WHO DOESN’T REMINISCE about those Perry Mason oldies, in which the dapper criminal defense lawyer fights against great odds for truth and justice? At what appears to be the darkest moment, he suddenly finds the opening-the surprise that forces the guilty person (who is sitting in the courtroom) to confess!
But seldom does surprise enter into a criminal trial. Most of the legal defense has been carefully prepared and methodically measured. There are always unknown areas (for instance, no one can really know what a juror is going to do; the one who smiles and waves at the defense may be the one who holds out for the death penalty), but they are few and far between.
Although the entertainment medium usually depicts the criminal lawyer as a rich, flamboyant, suave, heavy-drinking, much-sought-after companion who flies his own plane or drives the sportiest car in town, you’ll find that many of them are closer to the character played by Paul Newman in The Verdict: a man who has succumbed to the pressures of too much booze amid the vicissitudes of fighting the system.
Some of today’s defense lawyers drink a bit too much, ramble too often and occasionally suffer from egomania, but the majority of the successful ones avoid the high-rolling scene and increasingly spend more time keeping up on the vast complexities of today’s law.
Criminal lawyers have often been depicted as a breed apart, and to some extent, that’s valid. A few threads connect the really good ones: They are confident and caring. They are intelligent, witty, constantly under pressure and seldom dull.
Let’s look at some of the best in Dallas.
IF YOU HAPPENED to venture into the Chateaubriand restaurant one afternoon a couple of years ago and noticed a roly-poly gentleman sitting at a table full of revelers with a brown paper sack over his head, you may still wonder what the occasion was.
No, it wasn’t Halloween. And he wasn’t that ugly. It was simply a victory party for a highly respected criminal defense lawyer. And under that sack, which had the words “Unknown Lawyer” scrawled on it, sat 48-year-old George Milner-a laid-back practitioner who had just won one of the most important acquittals of his career.
That lunch was planned by some of his staff and a few close attorney friends. Milner had represented Dr. Milton Curry, the one-time president of Bishop College, who had been charged with misuse of $7 million in federal funds at the school. The trial spanned three months and was one of the biggest cases of its kind ever tried. Curry was acquitted on all counts.
Lawyer Spider Bynum. a close Milner buddy, came up with the paper sack gimmick. “He’d won this big, important case, a much-publicized trial, and he got his name in the papers just twice and his picture once,” says Bynum.
Milner is relatively unknown outside of the courthouse and among his fellow lawyers. Twenty years after he waded into the criminal defense ring, Milner can still get lost in public. A stocky, soft-spoken man, Milner never toots his own horn. He lets his courtroom successes speak for him.
During research for this article, more than 50 lawyers, clients and judges were asked to name the best criminal defense lawyers; more than two-thirds named Milner without hesitation as the all-around best. More than 20 lawyers, when asked who they would engage if they were in trouble, immediately called his name.
How can a man be so respected in so public an arena and go virtually unnoticed by the general public?
Part of it comes from Milner’s personality, his avoidance of publicity and his no-nonsense approach to the law. “The people that know me best are the prosecutors and the judges,” says Milner. “I practice law to benefit my clients. If a lawyer becomes too big a noise, there’s always some prosecutor who wants to take a shot at that lawyer-and it rarely has anything to do with the merits of the case.”
Milner went straight from SMU Law School to District Attorney Henry Wade’s staff, where he spent about four years as a second-tier prosecutor with little chance of becoming a star. Wade had such heavyweights as James K. Allen (now a judge), William F. Alexander (now an assistant U.S. attorney), Frank Watts and James Bowie (both deceased) handling the bigger cases. There just wasn’t room at the top, no matter what the potential.
And life on the lower rungs didn’t pay all that well, so Milner knew he had to move on. In 1964, with virtually no savings, Milner moved into a little office near the county courthouse and began the laborious job of building his reputation. “I took everything that walked in the door, and I got a lot of appointments [court-assigned cases where the defendant is judged indigent]. Most of ’em were real hard-very difficult cases.”
