Houston News & Search
In a city famous for flamboyant trial lawyers, only one had a reputation so widespread as to be known by a single nickname, which by coincidence perfectly described both his courthouse record and his courtroom command.
Richard “Racehorse” Haynes spent the bulk of his 90 years embarrassing prosecutors who confidently squared off against him and impressing jurors who could not help but be swayed by his occasional theatrics and his masterful ability to introduce a ribbon of doubt into most every case. Haynes died early Friday morning while in hospice care in Livingston, leaving behind a string of successes unlikely to be matched and a legacy as the go-to lawyer for criminal defendants in the toughest bind.
From his early days handling small misdemeanors to the celebrated murder trials that made him famous – he gained national recognition representing local plastic surgeon John Hill of Blood and Money fame and Fort Worth multi-millionaire T. Cullen Davis – Haynes was more workhorse than racehorse. He practiced law well into his 80s until his health began to fail. Two weeks ago, confined to a wheelchair and unable to engage in conversation, he made his last public appearance at his 90th birthday celebration in his honor in downtown Houston, where he was still able to light up the gathering with his famous smile. Like so many famous Houston lawyers, Haynes came from a working-class world, the son of a plasterer whose family was so poor that the five children had to be split up for a time, with Richard sent to live with a grandmother in San Antonio. She instilled in him a passion for academic achievement and a love for language. His name even made the San Antonio papers when she pushed for him to skip several grades and enter school well above his age level. Even as a child, he later admitted, he loved the attention.
Haynes boot strapped his way to success via the law school at the University of Houston, at the time a small, practically oriented place whose students often came from the wrong side of the tracks and were hungry for a way to make a living and move up the social ladder. He achieved both not by gimmickry or sleight of tongue, as casual accounts seem to imply, but by a studied appreciation of the art of trial defense.
His victories were numerous and often notable. Haynes reportedly tried 163 DWI cases without a defeat in the 1950s and ’60s. Likewise, he specialized in what he called “Smith & Wesson” divorces, in which wives were charged with killing their husbands. He claimed to have won all but two of the three dozen such cases he handled, with the two losses not his fault.
“I would have won them if my clients hadn’t kept reloading their gun and firing,” Haynes famously said.
But his national name ID came from high-profile cases such as the trial of Hill, who was charged in the poisoning death of his socialite wife. The prosecution ended in a mistrial, and Hill was killed by a hit man before a retrial could be held. Journalist Thomas Thompson‘s best-selling book about the wild murder tale, and the movie that followed, gave Haynes a Texas-sized celebrity.
Haynes successfully defended Davis in a series of front-page trials. Davis was accused of the 1976 murders of his estranged wife’s daughter and her daughter’s boyfriend. The defense effort succeeded in putting his wife’s lifestyle on trial, meanwhile playing up the generosity of Davis. When Davis was tried again for allegedly plotting the death of the trial judge, Haynes managed to convince Houston jurors that he was the victim of overzealous police and prosecutors.
In “Great American Lawyers: An Encyclopedia,” Haynes was lauded as the essential Texas criminal defense lawyer, one who instinctively knew how to connect with local jurors.
“The big, brash state represents the epitome of the American entrepreneurial spirit and exalts the cowboy as the quintessence of rugged individualism,” stated the section on Haynes. “This cultural atmosphere sustains and rewards Haynes’ trial technique of boiling down complex legal issues to the level of personal experience and gut reaction.”
If that meant playing to the bigotry of a jury hearing the case of two white police officers accused of improperly killing a black man, Haynes was not loath to do it. If it meant portraying the wife of Price Daniel Jr., a former Speaker of the House in the Texas Legislature, as an abused victim acting in self-defense – and taking the unusual step of trying the case before a judge instead of jury – his judgment typically was validated by a not guilty verdict.
Haynes reportedly represented 40 defendants in capital murder trials and never lost any to the death penalty. That was not easy to do in Texas, even in a time when defense lawyers had more leeway in the courtroom.
“Richard was an inspiration and mentor to any criminal lawyer in Texas who ever drew a breath,” said Houston attorney Dan Cogdell, who went to work for Haynes in the 1980s after graduating from law school. An early convert to fancy boots and a western hat as standard courthouse attire, Haynes relished his success and his larger-than life image. But there was nothing superficial about his trial work, say those who knew him well. He prepared his case and believed he would win.
