Good time Charlie
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.
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."
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.
Two women are seated in a courthouse hallway waiting to be summoned for jury duty. A man with a briefcase walks past them, and one woman turns to the other and says, "There goes a criminal lawyer." The second woman replies, "Well, aren't they all?"
Charlie Tessmer doesn't usually tell lawyer jokes, but there is something about this one that defines his life. "I was a bit of a rounder," he recalls. "I didn't try to hide anything. I sat on the front row and sang louder than anyone. I didn't give a damn about what people thought. What do people think about a criminal lawyer anyway?"
Yet Tessmer has spent the better part of his career trying to change the public's perception of his profession. The legal landscape when he graduated from SMU law school in 1949 gave him a lot to work with. Tessmer came from an era when criminal lawyers flew by the seat of their pants, preparing for trial on the day of trial, winning jury verdicts by chewing on witnesses and raising hell. Some criminal cases never got filed, with money changing hands from client to lawyer to prosecutor. Rarely would a Dallas lawyer investigate the facts, research the law, create a trial strategy that planted land mines for the prosecution timed to explode on appeal. Tessmer helped change that.
In the late '40s, Dallas was at moral cross-purposes with itself -- gambling and whoring on Saturday nights, praying for God and Sheriff Bill Decker to do something about it on Sunday mornings. But as long as those illicit activities took place behind closed doors -- whether it was a gambling house on top of the Southland Hotel or a cathouse on North Akard Street -- Decker was disinclined to break up the fun. Let the gambling turn violent, and the sheriff would lock you up or run you out of town. Let the pimps and prostitutes take their business to the streets, and the vice squad would sweep them clean of these "vagrants." County vagrancy cases were big business for the criminal bar, and a hungry Charlie Tessmer was in no position to turn them down.
His father, a railroad man, died when Tessmer was 10, and his mother, something of a drinker herself, didn't have the money or the inclination to raise him alone. Tessmer was her only child, and she was about to put him in an orphanage when her sister agreed to care for him. He lived with his aunt and uncle above their furniture store on Elm Street in East Dallas, a rowdy neighborhood from which many of his friends would wind up in Huntsville or dead. Tessmer would visit the whorehouses in South Dallas, collecting weekly rentals for the mattresses and box springs that his uncle routinely restocked. "They were kind to me," Tessmer recalls. "And it showed me a side of life that I would have never seen."
Before enlisting in the Army in 1941, he married a woman he met at a downtown nightclub. Eventually, he was sent to England, where he was assigned to military intelligence, investigating American GIs who turned black marketeers. In London, at the criminal courts of the Old Bailey, he grew enamored of the law.
After he returned from the war, his uncle offered him his store. Tessmer's wife, Ebbiah, already caring for one baby girl with another soon to follow, insisted that he opt for the security of an established business. But Tessmer would have none of it. He attended SMU, completing his studies in four years as he worked nights at a downtown liquor store.
After passing the bar, he rented office space with a classmate for $30 a month in a second-floor walk-up on Main and Lamar streets. His mother became his secretary, working for free if she had to. Often, she had to. "It was her way of making things up to me," Tessmer says.
But his real office was Bill Martin's TV Bar on Elm Street about a block from the municipal courts. The place was thick with cops and call girls, and Tessmer was always open, available 24 hours a day for those freshly arrested.
Tessmer's wavy red hair, golden voice, and drinks-all-around demeanor made him easy to like and hard to forget. He realized he had to separate himself from the pack, hone his skills as a trial lawyer or risk being brushed with the same sordid reputation as many of his peers. Tessmer was a quick study. He had a photographic memory, he could read and write at a lightning pace, and he researched the lives of the great masters of his profession. From them, he learned that the law was as much about show business as it was about legal precedent.
Shortly after opening his practice, he put on his flashiest suit, added a flower from his neighbor's yard, polished his briefcase with shoe wax, and headed for the Criminal Courts Building on Main Street. In those days, there were only two criminal district judges, and Henry King, the more prosecution-minded one, pulled Tessmer into his courtroom and appointed him to a case. The judge introduced Tessmer to his client and told him to be ready for trial in 20 minutes.
