Alchemist of the Courtroom
Dick DeGuerin magically transforms losers to winners
Published in 2007 Texas Super Lawyers magazine
on September 14, 2007
Updated on March 31, 2015
Texas breeds eccentricity like cattle, so Dick DeGuerin doesn’t have much time to sit and reflect on his career. “I consider myself fortunate to have had such a varied clientele—to be able to look back and know that it’s been a hell of a ride,” DeGuerin says. Over several decades, DeGuerin has been attached to criminal cases in Texas that ended up being forums for the nation. He enjoys a reputation for being colorful, and it’s not unusual to see him in a Stetson, but he’s serious about work—and there’s still quite a bit of fight in him. He’s tenacious for his clients, but even more so for his belief that American justice demands that every person, without reservation and without discrimination against the crime they’re accused of, deserves representation in court. By taking such a stand he has fashioned an enduring professional legacy with some stunning verdicts and some—let’s call them eccentric—clients.
But ask him to name his biggest cases and he’s reticent. “It’s not because I’m too busy, but because I’m busy enough,” he says while sitting in his office surrounded by mounds of paperwork. “If you pressed me right now for five cases that helped make my career, I probably couldn’t do it.”
So we did it for him.
In 1986, DeGuerin represented a mother accused of attempting to drown six of her children. Juana Leija didn’t deny her actions, even when two of the children died. As the prosecution was dealing out cards for the death penalty, DeGuerin argued that Leija had been driven insane by her husband and that she believed killing her children was the only way to actually save them. She pleaded no contest and received treatment and 10 years probation.
The conclusion to this Texas drama, which gripped the country, was obviously not played out inside a courtroom. Rather, it was a firestorm of bullets on April 19, 1993, in Waco, which brought to an end the 51-day standoff between the FBI and members of the Branch Davidians. Before the final showdown and after being hired by David Koresh’s mother, DeGuerin walked into the organization’s compound and tried talking Koresh into a peaceful resolution. DeGuerin spoke directly with Koresh, and he believed negotiations with the FBI could have eventually worked things out. Unfortunately, the fireworks simply erupted too soon, resulting in the deaths of Koresh and 74 Branch Davidians.
Senator Kay Bailey Hutchison
In 1994, as lead attorney for U.S. Senator Kay Bailey Hutchison, DeGuerin fought against charges of misconduct and document tampering during her tenure as Texas state treasurer. These accusations came from Travis County District Attorney Ronnie Earle, a Democrat. Hutchison, a Republican, hired DeGuerin, another Democrat, to help win her acquittal, which he did. The case had barely gotten both legs inside a courtroom when Earle tried to dismiss the charges, but DeGuerin objected and forced the trial to begin. The judge swore in a jury and ordered them to acquit Hutchison; therefore, no retrial could occur. Hutchison never faced another trial for the charges.
This is certainly one for the textbooks. In 2001, Robert Durst killed his neighbor and then dismembered and dumped the body in Galveston Bay. A wealthy man, Durst fled after posting bail and was on the lam before being caught (wearing a woman’s dress and wig as a disguise). For many attorneys, taking such a case might simply never be a consideration—and certainly not a winnable situation. DeGuerin brought his A game, arguing that the killing was an act of self-defense, and Durst’s attempts to destroy the evidence and then to flee—before and after his arrest—were simply the acts of a scared man. DeGuerin even put Durst on the witness stand to testify. Against all expectations (except for, perhaps, DeGuerin’s), Durst won a not-guilty verdict for murder charges.
And then there’s “The Hammer.” The nickname for former U.S. House of Representatives Majority Leader Tom DeLay is appropriate given that before 2005 he was one of the most powerful political forces in Texas and the country. DeLay’s money-raising capabilities and his political strength in Congress were legendary, but he couldn’t stop Ronnie Earle (yes, the same D.A. from the Hutchison case) from bringing charges. A grand jury indicted him on money laundering and conspiracy charges, and you could hear the state and country once again take sides across the great political divide.
“I’ve probably gotten more hate mail for representing DeLay than Bob Durst or David Koresh,” DeGuerin says with an amused grin. “I was at a function recently with a lot of civil libertarians in the audience, and I got up and asked how many thought that Tom DeLay deserved a fair trial. No one raised their hand.” The grin fades. “Isn’t that amazing?”
DeGuerin says that taking DeLay’s case is about nothing more than justice: “I took the case because it’s a raw deal. It’s not about my politics. But believe me, the case is about politics. [DeLay is] being prosecuted for his political beliefs and not because he’s done something wrong.”
