Win bolsters high esteem for DeGuerin
Houston lawyer's stature built on defending difficult cases
© Fort Worth Star-Telegram
February 13, 1994
By Barry Shlachter
He's befriended Sandinista leader Daniel Ortega and represented an assortment of murder suspects, ex-cowboy millionaire Rex Cauble and Jesus Christ-wannabe David Koresh.
Now he has helped win an acquittal for and possibly saved the political fortunes of mainstream Republican U.S. Sen. Kay Bailey Hutchison.
Is Dick DeGuerin yet another larger-than-life, headline-snaring Texas lawyer in the mold of Richard "Racehorse" Haynes and their common mentor, the late Percy Foreman?
Texas Monthly called DeGuerin Texas' "best criminal defense attorney." That's a notch or two up from 1989, when Texas Lawyer said that his reputation in Houston legal circles was second only to Haynes'.
"He's had some excellent results with some cases that other lawyers wouldn't accept because of the degree of difficulty," said Haynes, 66, who has known the 52-year-old DeGuerin since the younger attorney completed legal studies at the University of Texas at Austin. "He's first-class.
"DeGuerin doesn't mealy-mouth; he's pretty upfront," Haynes said. "A lot of lawyers lay in the cut, then snap at their heels. That's not really his M.O. (mode of operation). He sort of takes up the cudgel and goes straight for the throat - sort of a Doberman pinscher approach."
DeGuerin, who had maintained since he joined the case that Hutchison would be cleared, was less than jubilant at the manner in which the case was settled.
"I'm a little disappointed. I feel like the racehorse that got to the starting gate and someone called off the race. We were ready to go," he said. "We would have won this case, whether it took five minutes as it did this morning or the two weeks as the DA said it would, or two or three months as I believe it would," he said Friday after the sudden acquittal.
"We would have won it with a not guilty verdict on all counts no matter what happened. The only thing that happened today is that (Travis County District Attorney) Ronnie Earle wasn't as humiliated as he would have been if we took the time to let everybody know what this case was about."
Hutchison's husband, Ray, said that DeGuerin was hired to replace Washington attorney John M. Dowd because the senator needed to bring in a Texas lawyer. DeGuerin said several judges had referred the Hutchisons to him.
The Democratic lawyer and the Republican politician had crossed paths through the years at UT: as undergraduates - she a Pi Phi, he a Sigma Nu - and as law students, and again when Hutchison was a TV reporter in Houston. But they were never close.
DeGuerin declined to disclose what he will receive in the Hutchison case, and would neither confirm nor deny published reports of $100,000 murder trial fees. But whatever the fee, a former prosecutor quotes him as saying that some cases are worth more for their publicity value.
What is clear is that many clients are left satisfied.
"Dick is practicing in an area of the law where hitting .250 is considered a good record," said fellow Houston attorney David Berg. "And this man is hitting .600 to .700."
DeGuerin initially aspired to be an FBI agent. But he was rejected, he believes, because of a college prank-related arrest for drunkenly climbing onto then-Gov. Price Daniel's float in Austin's Round-Up Parade.
Decades later, DeGuerin flashed on the nation's TV screens with scathing denunciations of the FBI when the Branch Davidian compound near Waco burned in April.
To him, Koresh was "lucid, very reasonable," not the "religious nut who burned up a lot of his followers," as the authorities and media portrayed.
"In this day and age of trashing lawyers, I wanted to represent someone seen by the world as a fiend and do it with dignity and ethically without being seen like an ambulance chaser," DeGuerin said in an interview.
He had cut a dashing figure, donning a helmet and mounting a motorcycle to meet with his besieged client. At one point, DeGuerin's eyes welled with tears on CBS' This Morning as he described the Davidian children's rooms.
For a total of 24 hours, DeGuerin huddled with Koresh to discuss a last will that was never signed, negotiating strategies for a possible book contract - which would have paid legal fees - and assuring his client he had a good chance of acquittal should he be tried, he said.
Federal authorities ended up regretting the lengthy visits by the image-conscious and outspoken DeGuerin, who had just won headlines for the acquittal in the retrial of Munir Deeb, one of two men initially sentenced to death in the Lake Waco slayings of three teen-agers.