Tessmer spoke briefly to Fred Alphonse Brooks, who was accused of stealing an electric sander from a construction site. Brooks was a six-time loser, each time going to the pen for theft. In all of those cases, Brooks had pleaded guilty. In this case, however, Brooks said he was innocent, claiming he just found the sander. With six prior theft convictions and a defendant who was essentially caught in the act, the case should have been no contest for the prosecution. But Tessmer argued that his client was an honest thief: He admitted his crimes when he was guilty; he refused to take the blame when he wasn't. The jury was out 10 minutes before it found him not guilty.
After the verdict, a deputy approached Tessmer and told him Sheriff Decker wanted to see him. Tessmer went along peacefully. You didn't say no to Bill Decker.
"He just congratulated me," Tessmer remembers. Decker admired his talent and told Tessmer he would do what he could to help him. He persuaded Tessmer to become a Mason, which became a great referral source; if a prisoner was in the county jail on an infamous "Decker hold" -- no visitors, sheriff's orders -- Tessmer was one of the few lawyers who could gain entry and beat out the competition.
There was no love lost, however, between Tessmer and Henry Wade. Tessmer built his reputation on the backs of Wade's best prosecutors -- James K. Allen, Bill Alexander, Fred Bruner -- racking up so many acquittals and light sentences that after a bitterly contested robbery trial in which the jury slapped the defendant with only eight years in the pen, Wade accused Tessmer of suborning perjury. "I have been aware for some time that defense attorneys have been using perjured testimony in many of our criminal trials," he told The Dallas Morning News in 1953. Wade also believed that Tessmer was just a little too cozy with one of his top assistants, who he suspected was leaking secret grand jury testimony to Tessmer. Other than raising Tessmer's profile, nothing came of either allegation.
Of course, Tessmer would cozy up with just about anyone -- particularly anyone with press credentials. Each win was a celebration, each loss a wake, and either was reason enough to invite the press and throw a party. "Early on, I institutionalized a bar in my office for the fourth estate," Tessmer recalls. Eddie Barker, Jackie Renfro, Ralph Coleman, Murphy Martin, and Bert Shipp were among the reporters who came to his law office at 706 Main St., standing around the bar and listening to Tessmer's regular piano man play Tessmer's favorite Sinatra tunes. For those who couldn't keep up, there were pullout bunk beds and a cold shower. A justice from the Texas Court of Criminal Appeals was notorious for not keeping up. Tessmer, on the other hand, might fade for 15 or 20 minutes at a time, but after these intermittent bouts of unconsciousness, he would somehow revive himself and pick up where he left off, at least for the next two to three days. Oddly enough, his name would show up in news reports even when he filed boilerplate legal motions of little news value. The press seemed to cover his every move.
But nothing sealed Tessmer's reputation like the Charles Jack Stewart maiming case in 1954. Stewart was part of the Lakewood Rats, a pack of spoiled rich kids who got violent when they got bored. When the 18-year-old Stewart swaggered into a Lakewood restaurant, smashed a beer bottle into a man's face, and took his eye out, the city was outraged. The newspapers refused to let the story die. Tessmer had to file a change of venue, which was granted only after the first jury couldn't reach a verdict, deadlocked over Tessmer's claim of self-defense. A second jury later convicted Stewart of maiming, but then sentenced him to probation. He walked out of the courtroom with Tessmer, who had by that time attained the local reputation he had sought.
"I had the right of first refusal on every big case in the city," Tessmer says. "That's when I became what they call 'the man to see.'"
No case was bigger than the State of Texas vs. Jack Ruby -- the man who killed the man who killed Kennedy. Tessmer had known Ruby for some time, had frequented his Carousel Club, and suspected that Ruby had once been an "errand boy" for the Chicago mob. But Ruby stayed out of trouble in Dallas, except when he roughed up a drunk in his club. For that he used attorney Tom Howard, who two days after Oswald's murder met with Tessmer and his young associate Frank Wright. Ruby wanted Tessmer to defend him.