DeGuerin says that DeLay gave the Republicans control of the Texas House, which then redrew congressional districts to send more Republicans to Washington and shore up power in the House of Representatives. “He didn’t do anything against the law. That’s clear as a bell,” DeGuerin insists. “He did what he did better than the Democrats did. That’s why he’s getting prosecuted.”
No decision has been made yet in the DeLay case.
DeGuerin works all over the state, using his own transportation whenever possible—a Cessna Turbo 206, which he pilots himself.
The longer flights, he says, are good to free his mind and think of issues other than the practice. “I’ve always had a great bit of difficulty drawing a line between my life and my career. I don’t think it’s gotten any harder, but it hasn’t gotten any easier. I still think about my job all the time.”
He has been a pilot since 1962 when he was attending the University of Texas in Austin and was a member of the Longhorn Flying Club. After graduating, he stayed a Longhorn and received his LL.B. in 1965. He began his career with the Houston District Attorney’s office before coming to the attention of Percy Foreman, known for defending Jack Ruby after he shot Lee Harvey Oswald. When Foreman offered DeGuerin a job, the young lawyer accepted and held onto it for 11 years.
“It’s very tough on a young lawyer to build a practice and to know what to do,” says DeGuerin. “It’s hard to know the obligations of a lawyer unless you’ve got someone who has been through the battles before and can show you the way. The client is the most important thing you got, and I say draw a bright line between making a friend and being someone’s defender.”
For that reason DeGuerin says he doesn’t cultivate friendships with judges or prosecutors. “That’s one big thing Percy taught me,” DeGuerin says. “You don’t want to be put in the position of weighing what’s best for the client against whether you’re going to get to play golf with the judge next week, or whether your friend the prosecutor is going to get mad.” He adds tough words for some of his colleagues: “I’d say the majority of those who practice are practicing on their influence and the influence of whom they know. I was wearing a T-shirt just yesterday,” he adds slyly, “and it reads, ‘A good lawyer knows the law; a great lawyer knows the judge.’ That’s just the antithesis of what I believe.”
Fighting complacency on the part of the public is also one of DeGuerin’s major concerns. It’s one of the foundations of his beliefs—along with not making friends with judges or his clients, and the idea that everyone deserves representation in court—and if it falls, the whole thing crumbles. “Most people never have to deal with an accusation that they’ve broken the law—not really a serious accusation, anyway,” he says. “So they don’t have to intellectualize what that means, and why the rights that we have are so important. But we all need to fight to preserve our rights so they’ll continue to be there.”
Such lack of understanding, DeGuerin believes, comes from people who don’t expect to ever use the laws; so he understands, though doesn’t condone, why people look the other way when it comes time to observe the civil liberties of other people—especially his clients. Furthermore, he believes the pendulum of justice is swinging to the right, away from individuals and toward empowering the government. “You have to deal with that among jurors. Look at the laws that have been approved by Congress—you look at this Patriot Act, which is as much a Gestapo-inspired piece of legislation as anything we’ve ever had. And the recent effort to do away with the writ of habeas corpus—it’s something that our country was founded upon. People aren’t up in arms about that because they’re complacent. That’s disturbing.”
So who does DeGuerin think could have helped fix such complacency in the populace? At least in Texas, it’s Kinky. Last year DeGuerin joined Kinky Friedman as an unpaid adviser in his race for governor. “I wasn’t an unpaid consultant,” he corrects. “I was a paid consultant: I paid a lot.” More seriously he adds: “I thought that he would make a good governor. I think he’s real smart. He’d bring a freshness to the job. Secondly, I believe in creating a little chaos. He shook up the establishment—shook the trees. In the end, Kinky was destroyed by the unfair criticism that he is a racist. I know Kinky’s not a racist because we marched on the same bar back in the 1960s.”
DeGuerin then tells the story of two bars in Austin—Pete’s on the Drag and Jack’s Around the Corner—that were segregated. After the owner of Pete’s said something negative about integration and how blacks would never drink at his bar, a number of people—DeGuerin and a young Kinky among them—marched against that bar. “We almost got beat up, and I almost got kicked out of my fraternity for doing it. But I thought it was the right thing to do, and so did Kinky,” he says.
Of course, Friedman didn’t win the governor’s mansion. And not all of DeGuerin’s clients end up like Juana Leija or Robert Durst. But the lawyer remains committed to the law, even risking the shine on his legal legacy by still taking the tough cases. “I think I still take a lot of risk in my cases, but I’ve done that all along. The main criteria is if the client needs me. And I take cases that a lot of people in my position may not take,” says DeGuerin. “But if you just sit back and take only the cases that assures you the win, then you’re coasting. And if you’re coasting you’re just going downhill.”