Counsel for the Defense

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

Yes, but what about those times when you know for certain that your client is stone-cold guilty, that he or she has committed a crime that literally screams out for justice? "Then I do my best to see that real justice is done. In the first place, I never try to compel a client to confess to me. All I ever want to hear from them is what they think the prosecutor is going to try to prove to a jury. We plan our case from there, always assuming that the state is going to ask for the highest degree of punishment possible. If it looks like my client is, in fact, guilty, the goal is to see that he gets something less, something more fair and reasonable. If he is innocent, we go hell-bent after an acquittal."

Even Haynes' rare defeats have, in a manner of speaking, been triumphs. During his career he has defended 38 clients who faced the death penalty. "Nobody's been sentenced to die yet," he says. Then, as he tamps his pipe, he makes a telling admission: "But I still live in sheer terror of getting a death penalty case and failing. Every defense attorney does."

Throughout his near half-century career, failure and Haynes have been virtual strangers. Still, he won't disclose his won-loss record. "Trials aren't sporting events," he argues. Yet all one need do is recollect some of the most highly publicized cases in Texas criminal history as proof of his success:

Haynes' rise to fame was boosted by his defense of Fort Worth millionaire T. Cullen Davis, accused of murdering his stepdaughter. Davis' wife, Priscilla, was wounded, and her lover was killed in the same attack.
Haynes' rise to fame was boosted by his defense of Fort Worth millionaire T. Cullen Davis, accused of murdering his stepdaughter. Davis' wife, Priscilla, was wounded, and her lover was killed in the same attack.
Haynes, in his Houston law office
Mark Graham
Haynes, in his Houston law office

In 1969, Dr. John Hill, a celebrated Houston plastic surgeon, was charged with killing his socialite wife, Joan, by injecting deadly bacteria into a dessert he served her. The case was a tabloid writer's dream: ruthless ambition, high society, beautiful people, a vengeful father, hapless assassins and, most important, River Oaks wealth.

It was the kind of challenging case most litigators dream of. And, as Haynes launched his defense of Dr. Hill, word quickly spread that there was a good chance the doctor might actually beat the rap. Why? Because Haynes had confided to several friends that he was convinced his client was innocent. Unfortunately, the world would never know. In his first court appearance, a mistrial was declared--a for-the-time-being victory for Haynes and his client. But before the doctor could be retried, he was the victim of a contract murder.

Still, the nationwide publicity generated by the case greatly advanced the celebrity of the engaging attorney with the strange nickname, slow drawl and trademark pinstriped suits and ostrich-skin cowboy boots.

Then, in 1976, there were eyewitnesses who swore it was Fort Worth multimillionaire T. Cullen Davis they had seen enter the Davis mansion on an August night shortly before his estranged wife, Priscilla, was found seriously wounded, her 12-year-old daughter Andrea and boyfriend Stan Farr dead. The wealthiest man ever tried for murder, Davis reportedly paid Haynes a quarter-million dollars to defend him in a trial that lasted six months (making it the most lengthy and expensive murder trial in Texas judicial history). Davis got his money's worth, ultimately acquitted to the surprise of many who had closely followed the soap opera-like case.

And then, just when it seemed Haynes' work was done, Davis was suddenly back in custody, charged with hiring a hit man to not only kill his divorce attorney but a dozen others on his enemies list. This time, there were even FBI surveillance audio and videotapes that seemed to make it slam-dunk clear that Davis was guilty. Thus Haynes would be called on to defend his wealthy client twice more--in a Houston courtroom where the proceedings ended in a hung jury and later in Fort Worth where he again managed to convince a jury that his client was innocent. Davis left the courthouse a free man. Though he won't confirm it, the four-year legal ordeal reportedly earned Haynes $3 million.

And head-shaking members of the legal community began referring to the high-dollar Haynes as a miracle worker. Others less charitable acknowledge him as a legal gunslinger. Several years ago, one judge split the difference, calling Haynes a "charming little jerk."

Retired Associated Press reporter Mike Cochran, who covered each of the Davis trials and later wrote the definitive book on the saga, calls Haynes "as good a courtroom lawyer as I've ever seen." No small praise from a man who has seen the likes of the legal icon Melvin Belli in action as he defended Lee Harvey Oswald's killer, Jack Ruby.

"Racehorse has this charisma and showmanship that just takes over the courtroom the minute he walks in," Cochran says. "The guy is spellbinding. And he's tough as a floor safe."

Veteran Fort Worth defense attorney Jack Strickland, who prosecuted the Davis murder-solicitation case, is not so generous. Still, he admits a grudging respect for his old adversary. "I think Haynes is an exceptional lawyer," he says, "but that's not to say I agreed with the tactics he used in the Davis case, trashing the victim [Priscilla Davis] the way he did. There's no question we really went at each other, and there were definitely hard feelings when the case was over."

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