"Only, he wanted me to represent him for free," Tessmer says. "I told Tom I would have to think about it."
A few days later, Tessmer and his wife ran into Sheriff Decker, who urged Tessmer not to get involved with Ruby. "There may be a conspiracy," Tessmer recalls Decker saying. "Those are dangerous people."
Decker's warning caused Tessmer to hesitate long enough for Ruby's family to hire San Francisco attorney Melvin Belli. The flamboyant "King of Torts" put the city of Dallas on trial, and Ruby must have resented his tactics. On the morning the trial was set to begin, Tessmer says, Ruby's brother Earl and sister Eva were sitting in his office, begging Tessmer to replace Belli.
Jack Ruby was the kind of client who could become synonymous with Tessmer's name and cement his reputation as one of the great criminal lawyers of his time. Only Tessmer turned him down. Belli had already made a public mess of things, Tessmer says. "I just felt it was too late."
"That was a severe mistake," Wright says. "The only thing that Charlie missed in his career was that national case that could have made him a national figure. He never got that chance again."
Tessmer seemed more comfortable "chasing the bubble of fame" -- as he says -- in Texas. While other high-flying lawyers would take their acts on the road and try cases wherever the money brought them, Tessmer was more of a homeboy.
Yet at home, in front of the nation's toughest juries, he was worth every penny you paid him, particularly since he set his fees at Depression-era prices. "I never did charge properly," he says. "Where I came from, $25 was a lot of money for getting whores out of jail."
Instead of the Ruby case, he tried an arson case that garnered so much publicity locally, it pushed the Ruby trial off the front pages. A downtown fire at the Golden Pheasant Restaurant claimed the lives of four firemen in 1964, and investigators quickly targeted its owner, Charles Bryant, who years before was suspected of burning another restaurant to the ground. Tessmer and Wright convinced the grand jury not to indict Bryant for murder and a trial jury not to convict him of arson.
Tessmer understood the spectacle of the courtroom, trying to re-create a crime scene not with two-dimensional photographs or scaled-down drawings, but with the actual crime scene itself. In the 1961 trial of Tony Davis (the first black man acquitted of raping a white woman in Dallas County), Tessmer brought the bed where the act allegedly took place into the courtroom. He introduced a bathroom door as an exhibit in a murder case, a bedroom door in a statutory rape case, a dog in a fondling case. These became props in his hands, bits of stage business that Tessmer the actor could use to re-enact, cajole, and persuade. He would costume himself in flashy suits. As the protagonist in his own drama, Tessmer would re-enact the death scene, showing how a struggle for the weapon might have caused it to go off accidentally. He knew how to deliver a line, when not to step on one, how to charm a hostile witness into making a damning admission by soft-pedaling his own attack. "I know lawyers who would kill for that voice," says Dallas attorney Stan Weinberg, who worked for Tessmer in the '60s. "And the whiskey only made it richer."
In a capital case, Tessmer would seat himself in the witness chair, acting as if he were in the electric chair, and then he would describe for the jury in graphic detail how electrocution was anything but the painless procedure the prosecution painted it to be.
Another lawyer trying the same theatrics might come off as disingenuous or over-the-top, but not one of Tessmer's 175 capital murder clients was ever executed. Of course, none of his gimmicks would have worked if Tessmer weren't well prepared.
He read every criminal case decided by the Texas Court of Criminal Appeals, the 5th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals, and the U.S. Supreme Court. "His memory was near perfect," says attorney Ron Goranson, who worked for Tessmer in the early '70s. "He could recall the case name, the county where the case was tried, the judge who wrote the opinion." Since he knew more law than most trial judges, he could convince them to rule in his favor, even when he was wrong. Appellate judges praised his work in their opinions, something rarely done.
In 1968, Tessmer wrote a book on litigation tactics titled Criminal Trial Strategy that is still considered by many a bible in the field. He was elected president of the National Association of Criminal Defense Attorneys in 1972, the only Dallas attorney ever to hold that position.
