Richard 'Racehorse' Haynes
There was a time when Richard “Racehorse” Haynes had his clients thank judges and juries at the end of their trials. But back-to-back cases in the 1970s changed his mind about that.
First, a Texas jury had just found his client not guilty on all counts, when Haynes told the court his client had something to say.
“Ladies and gentlemen, I want to thank each and every one of you,” the client stated. “And I promise you that I will never, ever do it again.”
A few weeks later, another Haynes client was acquitted. Again, the defendant thanked the judge and jury, only to be interrupted by the judge.
“Don’t thank me, you little turd,” the judge said. “You and I both know you’re guilty.”
Living and learning, says Haynes, is the key to being a good trial lawyer. If you don’t try something, you will never know if it would have worked. And Haynes admits he’s tried a lot of things.
“If you go in for heart surgery,” he says, “you want a surgeon who has done it a few times before.”
Indeed, Haynes is the master of courtroom theatrics. He once shocked himself with a cattle prod in open court to show the jury that, while it “hurts like hell, it’s not deadly.” Another time, he threatened to drive a nail through his hand to prove to the jury that it wasn’t really that painful. And he once cross-examined an empty witness chair in an effort to mock opposing counsel.
But these courtroom demonstrations are not the reason that Racehorse Haynes is a legend. The reason is his extraordinary success.
During his five decades of practice, he’s represented 40 clients facing capital punishment; not one has been sentenced to death.
Between 1956 and 1968, Haynes had one of the longest winning streaks in legal history. He defended 163 individuals charged with driving under the influence of alcohol. All 163 were found not guilty.
Comedian, musician and former Texas gubernatorial candidate Kinky Friedman described Haynes as “one of the most successful and most colorful silver-tongued devils to grace Texas since God made trial lawyers.”
Haynes, who turns 82 in April, has been the defense attorney in some of the most prominent Texas murder cases ever tried. He’s been memorialized in three books, two movies, a Broadway play, and even in popular music. In 2003, singer Tom Russell released a single called Racehorse Haynes:
Show me the phone, lend me a dime
I ain’t rollin’ over, I ain’t doing no time
I ain’t coppin’ no plea, I’m hip to your game
I ain’t talkin’ to no one, except Racehorse Haynes
Somebody better call Racehorse Haynes.
EARLY SHTICK GROWS OLD
Richard Haynes split his childhood growing up in Houston and San Antonio. His grandmother read Shakespeare and the Bible to him at bedtime.
He got the nickname “Racehorse” from his high school football coach, who complained that Haynes always darted for the sideline instead of gaining yards downfield.
After a stint with the Marines, Haynes used the GI Bill to pay his way through college and law school. He graduated from the Bates College of Law in 1956.
Haynes became a lawyer on a Friday afternoon and was in court trying a criminal case the next Monday morning.
“My first time to address the jury, I stepped right in the [chewing tobacco] spittoon,” he says. “I felt stupid, but the jury apparently felt sorry for me, and probably felt sorry for my client that he had such a stupid and clumsy lawyer. They acquitted him on all charges.”
If that works, Haynes thought, maybe he should try it again. So he started his second trial by stepping in the spittoon again, making it look like an accident. Again, the jury declared his client not guilty. Noting this seemed an effective ice-breaker with the jury, the Houston lawyer did it a third, a fourth—and continued nearly a dozen times. With each pratfall, the result was the same.
Finally, Haynes began another case by heading straight for the courtroom spittoon when the judge called him over to the bench.
“You’re not going to kick over that spittoon again, are ya?” the judge asked.
“I guess not, your honor.” Haynes knew the gag had run its course.
The Dallas Observer described Haynes as a “flamboyant ex-welterweight boxer, South Pacific war hero, motorcyclist, sailor and millionaire with a reputation that has grown to 9 feet tall and weighs in at a junkyard-dog-mean 500 pounds.” He told the weekly that he wanted to practice for another four years and then hang it up. That was in 2003.
But Haynes has no plans to step aside yet.
