Q&A: Racehorse Haynes
How Richard Haynes kicked a spittoon and launched a legendary career
Published in 2009 Texas Super Lawyers Magazine — October 2009 on September 23, 2009
Updated on November 18, 2019
Somewhere between superlatives—the most charming guy in Texas, the best lawyer in Texas—is an ordinary 82-year-old guy, who just happens to be a legend. Spend a few minutes with him—as you can below—and you’ll see why.
Super Lawyers: How did you get the nickname Racehorse?
Richard Haynes: I was in junior high—it was a segregated school—and I was the fastest white kid in my class. It was a better nickname than some of the kids got.
You must be the only lawyer in the world to have a song made about you. Tell us about the song and the artist.
There are a couple of songs about me. One was written in Fort Worth by a cowboy named Tom Russell. I was trying a case where a man had used whips and chains on his wife. It was a crowded courthouse every morning, with a wife accused of killing her husband—I call them Smith & Wesson divorces. I was representing the wife and the local TV station stopped a little old lady at seven in the morning and said, “What are you doing here waiting in line?” You had to get a ticket to get into court. She said, “Are you kiddin’? Whips and chains and Racehorse Haynes?” By 5 o’clock that night some Fort Worth musician had written a song up there called “Whips and Chains and Racehorse Haynes.” Somewhere I’ve got that tape.
When and how did you decide to become a lawyer?
I started off as pre-med, but I worked for a week in a hospital and I decided that I’ve got to do something where if you screw up, you can appeal, because those people in the hospital are just too unnerving. And if you make a mistake, you can’t correct it. So I decided to go to the law.
What year did you become a lawyer?
Fifty-three years ago. That’s a long time to be a lawyer.
I’ve been practicing. That means I don’t know how to do it yet.
Do you remember your first case?
I was just telling one of my colleagues about it. I got sworn in one day, came back to Houston the next day, and had a case on the docket. It was a DWI. I worked in the courthouse in the law library in my third year in law school, so I got to see some really good lawyers, so I had some idea how to go about it—but not much of an idea. So I tried my first case the first day I came back from being sworn in.
How did you do?
I won. What happened is—every courtroom then had a spittoon. As I walked over to talk to the jurors, I kicked the spittoon, and I was embarrassed. They took sympathy on me, and that’s probably why they found my client not guilty. After that I put the spittoon over there every time I tried a case. After about seven or eight months, the judge called me up and said, “Race, you’re not going to kick that damn spittoon today, are you?” So that was the last time I kicked it.
You were a boxer when you were young. Is the courtroom anything like being in a ring?
A little bit. If you don’t keep your eyes open, they’ll punch you in the jaw. The only difference between boxing and the courthouse is you don’t get any rest periods in the courthouse.
Have you ever had the urge to step back in the ring and throw a few punches?
I’ve had the urge, but Father Time has told me to forget about it.
You’ve been practicing law for five decades. What do you think was your biggest success?
It’s hard to say. The papers all say it was the T. Cullen Davis case, because it had the most publicity. But I think the best case I ever had was a case way back when, when a poor black man was accused of stealing tools from a construction site he worked on. He didn’t have any money, and I went down and represented him. It turned out that one of the guys he worked with—a white guy—had been stealing, and they decided to blame him because he’s black. The jury found him not guilty, and after that, [the defendant’s family] had a little party for me in their house out in the Third Ward. The kids were there, and they put signs on the wall, “God bless lawyer Haynes.” I felt that was the biggest case I ever won; I contributed to the well-being of that family and made them happy.
What’s your biggest failure or disappointment?
Every time a jury comes back with those ugly words, “guilty as charged.”
I understand that you used to have your clients thank the judge and the jury, but you stopped that at some point. Why?
I did it because I was so satisfied that my client wasn’t guilty that I told him, when the jury comes back, if they find you not guilty, thank them. Then one day a client stood up and said, “Thank you, ladies and gentlemen, and I’ll never do it again.” Another time there was a young man that I was representing in county court, and I told him to thank the judge. The judge’s mother had been my Sunday school teacher; I had known him since I was 12 years old. My client stood up and said, “Thank you, your honor.” And the judge said, “Don’t thank me, you little turd. I know you’re guilty.” So I don’t thank the judges anymore.
Is it true that you once shocked yourself with a cattle prod?
Yeah, I did. The defendants were accused of using a cattle prod on the deceased, causing the cattle prod to kill a man. It turns out that the cattle prod didn’t kill him. We got a professor from out here who used a cattle prod on a chicken and it wouldn’t kill the chicken. So we were in court—I found out that if you unscrew the little thing off the top of the cattle prod and put a dime in there and screw it back in, it shorts out the thing so it still makes a buzzing noise but no electricity comes through. At a recess, I’m down there, and the courtroom’s filled with reporters, and I unscrewed it and put it up to my neck and pulled the trigger (makes buzzing noise). I put it back down and rewired it. When the prosecutor came back in—he turned out later to be a good friend of mine—he said, “You know, Race stuck that thing on his neck and pulled the trigger.” So he picked it up, shot his arm, and it knocked him over in the jury box.
There’s a rumor that you drove a nail through your hand while the jury watched.