“If I’m tall, legally speaking, it’s because I stand on the shoulders of that 5-foot-7 giant,” said Cogdell, a highly regarded Houston defense lawyer. “The most important thing is confidence… Haynes’ confidence was never offensive or overwhelming, but it was always there. Always.”
Most of Haynes’ clients were not millionaires or connected to them, but he gave them his all, starting in the 1950s when he was trying small misdemeanor cases. He was willing to go to any reasonable length to mount a successful defense.
As colorful as he was, ever ready to entertain reporters with biting or humorous comments, Haynes knew his cases well and had a strategy in hand long before beginning a trial. He was known for thorough research into prospective jurors and trial witnesses. His lengthy cross-examinations were the stuff of legend.
“The technique, which I would call cross-examination ad nauseam, was to keep going until he had the upper hand, which always seemed to happen,” said Dick DeGuerin, a fellow celebrated Houston criminal lawyer who met Haynes as a young lawyer in the district attorney’s office. DeGuerin said Haynes’ success was no accident.
“It was intelligence and persistence,” DeGuerin said. “He was an aggressive, assertive guy, and the jurors loved him. When he dealt with witnesses, he was able to find the faults in their recollection or testimony or knowledge, and he’d exploit them. He knew his stuff.” “
Born in Houston in 1927, Haynes graduated from Reagan High School, where he was given his nickname by a football coach impressed by his knack for sprinting toward the sidelines instead of the more heavily trafficked center of the field. He then joined the Marines, serving in the Pacific during World War II. He participated in the Battle of Iwo Jima, where his actions resulted in a pair of decorations. He served another military stint during the Korean war after graduating from UH in 1951, this time as a U.S. Army paratrooper.
After Korea, Haynes gave serious thought to going to medical school. But as he told the UH alumni magazine, the consequences of even occasional failure as a doctor began to dawn on him.
“I worked for a couple of weeks at the hospital, and I said, ‘Man, I’ve got to get a profession where if I screw up, you can appeal,'” he said. “Because if you are a doctor and you screw up, you’ve got to go to the funeral, and I didn’t want to do that.”
Although he excelled in thefledgling U of H law school, there would be little opportunity for him to join silk-stocking law firms. He started from scratch, passing out business cards in bars which might explain the early run of DWI clients. He could not afford an office, just a part-time secretary to take his calls.
Gradually Haynes amassed experience, and great success, trying small cases. His reputation grew. Of course there were the theatrical moments that added to his reputation, such as accidentally tripping over a spittoon in an early case, then doing it over and over when it elicited sympathy from the jury.
Even lifelong adversaries were saddened to hear of the death. Former Harris County District Attorney Johnny Holmes, who tried several cases against Haynes, remembered well the colorful barbs the famous defense attorney had lobbed at him.
“He used to say, ‘You know Johnny Holmes, he’s the guy who thought Humpty Dumpty was pushed,'” Holmes said.
In a profession where sharp elbows can be an asset, Holmes said he appreciated Haynes’ ability to add a little levity to most situations. He said the career defense attorney would be missed for his legal prowess and acerbic wit.
“He said he wanted to be present at my autopsy because he wanted to see what pumps my blood,” Holmes said with a chuckle. “Guess he’s not going to make it now.”
Like many bigtime defense lawyers, Haynes did not apologize for his craft. It was his obligation to do every thing he ethically could to represent his clients’ interests. If he pushed the envelope at times – there were unproven allegations that a member of the Davis prosecution team was paid for information – it was in his mind only to level the playing field.
“I can’t permit myself the luxury of having it matter to me whether they are guilty or not,” he said in a 1986 interview. “I never think in terms of ‘getting people off.’ I always think in terms of the prosecution’s presentation did not persuade the jury beyond a reasonable doubt, as the law obligates them to do before they can convict.”
Haynes is survived by sons Blake and Slade Haynes. He was preceded in death by his wife of more than 60 years, Naomi, and daughter Tracey Alexander. Services are pending
Brian Rogers contributed to this report
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