Embracing the Ugly Baby

Dick DeGuerin doesn’t sidestep reality when he represents clients like accused murderer/millionaire Robert Durst

Published in 2015 Texas Super Lawyers — October 2015

In the days following the broadcast of HBO’s six-part documentary The Jinx: The Life and Deaths of Robert Durst, Dick DeGuerin seemed to be everywhere. The series concluded on March 15 with Durst, a millionaire whom DeGuerin successfully defended in a 2003 murder trial, making comments while in the bathroom that were reported by the press as an admission of guilt.

DeGuerin derisively refers to the remarks as the “crapper confession” and maintains his client’s innocence. “When you put something together for dramatic effect rather than to document facts, then you don’t get the facts. You get drama. But when it’s disguised as a documentary, that’s even worse,” opines DeGuerin, with DeGuerin Dickson Hennessy & Ward in Houston.

The Houston criminal defense attorney has spent most of his career representing high-profile clients including Durst, Branch Davidian leader David Koresh, U.S. Sen. Kay Bailey Hutchison, and former U.S. House Majority Leader Tom DeLay. He’s all too familiar with the kind of media attention that such clients often elicit. But he also understands the narrative demands of television. After all, his daughter Carlin has worked as a producer for the CBS newsmagazine 48 Hours, and his son-in-law Stuart Miller was a supervising producer for The Daily Show.

The day before the last episode of The Jinx aired, Durst was arrested in New Orleans on a first-degree murder charge out of California in the 2000 death of his friend Susan Berman. During the arrest, FBI agents charged him with possession of a weapon. DeGuerin declined to discuss the specifics of his client’s case except to proclaim his client’s innocence, adding, “That’s something that we’re going to go into in court, if and when any part of the documentary is attempted to be used as evidence. And that’s a big, big ‘if.’”

One of DeGuerin’s favorite trial strategies is to address the facts of the case, no matter how unattractive or damning. “Embrace the ugly baby,” he says. Take Durst’s earlier case, in which he was tried for the 2001 murder of his Galveston neighbor Morris Black. “There wasn’t any doubt about the fact that Bob Durst had cut up Morris Black, dismembered him and thrown the body in the bay. We had to live with that,” says DeGuerin. “And the simple explanation for it was he panicked. The killing itself, the shooting itself, was a struggle over a gun; and the gun went off accidentally. But then after that, what Bob did could have been made to make him look guilty. But in truth, it was panic.” DeGuerin put Durst on the witness stand as part of his defense in the 2003 case. The jury returned a not-guilty verdict on the murder charges.

While Durst’s case is front and center for DeGuerin, he also has an upcoming one involving a young mother charged with intoxication assault of her 3-year-old daughter. He also alludes to the case of Wallace Hall, a Dallas entrepreneur and investor who is a member of the University of Texas System Board of Regents. Last fall, Hall was investigated over allegations involving his investigation of William Powers, then-president of the University of Texas at Austin. DeGuerin was successful in keeping Hall from being indicted by a Travis County grand jury.  

A UT alumnus, DeGuerin learned to fly while pursuing his undergraduate degree in Austin. Today he pilots his Cessna Turbo 206 around the country. “Flying is a great release,” he says. Although DeGuerin was uncertain at press time whether he’d be flying himself and his legal team to Los Angeles for Durst’s upcoming trial in the Berman case, he was planning to fly with his wife, Janie, to California for a weeklong stay at Rancho La Puerta, a spa just south of San Diego in Tecate, Mexico. He was looking forward to a 5:30 a.m. wake-up call to hike up a mountain, followed by three more hours of equally vigorous exercise. In between the workouts, there’s breakfast. “You can have anything you want, as long as it’s oatmeal or a hard-boiled egg,” deadpans DeGuerin.

The late spring trip to Rancho La Puerta was a respite from the demands of defending Durst against the federal weapons charge in New Orleans. The outcome of that case could preempt his murder trial in California.

“I do like complicated cases and, frankly, cases that are high-profile,” says the 74-year-old DeGuerin. “They’re more challenging, there’s more attention, there’s more criticism of the lawyers and what they’re doing. And to me, that challenge is what it’s all about.”

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