Counsel for the Defense

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

Time, however, has thawed the relationship. "We've seen each other on social occasions a few times," Strickland says, "and even served as co-counsel on a drug case a few years ago.

"Richard is bright, as fast on his feet as anyone I've ever seen, and has a phenomenal memory. And he's always prepared. Having said that, he's also a man who can stand in front of a jury and say the most outrageous things imaginable, and somehow manage to keep a straight face while doing so."

The historic Davis case, Strickland admits, brought out the worst in a lot of people. "On both sides," he admits. At one point, the former assistant district attorney even publicly suggested that Haynes and his team of attorneys had crossed the line from advocates and become accomplices to the crime with which their client was charged.

Haynes cleans his ever-present pipe with a knife once used as evidence in a murder case he defended.
Mark Graham
Haynes cleans his ever-present pipe with a knife once used as evidence in a murder case he defended.
Haynes confers with Sharon R. Levine, one of the lawyers working in his Houston firm.
Mark Graham
Haynes confers with Sharon R. Levine, one of the lawyers working in his Houston firm.

Interestingly, it is no longer the personal wars or courtroom tactics or even brilliant examination of witnesses that come to mind as Haynes reflects on the milestone events of the Davis trial. Rather, it is an angry and tearful late-night call that came from his wife, Naomi, to whom he's been married for 53 years and delights in referring to as "the widow Haynes."

"She'd just had the flowerbeds landscaped," he recalls, "and my two Rhodesian ridgebacks had gotten in them and torn them all to hell. I said something like, 'Darlin', I'm up here [in Amarillo] trying the Super Bowl of capital murder cases, and you're calling me about the dogs tearing up the flowerbeds? I don't have time right now to worry about that. If it'll make you feel any better, just get a pistol and shoot the sons-a-bitches.'

"Well, all that did was cause her to cry harder and get even madder. She said, 'That's just like you. I'm here alone. I need somebody to talk to, and you're only interested in your stupid trial.' I could tell she was really steamed. So, I said, 'You're absolutely right. I apologize. I'm dead wrong. Put the dogs on the phone and I'll talk to them.'"

In the early '80s, a former Dairy Queen waitress named Vickie Daniel was charged with killing her husband, Price Daniel Jr. The fact the victim was not only the former speaker of the Texas House but the son of Price Daniel Sr., one of the most popular governors in the state's history, fueled a gossip firestorm in the little East Texas community of Liberty. Racehorse was summoned. Even before the murder trial, he would have to defend Daniel in a lengthy and raunchy battle against her rich and powerful in-laws for custody of her children. When, finally, his case had been laid out and Haynes rose to present his closing argument in the historic Liberty County courthouse, a triumphant marching song suddenly began to filter through the open windows.

"The high school band was practicing nearby," Haynes recalls, "and it was nothing more than happenstance that it struck up the 'William Tell Overture' just as I got ready to address the jury. The prosecutor jumped out of his chair and objected, saying I had orchestrated the whole thing. I explained to the judge that I didn't--but if I hadn't been dumber than a bucket of hair, I'd have certainly given it some thought."

Vickie Daniel got custody of her kids, was later acquitted of the murder, and Law & Order's Fred Thompson played the role of Racehorse in the movie that soon followed, getting Haynes' good ol' boy mannerisms down far better than NYPD Blue's Dennis Franz had when he played the defense attorney in the film based on the Davis case.

The Daniel case, legal experts say, broke new ground in the defense of battered spouses driven to retaliate against abusive husbands. Once an automatic murder conviction, a guilty verdict in such circumstances is now far more difficult to achieve. "There's no question about that," says longtime Dallas civil attorney and jurisprudence historian John Collins.

"What he's done throughout his career," says Collins, who worked with Haynes on a bribery case back in the early days of their careers, "is prove time and time again that the keys to success are thoroughness in preparation and being articulate in the courtroom. He is a prime example of all the positive things the advocacy system of justice is supposed to be."

Entering the courtroom without a bulging briefcase, a stack of law books or even notes on a legal pad has long been one of Haynes' disarming tactics, Collins points out. "But, as history shows, he comes to work with a keen awareness of the smallest weakness there might be in the government's case, completely prepared to give the prosecution a run for its money."

Even before the headlines and the fees that now start in the $500-per-hour range, before courtroom stardom and no last name was necessary, Haynes had long been serving up proof that he was on his way to becoming Texas' new litigation giant, the heir apparent to the title so long held by his mentor and first boss, Percy Foreman. During a 10-year period that began in the late '50s, Racehorse represented 163 clients charged with DWI and never lost. "That," he boasts, "is still a record."
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