I interviewed him when he was well into his 80s and still going strong in his office. He was truly a “lawyer’s lawyer.” His long-time legal assistant, Elise Sartwelle, is a friend. When I walked in for the interview, I saw he and I both hang our name tags from the various legal events we attend from a hook in our office and clip them one by one to each other to make a conglomeration that grows bigger and bulkier every year. It was a sign to me that we all have more in common than we think. And that we value the time we give to our causes and are proud of the work we do. Seeing those tags every day is a reminder that what I do in the law has meaning. It’s worth the blood, sweat, and tears.
Richard “Racehorse” Haynes graduated from law school in 1956 when things were very different than they are today. He walked into his first trial a couple of days later and accidentally kicked a spittoon on the way to address the jurors. Yes, they did have spittoons in the courtroom back in those days. He noted how the jurors laughed at his clumsiness and he knew he had them. His vulnerability was what they loved, and they believed him throughout the trial. He told me that he kept up the practice of accidentally kicking the spittoon at each trial until one judge got wise and moved it. He told me that doing something that shows the jurors that you are human is what will bond you to them for the duration of the trial.
Racehorse went on to win a long string of criminal trials that gave him one of the longest winning streaks in legal history. His rise to fame really began in the 1970s with a string of highly publicized trials of high-profile members of society. Many of his legal strategies were unconventional but effective. He could concoct a theory, no matter how outrageous, and sell it to a jury like no other. He was always prepared, kind, and present, and he had a sense of humor like no one else.
Rather than think about what we lost, I want to share some of the things he told me in our interview for a peek inside this complex, yet down-to-earth man who was so loved by the legal community.
On Picking Jurors
“I try to pick jurors that I think can be sympathetic, and I examine them pretty carefully and make sure I don’t have a bad juror. I remember one time, I was trying a case and I felt sure my client was innocent. He was accused of stealing money from the bank where he worked, and they found him not guilty. I told him that if they found him not guilty, to get up and thank the jury. He got up and said, ‘I want to thank you ladies and gentlemen, and I’ll never do it again.’ After that I wouldn’t let anybody say anything to jury.”
On “Blood and Money”—the John Hill Case
Dr. John Hill was accused of killing his wife, Joan Hill. Racehorse got a mistrial in the first trial and Joan Hill’s father, Ash Robinson, allegedly hired a guy to shoot Dr. Hill before he could be tried again.
Racehorse remembered, “Tommy Thompson wrote a good book about it. It was a well-written book. I wish I had read it again. I could remember more of the case. I knew Dr. Hill and he had done some surgery on my daughter. I knew he was a good doctor.” After John Hill was shot before his second trial, Racehorse tried to win a civil case against Ash Robinson. Racehorse said, “When we were taking [Ash Robinson’s] deposition, he and I went to the potty. He said, ‘You know I did it, don’t you?’ I said, ‘Yeah, I do.’ He said, ‘You’ve got to prove it.’ I said, ‘I know it.’ We sued him, but I couldn’t prove it.
On the Cullen Davis Trial
Cullen Davis was a millionaire accused of killing his estranged wife’s young child and boyfriend.1
You’ve got to remember that Cullen was an Aggie and he was the son of a multi-millionaire. He had a brother who was sharing the multi-millions with him, and he had this great big house in Fort Worth right on the golf course, Columbia Golf Course. He married a gal that was anxious to be part of Fort Worth society, and she was cheating around on him. He got a divorce and she cheated him in the divorce. She got the house and a lot of money and property. I didn’t think he was guilty of killing her. I knew he had been at the movies that night because he described the movie. I personally went over and talked to the man who worked at the movie theater who saw him come in, checked him in, and even showed me where he sat. I knew he was innocent.
Racehorse’s sense of humor comes out in the next part about the trial that he shared:
The only thing funny that happened during Cullen’s trial in Amarillo was I got a lot of mail from people because there was a lot of press. I got one letter from Odessa, a little town outside of Amarillo. It said, “I am praying for you and doing everything I can to help you. Yours truly, God.” The letter had a phone number, so I called God, and a lady answered the phone.
I said, “This is Richard Haynes, I’m down in Amarillo, and I just got a letter from God. Is he in?”
She said, “What makes you think God is a HE?”
I said, “I’m just male chauvinist pig enough to think that.”
The lady got on the phone and I told her, “I got your letter and I appreciate your help, but I’m kind of like a lot of people in the Good Book, my memory is jaded, I need a sign.”
“What kind of sign?” she said.
I said, “Give me a numbered bank account in a Swiss bank.”
She said, “NO.”
I said, “Lady do this. When I read the Good Book, I find that boils were prevalent. If you can put a boil on the nose of Joe Cannon, my antagonist in this trial, I’d appreciate it. I don’t want surgery; I don’t want to disfigure him. I just want a boil on his nose.”
She said, “OKAY.”
The next day when I see Joe, I said, “Joe, you’re giggling now, smart ass, but you’re going to have a boil on your nose before the week is over.”
He didn’t, but his co-counsel, Marvin Collins, who later became a judge, had a boil on his butt.
I said that was a pretty close shot for Odessa. I know Marvin has always got his nose up Joe’s butt.
Racehorse never lost his sense of humor.
On the Case He Would Most Like to Be Remembered For
I was floored when he told me about this case because, after all the big cases, the mega-publicity, and notoriety he had gained in his life, it was this little case that he chose:
It was a case I tried years ago. Mr. Jackson, a black man, was accused of stealing property from the jobsite where he worked. He worked with a bunch of white men, and I’m satisfied that the white guys were doing the stealing and blaming it on the black buy because he was the only black guy there. The jury acquitted him. The family had a little party for me at their house. They lived in the Third Ward in a one-bedroom shack. They had some people over there and they put my name on the wall. The kids had written, “God Bless Lawer Racehorse.” They couldn’t spell lawyer. They thanked me that night and I left there feeling that I have done something good. I’ve changed this man’s life. It may have been the biggest victory I ever had. It made me feel good.
Racehorse confirmed my belief that the little things like making a difference in someone’s life is what drives us as lawyers. It is not always the big stuff—the money and the fame—that gets us, it’s knowing that we can help people and that things are different for that person because of the work we do. I think we can all relate.
On the Key to Cross-Examination
Racehorse was famous for his cross-examination. If the prosecution failed to bring a witness to trial, he was known to cross an empty chair.
“You just have to watch the jury to see if they are getting the message—the SOB is lying, and if he’s lying about one thing, he’s going to lie about all things.”
On Work-Life Balance
“It’s hard to balance work and life. My wife points out to me that I was never home. I was always downtown at the courthouse and she raised four kids. That’s what kept us together—that whoever left had to take the kids. She wasn’t going to do it and I didn’t want to. But it’s tough to have a marriage and family and practice law because you must give so much time to the practice of law. As it is, I’m up here until 6:30 or 7:00 every night.”
What Racehorse Says to Young Lawyers Pursuing the Law as a Career
“Don’t get discouraged. Believe in the law.”
His Answer When Asked: Are You Ever Going to Retire?
“I hope not.”
Racehorse didn’t leave his office until a very few years before his death. He will be remembered for having taken the mantle of Percy Foreman, the famous trial lawyer, and carrying it further than anyone ever thought he could. His creativity and reliance on people’s good common sense made him a lawyer to be feared in the courtroom and revered by those he represented. He is an inspiration to us all. We make a difference. Our challenges and struggles are worth it. Please share your thoughts, ideas, and comments with me at firstname.lastname@example.org.
1. This text has been corrected to accurately reflect the crime of which Cullen Davis was accused.