In a few months, he got his first high-profile job: a death penalty case involving a defendant, Peter Semanovich, who was charged with killing a young employee of the Dallas County Sheriffs Office-a beautiful girl who was a rising singer.
It wasn’t easy. Law-enforcement officials wanted Semanovich to pay dearly. The late Dallas Police Capt. Will Fritz-the legendary interrogator-testified that Semanovich had confessed to him.
But Milner plunged forward and subtly raised the possibility that a former boyfriend of the victim might have killed her. The jury came in with a “murder without malice” verdict-a 5-year sentence. “In those days, the death penalty was almost automatic in such a case, and to get from death to ’murder without malice’ was good.” Milner says with characteristic understatement.
A few months later, Milner got another court-appointed case, this time defending Les Gassaway, a man accused of picking up a woman in a South Dallas bar. choking her to death and hiding the body. Milner’s methodical but effective handling of the State’s witnesses on cross-examination once again nurtured doubt in the jury’s mind. Gassaway escaped the death penalty with “murder without malice” and five years.
“That kind of attracted to me the people that follow what’s going on at the courthouse.” recalls Milner. “I got a lot of clients who were in and out of trouble all the time.
I soon ended up getting more volume than I should have. The fees were nothing to speak of; most of ’em [clients] were street people-lots of violent robberies, murders and the like.”
Almost all of Milner’s early work was in county courts, since there were few federal criminal prosecutions. And, of course, he didn’t win them all, but Wade’s prosecutors usually knew they’d been in a battle.
The late Sixties and early Seventies were good to Milner. He finally began earning commensurate with his abilities, although some fellow attorneys say he’s never charged enough. And with the advent of stepped-up prosecution of white-collar crime and increased drug activity, Milner’s strengths came into more demand. Today, about half his caseload deals with white-collar and drug-related offenses, and his “open” file averages just 30 cases at a given time, compared to more than 200 cases 10 to 15 years ago. There’s not a single robbery case in his file.
“George is the complete lawyer,” says his friend, Frank Jackson, who has built an enviable record in criminal law himself during the past decade. “It’s his tenacity and integrity,” says a longtime assistant U.S. attorney. “He plays it straight all the way. no particular flair or B.S., but when George tells you something, you can believe it.”
“Preparation is my long suit, but I like to think that my strength with the jury is one of sincerity,” says Milner. “By the time the trial’s over, they [members of the jury] always feel they can trust me. I don’t give ’em some wild goose chase. If there are warts on the case, I tell ’em about it up front. I believe in the rifle approach as opposed to the shotgun.”
And just as George doesn’t flimflam a jury, he doesn’t allow his clients to flimflam him. “I can’t recall a time when a client was on the stand and got caught with his pants down with something he hadn’t told me,” he says. “I tell ’em I’m like a doctor: If you come to me and tell me your foot hurts, don’t expect me to find a brain tumor. I tell ’em that when this trial is over 1 always get to go home, no matter what. Sometimes you do; sometimes you don’t. If you lie to me. you’re gonna have an awfully mad lawyer. Smart people always tell their lawyers the truth.”
Milner doesn’t talk much, but like the well-known commercials for E.F. Hutton, when he does, people listen. He has a quick wit-a dry humor that sometimes takes a moment to register.
Friends recall the time Milner appeared before a judge at 9 a.m. for the sentencing of his client, who had already imbibed a few drinks. “Has your client been drinking?” the judge queried. “Your honor,” Milner said, “if your sense of justice is as keen as your sense of smell, I feel we are in good shape.”
Because he now handles many of the more complex cases, his practice has changed dramatically.
But even as well-prepared as Milner is, sometimes a surprise creeps into the trial. While defending Theron Ayers, a distraught husband who shot and killed his wife and a Dallas police officer during a noontime tryst, Milner thought he knew the whole story and could elicit enough sympathy for the cuckolded husband to impress the jury. But Ayers’ daughter testified that her father told her that her mother had gotten down on her knees and begged him not to kill her.