"More than anyone else," says Dallas criminal defense attorney George Milner, "Tessmer brought credibility to the profession. He made it acceptable to be a criminal trial practitioner within the Dallas bar."
When Tessmer was in trial, the gallery was standing room only, filled with prosecutors and defense attorneys hoping to learn from a master at work.
Tessmer's reputation for hard work was nearly surpassed by his reputation for hard play. "It was interesting watching Charles celebrate," Milner says. "I might celebrate for two hours, but he might run for two weeks.
"He always wanted companionship," Milner says. "Particularly when he was drinking." He ran with an eclectic entourage of 15 to 20 hangers-on. In addition to the regular crowd of reporters, lawyers, and judges, he traveled at various times with a portrait artist, a piano player, a washed-up boxer, a bookie, a retired cat burglar, a Dixie Mafia member, a bell captain, and a midget.
When "Mr. T" walked into one of his favorite nightspots -- the Kings Club at the Adolphus, the Chateaubriand in Oak Lawn, the Great Indoors on Greenville Avenue -- the band would start playing Sinatra's "My Way," and Tessmer would tell the waiter the drinks were on him. "He was magnanimous when he was intoxicated," says veteran reporter Hugh Aynsworth. If Tessmer had money, everyone had money. Last call meant nothing to him. Tessmer would simply persuade the club owner to lock the doors. The bartender kept pouring, and the band kept playing.
"He would just functionally disappear from the office for a couple of weeks at a time," attorney Ron Goranson says. "We knew he was out running."
Tessmer would pick people up like they were just so much luggage. Goranson recalls that Tessmer once left the office headed for New Orleans to argue a federal case before the 5th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals. "The next time we heard from him, he was in Las Vegas with the entire Delta flight crew."
Work and play left little time for family. "Ebbiah said she was overweight because Charlie never came home," Goranson remembers. "She'd cook two meals and eat them both." Tessmer kept peace at home with a form of bribery. "I would go out and kick up my heels, and my wife would go out and buy another Cadillac," he says. It was an expensive arrangement, but it worked. They stayed married until her death from cancer in 1973.
The only thing that slowed him down was litigation. "I quit drinking two, three days before a case," he says. "I would dry out, take a steam bath, exercise, do the whole nine yards."
Tessmer rebounded for trial time and again: He represented Ruth Knighten, a Dallas cafeteria worker accused of killing her newborn baby. Her previous court-appointed counsel arranged for her to plead guilty to a life sentence, which she did. After Tessmer took over, he got her a new trial and claimed she was insane at the time of the murder. A jury took eight minutes to acquit her. With Percy Foreman, he defended federal narcotics agent James Lander, who was found guilty of murdering his stewardess girlfriend. Prosecutor Doug Mulder, Henry Wade's first assistant, asked that Lander receive a life sentence. After Tessmer's stunning argument -- any prison sentence would be a death sentence for a cop -- the jury gave Lander probation. In 1973, Tessmer represented grocery-store owner Betty Cundiff, accused of murdering the husband of a close friend who was having an affair with a police officer. The two lovers had already received 25-year sentences for their part in the slaying. Cundiff was the alleged shooter, and a witness put the murder weapon in her hand minutes after the killing. But Tessmer, with his biting cross-examination, made a mockery of several prosecution witnesses. The jury acquitted in just over an hour.
No matter how zealous your belief in law and order, no matter how diehard your conviction that the courts coddle criminals, you couldn't help but admire the sheer artistry of Charlie Tessmer. "I have been around for 30 years and seen almost all of them -- F. Lee Bailey, Gerry Spence, Percy Foreman, Racehorse Haynes," says Jim Rolfe, former U.S. attorney for the Northern District of Texas. "And Tessmer was the best I have ever seen."
"The world was my oyster," Tessmer says. "I didn't think it would ever end."