I was thinking about it. I was representing some people who were accused of crucifying a little girl, nailing her to a cross. After the fact, she went around showing her scars, her stigmata, to people in the bars to get beer. I was thinking that I’d get a shot here between my fingers to deaden it, and I’d take the state’s exhibits, the nail and hammer, nail my hand to the rail to show the jury it wasn’t that painful. I got the shot and I was going to do it, and I got to thinking, what if I started crying in front of the jury? That ain’t goin’ to help. So I didn’t do it. But there are people who still say they saw me nail my hand to the rail. I didn’t do that.
Is it true that you once cross-examined an empty chair?
I did. The prosecution didn’t call a witness, so I had to put the witness’s name on a piece of paper, put it in the witness chair, and then ask questions on the cross of that witness, who was not present, in the closing argument.
Do you have a guess at how many cases you’ve tried?
I’ve tried to guess, but really don’t know. One time, over a 10-year period, I know I counted up over 163 DWIs that I tried—all of them successful until the last one. They found a really prominent Houstonian guilty of DWI, and I had to fight like hell to keep him out of jail. But 162 of them not guilty. But that was before the Breathalyzer. That was back when they used just the blood and the urine, so it was pretty easy in those days.
Has the number of people who come to you as clients slowed down or sped up?
Calls keep coming in; it’s just that I can’t do them all. One of my colleagues passed away this last December, and she was handling most of the cases.
How do you choose a case? Just one that interests you?
One where I think I can help. You know, bring some justice to the families, some peace to the families.
You’ve been in the Texas Bar since ’56. Has the practice of law changed much since then?
Well, yeah. The presence in today’s courtrooms of computers just boggles me, because I think it’s a waste of money, and I think it takes away from the jury—their opportunity to look at the face of the witness and judge whether or not that witness is telling the truth. If they’re looking at a film, they can’t really tell whether the witness is telling the truth or not. So, having a computer in the courtroom, I think, has complicated it and detoured the thought that we’re going to have some justice.
The other thing that’s bad is the presence of the cell phone in the courtroom. These kids can text message with the damn cell phones in their pockets. They can take pictures now. I just got a note from a lawyer friend of mine, he was not supposed to have been drinking. But he was at a party during March Madness, and he was drinking, and somebody put his picture on the computer, and the prosecutor got it and showed it to the judge. They tagged the photos, and the photos were dated as to when he had been drinking. He wasn’t supposed to be drinking; he was on probation. The judge indicated he thought the photos might be admissible. You can’t get stuff off the computer. You know, when the computer first came out, I thought this is going to be a giant step for mankind, sort of like the printing press was. That we’d be able to interface medical and scientific information worldwide, and enhance the quality of life of the human being. Which is true, which it has done. Except the computer has become the biggest trespasser on the right of privacy of human beings that man can think up. There ain’t nothing about you that the computer can’t find out. It’s ridiculous. Because a lot of your private life ought not to be made public. But that’s yesterday and not today.
A lot of older lawyers that I’ve talked to complain that we’re seeing the right of trial by jury taken away from us. Do you think that’s true?
There’s been a tendency to want to get mediation and arbitration to substitute for trial by jury. When that first came out I was against it because I thought it would eliminate trial by jury and people are entitled to jury trials. But after participating in a few of them, I can see now that maybe it’s helpful because it gives the parties in litigation a chance to argue and get the venom out of their system without running up the cost of the court or tying up the court. It has a place. If the system can avoid a jury trial, the system would like to do it because it takes too much time, costs too much money. But I don’t think we can ever get rid of it because the whole country is based on that, and our Constitution is based on the right of a trial by jury and the rights that we have under the Constitution. So, they can’t take those away from us, I hope.
I don’t want to embarrass you, but you’ve been the role model for a lot of lawyers in this country, not just this state. But who is your role model?
Percy Foreman. There’s a book out about him called King of the Courtroom, I think. He was a brilliant lawyer. He told me something that has stayed with me all these years. He said, “If you’re in Texas—the best part of the country—and your client is accused of killing somebody, and if you can prove that the guy your client murdered was guilty of abusing a horse or a dog and you can prove that to the jury, the jury will acquit your client.” And that’s true, except juries don’t give a damn about cats.
All over the country, and definitely in this state, you’re a famous guy—a genuine celebrity. Do you get special treatment everywhere you go?
There are those that think I do. And the judges all treat me nice. They’re all respectful of old people, but I guess they’re afraid I’ll have a heart attack and they don’t want to be the ones who said the last salty word to me. People are pretty nice.
Have you ever thought of slowing down?
My wife keeps telling me I need to stop. I want to, except that the phone rings and there’s somebody that needs help. And I just can’t resist wanting to help. So I guess that’s what motivates me. It ain’t the money anymore.
Do you have any advice for young lawyers?
What I tell all these young lawyers is to read Harper Lee’s book To Kill a Mockingbird. Read that book once a year. Kinda get your mind set that there is a way to get justice, but you’re going to have to fight for it in this country. Actually, you have to fight for it every place, but even in this great country where we have the rules that are set up to give you a fair trial and make it a level playing field, you still have to fight for it. Ain’t nothing free.