"The negotiators lost control" when they let DeGuerin and another lawyer into the compound, an FBI analysis of the Waco episode quoted agency hostage expert Gary Noesner as saying.
In the view of Jeff Jamar, the FBI agent in charge, subsequent monitored conversations within the Davidian compound "revealed that Koresh had used the attorneys to buy time and make it appear that he was interested in resolving the standoff," the FBI analysis said.
DeGuerin responded: "They're just trying to justify killing those kids, gassing those kids." And he hasn't encountered flak from within his profession.
"Looking back on it, it took a great deal of personal courage for him to go into the compound," Racehorse Haynes said. "I don't have any criticism of his professional conduct. He dotted his i's and crossed his t's.
"He had to be in a position of almost appearing to be hot-dogging to fight the avalanche of propaganda that was coming from the government," Haynes said in a telephone interview. "I'd give him an `A' on his efforts."
Deguerin, a multi-mile daily jogger now married to his third wife, maintains a weekend retreat in rural Burton, where he has ridden in the Cotton Gin Festival.
He masterminds defense strategies from restored offices at 1018 Preston St. With hardwood floors, wooden railings and Southwestern touches, Gunsmoke has met Santa Fe in downtown Houston.
Along with courtroom sketches depicting legal victories, on display are photos of DeGuerin mugging with former Nicaraguan President Daniel Ortega, the revolutionary socialist that former President Reagan loved to hate. DeGuerin met Ortega through a mutual friend, New York lawyer Mike Kennedy.
"Dick's politics are a little more enlightened and left-wing than many professionals'," said San Antonio attorney Gerry Goldstein, 50, who has worked with DeGuerin on several cases.
"Though they (establishment figures) hire him to represent them, there's a bit of anarchist in him," added Goldstein, president-elect of the National Association of Criminal Defense Lawyers. "Dick is more comfortable in a dogfight in the courtroom than a social event in a country club - even though he'd look like he'd fit in at either."
Gerald Treece, 47, a professor at Houston's South Texas School of Law who has tracked DeGuerin's career, agreed. "DeGuerin reminds me of a sort of civil libertarian lawyer, the true believer. He doesn't look the part. He dresses like a Dallas Republican but acts like a Chicago Democrat."
And the Hutchison case has been politically revealing for the senator's lead counsel, reported Berg, 51, who has known DeGuerin for 27 years.
"Dick told me," the Houston attorney said, " `I've been unsettled by something I've learned in recent weeks: Republicans are normal.' "
He was born Richard DeGeurin in Austin on Feb. 16, 1941, the son of a politically connected, oil-and-gas lawyer close to Lyndon Baines Johnson. In college, he began spelling his name DeGuerin, the original French rendering, but never formally changed it. His younger brother Mike, also an attorney and now defending one of the Branch Davidians in San Antonio, kept the family's spelling.
Because he was smaller than average, skipping a grade made him all the more conspicuous to schoolyard bullies. "It gives you a natural sensitivity to people who get beat up," said DeGuerin, whose driver's license states his height as 5-foot-10 but who stands - with thick-heeled cowboy boots - an inch shorter than a 5-foot-8 interviewer.
Today he takes on clients' foes attired in impeccable suits and Simonized boots, his longish blond hair setting off a nearly cherubic if bespectacled face. The media, he complains, describe him as flamboyant even though "I don't wear a Rolex or flashy jewelry." Overall, he resembles what a Campbell Soup kid might look like three decades after sitting for the state bar exam.
After UT Law School, DeGuerin spent three years as a staff lawyer with the Harris County district attorney's office. He left the office in 1968 to do civil litigation, mainly representing insurance companies, with the Houston firm of Butler, Binion, Rice, Cook & Knapp. Bored, he joined Percy Foreman's criminal defense practice in 1971, as would his younger brother.
For 11 years, DeGuerin learned from one of the masters of the craft and won some highly publicized cases. But he did not share equally in the profits, despite the firm's being called Foreman & DeGuerin. An acrimonious break occurred in 1982, when DeGuerin left with another colleague; his brother Mike stayed and inherited the firm when Foreman died in 1988.