In 1970, H.L. Hunt was losing money in his food enterprise known as H.L.H. Products, and his sons Nelson Bunker and W. Herbert decided to find out why. They suspected several top executives of embezzling large sums of money and hired two bumbling private detectives to bug their telephone lines in Richardson. Not surprisingly, the private eyes were caught, and the Hunts hired Tessmer and Dallas attorney Emmett Colvin to represent the men. After an extensive federal investigation lasting more than three years, the Hunt brothers were also indicted.
Tessmer and Colvin spent those years claiming that the police search of the wiretappers' car was illegal. They took the case all the way to the U.S. Supreme Court and lost.
Days before Tessmer's client, John Kelly, was about to start his five-year sentence, he phoned his lawyer, seemingly anxious about going to prison. Tessmer made the mistake of telling Kelly, "I'm sure the Hunts will take care of you," not knowing that Kelly was now bugging him. The setup was part of the government's attempt to prove that Tessmer, the Hunt brothers, and their lawyers had conspired to obstruct justice by trying to keep the wiretappers from testifying against the Hunts.
Tessmer didn't help himself when he appeared in front of a Dallas grand jury and claimed he didn't recall his phone conversation with Kelly, which the government had recorded. So in July 1975, when the grand jury returned its conspiracy indictment against the lawyers, it also indicted Tessmer for perjury.
Reporter Hugh Aynsworth, who was the Houston bureau chief for Newsweek and friends with Tessmer, found out that the FBI had Tessmer on tape. "I phoned Tessmer," Aynsworth recalls. "I told him he needed to get straight with those people." Tessmer wrote a letter to the U.S. Attorneys' Office in Dallas, admitting to the conversation with Kelly but claiming he was intoxicated at the time.
Jim Rolfe, then the assistant U.S. attorney handling the case, never thought the charges had much merit in the first place. "We made the wise decision to dismiss it," he says. "And Tessmer pleaded no contest to the misdemeanor charge of contempt of court." The judge ordered him to pay a fine of $1,000, but no one could punish Tessmer as much as he would punish himself.
Tessmer had spent a legal lifetime trying to convince the public that the practice of criminal law was a noble calling. Suddenly his ethics had been impugned. The conviction was a festering wound that wouldn't heal.
"He was never the same lawyer again," George Milner says. "I have never seen a lawyer come back from an indictment, win or lose. You always feel like a target, looking over your shoulder. You can never get back to where you were."
Tessmer says referrals from other lawyers dried up. "My phone just stopped ringing. They wondered if I would be going to prison before my clients did." He felt abandoned by some of his closest friends. Many in his entourage wanted nothing to do with him. Tessmer even cut back on his drinking. Somewhat.
It took more than two years for his business to rebound, but even then Tessmer didn't feel comfortable in federal court, "because I had been there as a defendant," he says. But that's where all the big business was headed: The war on drugs was heating up, with its huge fees from cocaine smugglers. They would be followed by the savings-and-loan scandal of the late '80's, known among the Dallas criminal bar as "The Lawyer's Retirement Act."
Trial work is for the young, and these trials were going to a new cast of characters -- Milner, Billy Ravkind, Frank Jackson, Doug Mulder -- who got their education, their butts kicked, or both from Charlie Tessmer.
In 1982, Milner asked for Tessmer's assistance in the arson trial of John and Sharon Altman. The Altmans owned a two-story leather-manufacturing business in downtown Dallas that burned to the ground less than 15 minutes after they left their warehouse for the night. The prosecution believed the Altmans had poured kerosene on the second floor and started the fire to collect the insurance. Tessmer and Milner claimed the fire started accidentally from a smoldering cigarette. The jury agreed with Tessmer and Milner.
"Charlie was able to lead some of my witnesses down the path where I knew they would be ambushed at the end," says Ted Steinke, who was the lead prosecutor on the case. "It was a textbook course in cross-examination."
Even into his late 60s, Tessmer still had it -- he just didn't feel as compelled to prove it. He began to slow down, farming out tougher cases to younger lawyers, but every so often, a good old-fashioned multiple homicide would get his blood flowing again.
