Counsel for the Defense

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

And there's the story about his defense of angered Fayette County Sheriff T.J. Flournoy, who had assaulted Houston TV reporter Marvin Zindler after he'd exposed the existence of La Grange's famed Chicken Ranch brothel. ("Aw, we settled that one, and Marvin, an old golfing buddy of mine, agreed to donate his money to charity.") And the one about his client Robert Allen, formerly head of President Richard Nixon's Texas campaign organization, who allegedly served as a conduit for funds routed through Mexico to pay the Watergate burglars. ("My guy didn't really do anything illegal. He thought he was just handling campaign funds.")

A Dallas case won back in the mid-'80s, he acknowledges, would be a much more difficult task in today's climate. The man he was defending was a Briton named Ian Smalley. A cattle rancher and international arms dealer, he was charged with attempting to smuggle 100 military tanks to Iran and more than 8,000 anti-tank missiles to Iraq to help the countries ward off possible attacks from Russia. If convicted of violating the U.S. Neutrality Act, Smalley could have faced up to 70 years in prison.

Haynes argued that his client had been duped into believing the shipments were secretly authorized by the federal government. "The whole case turned on a tape of a conversation he'd had in which, according to the transcripts, he said he was 'going to the airport to meet the Russians.' I listened to that tape until I had a headache, and for the longest time I kept hearing the same thing that I was reading on the typed transcript," the attorney remembers. Finally, however, he became comfortable with his client's thick accent and heard what had actually been said: "I'm beat the rush hour."

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.

On his lengthy résumé, then, are alleged corporate thieves and capital murderers, prostitutes, drunks, deviates and doers of all manner of dastardly deeds. "I've made some interesting friends over the years," he says.

The Sunset Heights streets of Haynes' boyhood were not so mean as they were tough and demanding. The people who called the north Houston neighborhood home--including the parents of heart surgeon Dr. Denton Cooley and network anchorman Dan Rather--fought a constant battle against two-dollar tribulations and second-lien woes. So hard were times for his construction worker father in the '30s that for a while the young Haynes was sent to San Antonio to live with his grandmother. It was, he reflects, a blessing.

From age 2 to 10, he was cared for by a petite, energetic lady who rolled her own cigarettes, read to him from Shakespeare and the Bible and taught him to write and do arithmetic. By the time Richard Michael Haynes was ready to attend school, he was able, without help, to fill out the paperwork required to skip the first and second grades.

He was viewed as something of a prodigy, and the local paper published his picture. "Years later," he says, "Granny would tell me the homeschooling she gave me was the worst possible thing she could have done. She said, 'It got your picture in the paper for the first time and you've been in love with that idea ever since.'"

Far from publicity shy, Haynes had little room for argument. "Still," he says, "in everyone's life there is a great teacher, a great influence. My grandmother was mine."

When the Haynes family finances took a turn for the better, Richard was called home to the little white frame house on 26th Street. By the time he was ready to graduate from Reagan High School, he had earned a reputation as one of the city's premier amateur boxers and an excellent student whose teachers were encouraging to consider studying medicine. If, however, Haynes was going to afford higher learning, it would only be with the help of the GI Bill. Thus, barely 17, he joined the Marines and spent 1944 through '46 in the South Pacific.

For his heroic actions during the assault on Iwo Jima, pulling two wounded and drowning Marines from the cold February waters, he earned the Navy and Marine Corps Medal. "What I'm most proud of," he says as an impish grin crosses his face, "is the citation that read something like 'with unselfish concern for his own safety.'" Then he comes to the punch line: "That's the only time in my life I've ever been called 'unselfish.'"

A man of famed dark humor and good ol' boy self-deprecation, Haynes admits there was precious little humor to be drawn from his World War II days. "You grow up pretty fast sitting in a foxhole," he says. He would quickly learn that the battlefield offers no safe haven. "We had this fella we all called 'Pops' because he was about 10 years older than most of us. He was married, had a couple of kids back home and had already seen more than his share of combat. So, on the day we assaulted Iwo, the commander told him to remain aboard the troop ship out in the bay.

"We later learned that Pops had been walking out of the ship's mess hall when a stray Japanese shell killed him."

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