“I have to work through 2009 because I have a half-dozen cases set for trial,” he says.
Haynes is famous both for the variety and quantity of his cases. For instance, he’s represented three dozen women in what he refers to as “Smith & Wesson divorces,” which are cases where the husband had been abusive, leading the wife to kill in self-defense.
“I won all but two of those cases,” he says. “And I would have won them if my clients hadn’t kept reloading their gun and firing.”
The biggest of those Smith & Wesson divorces was his defense of Vickie Daniel, a former Dairy Queen worker accused of murdering her husband, who happened to be the speaker of the Texas House of Representatives and the son of a former Texas governor. Haynes knew the case would be neither popular nor easy.
The Liberty County courthouse windows were open to let in some fresh air as Haynes rose from his chair to start his closing argument. At that very moment, the high school band practicing next door started playing the William Tell Overture. The prosecutor immediately objected, claiming Haynes had orchestrated the whole thing.
“I wish I had, because it is a marvelous idea,” Haynes told the judge.
Courtroom observers say Haynes presented a brilliant defense, showing that the popular legislator had abused his wife, and that she did what she did to protect her health, life and children.
Daniel was acquitted and awarded custody of her kids. The trial established battered spousal syndrome as a legitimate defense in Texas homicides.
Haynes has been on the other side, too. He once represented a man who had been charged with assaulting a woman. He was convinced his client was being framed by the accuser. The alleged victim, he says, had a reputation for not telling the truth, as well as for “using a lot of NFL vernacular.”
To make his point, Haynes approached her on cross-examination and stepped on her foot.
The woman spewed a raunchy curse at him.
“That’s all I needed to show the jury, your honor,” Haynes told the court, and then he sat down.
His client was found not guilty on all counts.
A DRAMATIC FLAIR
Haynes has lived by the advice of his mentor, legendary Texas trial lawyer Percy Foreman: “If you can prove the victim abused a dog or a horse, you can convince the jury that the guy deserved to be killed.”
“For some reason,” Haynes continues, “cats don’t apply.”
For Haynes, the courtroom is always a place for theater. He reenacts crime scenes. He mimics opposing counsel. He shouts, screams and dances. He waves around murder weapons—be they guns or cattle prods.
There was a trial in the 1970s in which the prosecutor refused to call a key witness because he knew Haynes would tear him apart on cross-examination. Furious, Haynes used his closing argument to cross-examine an empty witness chair, asking the same probing questions he would have asked the absentee witness.
The stunt was effective; again, the jury acquitted on all counts.
Haynes once defended two members of the Outlaws motorcycle gang named Fat Frank and Super Squirrel. He says his clients were accused of nailing a woman, crucifixion style, to a tree after she “violated the first rule of the oldest profession”—she didn’t share money she made from her prostitution business.
Haynes says Florida prosecutors only pursued the charges because the woman was the daughter of a sheriff’s deputy.
Haynes showed that, as part of the motorcycle gang, the woman had performed a variety of public sexual acts, and he tried to convince the jury that she’d bragged about having her hand nailed and that it hadn’t been that big a deal.
Click here to read more about this image of Richard “Racehorse” Haynes (left) and Frankie Gusemano. Photo courtesy of Richard Haynes.
For the closing argument, Haynes had an idea: He would nail a hand to the defense table to show the jury it wasn’t painful. Haynes met with a medical doctor to find out if there was a place in the hand where a nail would cause less damage and blood loss. He then got the doctor to inject his hand with Xylocaine to reduce the pain.
Before the judge could intervene, Haynes called off the stunt.
“I chickened out at the last minute,” he says. “I was afraid I would start crying in front of the jury.”
The defense was effective even without the grotesque exhibition; the jury found his clients not guilty.
Haynes admits he uses flaws in the court system for the benefit of his clients—sometimes to his regret. Once, he defended two white cops charged with killing a black man. After a long, hard-fought trial, the jury found his clients not guilty. When a reporter asked Haynes to describe the turning point in the case, Haynes blurted his answer: “Well, it was the moment the court chose the last one of those 12 bigots to serve on the jury.”