In 1990, Gerald King, a deacon in an East Oak Cliff Baptist church, shot and killed two other deacons while counting the collection-plate offerings after Sunday services. Tessmer was reluctant to take the case, but couldn't help himself after he became convinced King was acting in self-defense. Convincing a jury, however, proved a more formidable task. As Tessmer exhaustively outlined the evidence in his closing argument, he made a surprising announcement, almost by way of apology: "I am going to be turning 70 next month, and I just don't have it anymore. This will probably be my last big case."
It was quite moving -- the old warrior declaring he would no longer be fighting the good fight. But Tessmer wasn't serious. He was just trying to milk whatever sympathy he could for his client. He'd even ordered new business cards before the trial began. The ploy must have helped. Prosecutors were furious when the jury sentenced King to 15 years instead of the life sentence they had sought.
The press, however, took him seriously. Both the Dallas Times Herald and The Dallas Morning News ran lengthy stories saying Tessmer was "probably" hanging up his vest. "The press made me, and the press retired me," says Tessmer, whose phone stopped ringing once again.
But this time he didn't seem to mind.
The practice of law had entered the computer age, and Tessmer was reluctant to go there. Skyrocketing overhead and time sheets and paralegals were more than he cared to deal with. It took him another year to make up his mind, but he finally decided to retire. After 40 years of trying cases, Charles Tessmer packed up his things, closed up his shop, and went home.
He greets visitors in his blue seersucker robe and house slippers, talking the talk of the elderly, answering a simple "how you doing?" with the latest prognosis on what's ailing him. His persistent nosebleeds caused him to delay his recent child-abuse case.
He never imagined he'd be living in Garland in a small, unadorned ranch home. Tessmer remarried after his first wife's death, and he moved here at his new wife's insistence so she could take care of her 91-year-old mother. The house smells museum-musty and looks cluttered, and much of its wall space is dedicated to the yellowed newspaper clips, old black-and-white photos, and gold commemorative plaques. There is one he is particularly proud of: In 1988, the Texas Criminal Defense Lawyers Association inducted Charles W. Tessmer into its Hall of Fame.
There's an antique wall clock that's stopped running, and he is waiting for the repairman to fix it -- that's all he has planned for the day, he says. But he's busier than he lets on. He tried retirement for about a year, but grew bored "watching reruns of The Fugitive." So he accepted Frank Jackson's invitation to become "of counsel" with his firm. "That's where you get an office and don't have to pay any rent," he says.
His continuing practice amuses and worries his friends.
"I'm afraid he might do something to damage his great reputation," Ron Goranson says. In trial, his flashes of brilliance are followed by lapses of memory.
But Tessmer proved he could still try a case when he won an acquittal six months ago in a DWI trial. "The initial facts didn't look good for him," recalls Dallas Judge Dan Wyde, who presided over the case. "But he got the officer to admit a different version of the facts than he put in his police report. That's not too common."
"Charlie's like an old fire horse," says Stan Weinberg, who assisted him in the trial. "When the phone rings he's ready to go, a little slower perhaps, with a few more aches and pains. But he's still ready to go."
The repairman arrives at his house and begins to work on the wall clock. "I always thought that I would keep running as long as that clock did," he tells him.
Tessmer suggests his own reason why he's still practicing law 50 years after he began. "I need the money. I have some put away, but I don't know if I will outlive it. I never thought I would be 79. I thought I would be dead at 40, the way I was living."
He says he still "partakes of the grape"; he's a regular at the VFW Post on Garland Road, where he "can still buy old soldiers drinks...at half price." And why should he stop anyway? "Most of my AA friends are dead and buried," he says.
The repairman has finished quicker than expected, and Tessmer demands to see the invoice. "I want your boss' name and phone number," he bellows, his sonorous voice intimidating the repairman.
Tessmer grabs the paper and dials the number. "Yes, this is Charles Tessmer, and I have your man here," he declares. "I just want you to know he has done an admirable job."
The repairman looks relieved; his face beams with appreciation.
Instinctively, Tessmer reaches for one of his business cards and hands it to him. Never know when you might need a good criminal lawyer.
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