"I think (Foreman) didn't really want the parting and it was painful to him," Haynes said. "He personally wished it hadn't occurred, but he lived with it."
From a client's point of view, "DeGuerin is stern, which is what it takes," said Rex Cauble, 80, of Denton. "He tells you how to act before a jury - and he means for you to do it that way. If you don't, he doesn't get upset, he'll upset you."
After serving time on a federal drug-racketeering conviction, Cauble hired DeGuerin - on a contingency basis - to sue his wife and son for a share of the family fortune. Cauble, who has always denied being "trail boss" in the celebrated "cowboy mafia" marijuana smuggling case, said, "If I had Dick to start with, I would never have been convicted."
One of DeGuerin's better-known cases was a Big Thicket "love triangle" murder trial with racial overtones. In 1986, he defended Hurley Fontenot, a Hull-Daisetta junior high principal who was charged with murdering football coach Billy Mac Fleming. Fontenot was black; Fleming was white.
With the school secretary testifying that her affair with Fontenot had been long over when she began seeing the coach, DeGuerin argued that the principal had no motive and, therefore, nothing to gain by killing the man. After five weeks of testimony from some 200 witnesses, the principal was acquitted.
Later, an incensed Texas Ranger investigator warned that DeGuerin was breaking the law by carrying an old Texas Ranger badge welded to a money clip, said Lewis Dickson, DeGuerin's partner.
"To be very objective, Dick DeGuerin is certainly one of the most capable defense attorneys in the country," said David Walker, 44, the prosecutor who lost the case and is now an assistant county attorney in Montgomery County. But he added: "DeGuerin will go to any extreme in defending a client.
"I wish he wouldn't resort to sponsoring outrageous evidence, which clearly any reasonable, sensible person would realize is garbage," said Walker, citing what he said were two glaring examples from the Fontenot case.
DeGuerin explained away residue of human blood that had dripped down to the undercarriage of the principal's pickup by saying it was not the coach's but rather menstrual blood from Fontenot's wife, which had seeped through a sanitary napkin and a 55-gallon container, the former prosecutor recalled.
Then there was the defense witness who testified to seeing the principal and coach traveling in different directions the day of the killing from 100 yards away. But the witness, a diabetic with failing eyesight, couldn't describe details on a poster 10 feet away, Walker said.
"Even if something is a bit outrageous," he complained of DeGuerin's approach, "if you could just inundate the jury with thoughts and theories that are inconsistent with the defendant's guilt, then that probably increases the chances for a not-guilty verdict."
"So what?" asked Treece, the law professor. "That's what criminal defense attorneys do - raise suspicions about the government's case."
But there are ways DeGuerin differs from other attorneys.
"I think the most distinctive characteristic of Dick is that he's always undaunted," Berg said. "He's a tough guy who keeps his own counsel. The prosecutors never know what his strategy is going to be."
"He doesn't do the broad brush, the broad-picture stuff," Treece said. Rather, "DeGuerin is so exceptionally meticulous on detail. He'd be a great commercial litigator because he is so attuned to the nuance of the case.
"That's what separates him from most criminal defense lawyers," the law professor said. "That, coupled with extraordinary preparation. He has almost an instinct when a person is saying something that doesn't jibe with the facts, and is able to hone in - almost to the point of pain."
Berg calls it DeGuerin's "scorched earth" style of cross-examination. Then there is DeGuerin's other weapon: his low-key, folksy allure.
"Some jurors, particularly the women, were clearly charmed by Dick DeGuerin," Walker said of the attorney's performance in the Fontenot case.
Last week, during screening of the Hutchison jury pool, many prospective jurors appeared to warm toward DeGuerin, who would begin a question with an almost intimate "How do you feel about . . . " By contrast, the assistant district attorney from Travis County appeared competent, but cold and mechanical.
Perhaps Haynes comes closest to summing up the man: "Dick DeGuerin is a wonderful combination of aggression, cockiness and courtesy. He's got it all.
"There's a lot of confident lawyers, but they don't have the Southern gentility, a little overlay of the Old South, which I think is necessary. And that's what I think sets Dick apart, and has created the celebrity and the success."