“It was devastating,” Milner recalls. “Whatever chance he had went out the window.” Ayers denied his daughter’s testimony, but the damage was done. He got 45 years.
Another case several years ago involved the rape of a woman whose husband had left home briefly to get some popcorn. When the husband returned, he found the alleged rapist in bed with his wife, clad only in socks-on his hands!
At the trial, the wife testified that she had been asleep on the couch and wasn’t aware the intruder was even there until he began raping her in her bed. He had carried her to the bedroom, a good distance away. Milner. naturally, thought this a bit unusual. In a mild manner, he asked the victim, “Would you consider yourself a sound sleeper?”
“The jury almost fell out,” recalls Milner. Then the prosecution introduced the usual crime scene pictures, and Milner spotted an unusual magazine lying in a rack beside the bed-a cally called Sex and Sadism.
“When I argued to the jury. I said. ’You might wonder why people would engage in this type of activity. It seems somewhat bizarre. I guess, that my man would be in there with socks on. I’ve never done it with socks on. but everybody’s not the same.
“To really understand them, you should note what they are reading. They’re not reading any Gideon Bibles. They’re reading ’sex. sox and sadism!’ ” The jury found his client not guilty.
CHARLES W. TESSMER, 64, a formidable campaigner in the criminal law arena for three decades, has probably been hired by more big-name clients than any lawyer in Dallas history.
He has defended more than 175 death penalty cases and has yet to lose one to the executioner. In the days before the 1965 changes in the Texas Code of Criminal Procedure, district attorneys could request the death penalty on any kind of case they deemed appropriate: rape, armed robbery, murder. Tessmer began practicing in 1949 straight from SMU’s Law School and was president of the Dallas County Criminal Bar Association as far back as 1954.
By 1960, Tessmer was getting the really big ones-and usually battling the top prosecutors: Alexander, Allen, Watts, et al.
Few courthouse followers can forget the masterful job Tessmer did in 1961, when he defended Tony Davis, a rotund black disc jockey, who was charged with raping a white British “freedom rider.” It was probably the first time that a black man had been found innocent of such a crime against a white woman in Texas history.
Another high-profile case involved a federal narcotics agent, Jim Lander, who was charged with killing a stewardess in her apartment. Tessmer convinced the jury that Lander had killed his ex-girlfriend accidentally. Lander got 10 years probation.
The murder case of Lawrence Gross was the only death penalty case Tessmer ever lost; the verdict was later lowered to life by the U.S. Supreme Court. Tessmer says he didn’t really mind losing, since Gross was a real sickie. “Hell, he used to carry bones in his pocket,” Tessmer recalls with a shrug.
Gross had lured a couple to the Holiday Inn-Love Field, where he was staying, on the pretext of selling a car. Once they entered his room, he killed them and took off. He later killed a couple in Kansas City, and Dallas police investigators claim he killed a public stenographer who answered a call to his room at the former Statler Hilton Hotel.
“There’s no telling how many people he killed,” says Tessmer of his court-appointed client, who now resides at the TDC.
Another deft victory came in defending a man who. authorities claimed, set fire to his downtown Dallas restaurant, the Golden Pheasant. The district attorney wanted death for Charles Bryant because four Dallas firemen died fighting the blaze.
Bryant was acquitted, but a civil jury later ruled that Bryant had set the fire. Bryant later was shot to death in an unsolved case.
There were scores of other important wins, among them the acquittal of an East Dallas woman, Helen Cundiff, who was charged with being the instigator of a plot to kill grocer Bryan Stout. A Dallas police officer whose gun was used in the murder had [already received 20 years.
He also represented such accused murderers as Fort Wdrth’s J. Lloyd Parker (who was declared insane): Charles Harrallson (who was later convicted in the assassination of U.S. District Judge John Wood in San Antonio); Dr. Robert Spears (the Dallas naturopath who was suspected of blowing up a friend and 50 others on an Eastern Airlines plane off the coast of Louisiana); John Rees, who operated as a Russian spy for more than 30 years (and shot himself when the Dallas Times Herald exposed him).