“For several years after that,” he says, “prosecutors would pass around the newspaper article with that quote in it to prospective jurors.”
EXPERIENCE PAYS OFF
One of Haynes’ biggest cases came in 1976 when he was hired by Fort Worth multimillionaire T. Cullen Davis, who was charged with murdering his stepdaughter and his estranged wife’s boyfriend, and attempting to kill his wife. At the time, Davis was widely believed to be the wealthiest man to have ever been tried for murder in the United States.
Haynes provided a two-pronged defense: Davis was at a movie theater watching The Bad News Bears at the time of the murder, and an eyewitness put someone else at the scene at the time of the slayings.
The key to getting the jury to believe an alibi defense, he says, is to simultaneously provide an acceptable alternative scenario that points to someone else committing the crime. Haynes interviewed his client’s wife for 13 days in a cross-exam some critics said put her on trial by forcing her to answer sexual questions unrelated to the allegations.
The verdict: not guilty.
Two years later, Davis was arrested again. This time, he was charged with hiring a hit man to kill the judge in his divorce case, his ex-wife and a handful of others. Prosecutors, who had Davis on audio- and videotape, were confident of a conviction.
But the Houston lawyer once again worked his magic. Haynes told jurors that the state’s key witness was a paid informant who was not to be believed, that Davis went along with the sting operation because he thought he was working for the FBI, and that Davis was so rich that he wasn’t concerned with whether these people lived or died.
To everyone’s shock, Davis was again acquitted.
Haynes loves discussing his cases to teach young lawyers about trial practice. In 1978, he told attendees at an ABA meeting in New York City that attorneys too often limit their strategic defense options in court. When evidence inevitably surfaces that contradicts the defense’s position, lawyers need to have a backup plan.
“Say you sue me because you say my dog bit you,” he told the audience. “Well, now this is my defense: My dog doesn’t bite. And second, in the alternative, my dog was tied up that night. And third, I don’t believe you really got bit.”
His final defense, he said, would be: “I don’t have a dog.”
RICHARD “RACEHORSE” HAYNES
Born 1927 in San Antonio.
Firm Richard Haynes & Associates in Houston.
Law school Bates College of Law (now the University of Houston Law Center).
1971—Haynes defended prominent Houston plastic surgeon Dr. John Hill, charged with killing his wife by withholding medical attention. Some said the doctor had injected deadly bacteria into a dessert fed to his wife. The first court appearance ended in mistrial, and Hill was murdered by a hit man before he could be retried.
1977—Successfully defended Fort Worth multimillionaire T. Cullen Davis on charges he killed his estranged wife’s daughter and boyfriend, and tried to kill her.
1979—Won acquittal for Davis again on charges that he hired a hit man to murder the judge presiding over his divorce case.
1983—Successfully defended British businessman Ian Smalley, who was charged with international arms smuggling.
Other career highlights—Inspired singer Tom Russell’s ballad Racehorse Haynes on the 2003 album Modern Art.
Read about the other “Lions”:
Bernie Nussbaum: From Watergate to the World Trade Center
Joe Jamail: Keeping it simple
James Neal: Hating losing more than loving winning
Fred Bartlit: John Wayne in a pinstripe suit
Bobby Lee Cook: Kickin’ asses that needed kickin’
James Brosnahan: Defending clients, not movements
Richard “Racehorse” Haynes and Frankie Gusemano.
Photo courtesy of Richard Haynes.
Date Circa 1944.
Who Richard “Racehorse” Haynes (left) and Frankie Gusemano.
What Haynes lands a left to the jaw of his opponent.
Note By the time he finished high school, Haynes was regarded as one of the better amateur boxers in the San Antonio area.
Mark Curriden, an occasional contributor to the ABA Journal, is a freelance writer based in Dallas.
Mark Curriden, an occasional contributor to the ABA Journal, is a freelance writer based in Dallas.