great admiration from some, condemnation from others. "For 48 years," he admits, "I've been asked the same question every defense attorney hears: How can you look yourself in the mirror after representing so many people you know to have done terrible things? That just tells me those asking have assumed a great deal and simply can't tolerate the concept of fair representation of someone who just might not be guilty. As I've told law students and young lawyers for years, I'm not the judge; it's not the attorney's prerogative to determine guilt or innocence. I don't get people off. The jury acquits them."

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