When Tom Howard, the initial lawyer hired by Jack Ruby’s family after Ruby had shot Lee Harvey Oswald, was told by the family they wanted a “big name attorney,” it was Tessmer who Howard approached. When Tessmer waited several days to make a decision, Ruby’s brother, Earl, flew to the West Coast and hired Mel vin Belli.
“Had Tessmer agreed to represent Jack Ruby, a courtroom battle surpassing that of Leopold and Loeb would have transpired,” writes fellow criminal attorney Frank Wright, in a still-unpublished book about Tessmer.
The Tessmer of that era was said to orchestrate a defense like no other. He had a superior knowledge of the law, was a master at cross-examination and was eloquent before a jury. He was the acknowledged king of criminal attorneys. Tessmer has now, however, slowed his pace considerably-and not all of his own doing. Too much high living and a brush with a federal indictment for contempt of court cost him dearly. In fact, almost 10 years later. Tessmer says he’s just now getting his momentum back.
It was during the early Seventies-just about the time Tessmer was serving as president of the National Association of Criminal Defense Lawyers-that everything fell apart for him. He got into trouble with a grand jury for failing to disclose a phone call he had made to a convicted wire tapper. He later clarified the situation for the grand jury but was indicted for contempt anyway and paid a $500 fine. Tessmer claims that it drastically affected his practice.
“My phone stopped ringing.” he says. ’”Some people who I thought were my friends steered clients away from me. They’d say such things as. ’Your lawyer will be going to prison before you do.’”
That was about the time Tessmer was putting an end to his “high-rollin.” “The good times were hard to handle,” he says. “Nothing fails like success. Everybody’s your friend. I had to have an entourage around. I thought I couldn’t go anywhere without 15 or 16 people tagging along. When you’re winning, you feel good, and you’re just very generous. You need that, I guess. They pat you on the back and tell you how good you are. When you’re not winning, they’re gone.”
A more reflective Tessmer has emerged and although he doesn’t get as many big ones as he once did, he still can be formidable.
“People are always telling me they thought I had retired,” the rugged, handsome lawyer says. “No way. I’m still hitting it as hard as ever. I am a bit more selective now, though.” And although he can be found sipping a few at selected clubs around Dallas, he has dropped his “Good-Time Charlie” image.
“You can never count Charlie out,” says one lawyer. “He’s too good. If I were in trouble and couldn’t get Milner, I’d call Tessmer.”
That’s what Milner did in late 1982 when he had a tough case involving a manufacturing firm owner, John Altman, who was charged with intentionally setting a five-alarm fire that destroyed the firm’s downtown warehouse. Three firemen who fought the blaze were injured.
Milner and Tessmer won an acquittal for Altman and his wife and paved the way for the Altmans to win a $1.2 million insurance settlement later. “We got $50,000 for the criminal case and civil lawyers got $350,000 in the insurance case-and they couldn’t have won without the acquittal in the criminal case,” laughs Tessmer.
YOU CAN’T TALK about criminal lawyers without mentioning Phil Burleson, Billy Ravkind, Doug Mulder. Frank Jackson and Vincent W. Perini. Each is a heavyweight with a distinctive style and ability.
Burleson and Perini are past presidents of the Texas Criminal Defense Lawyers Association. Mulder, who’s been in private practice for about three years after a 16-year tenure as Henry Wade’s top assistant, is perhaps the fastest rising star.
Ravkind and Jackson stand out as two individuals who receive support and strong backing from their peers, although both have probably won more important victories outside of Dallas.
Burleson (often teamed with his top-notch sidekick Mike Gibson) is perhaps best known for his representation of Jack Ruby and T. Cullen Davis. A struggling young lawyer back in 1964 (he’s 50 now), Burleson was hired by Melvin Belli to handle Ruby’s defense witnesses and to research the law.
Although he handled precious little of the actual trial, it was Burleson who stayed on after more than 25 different lawyers had filtered through the process. Burleson was instrumental in getting Ruby’s conviction overturned.
Burleson had already molded a solid career for himself when lightning struck in the form of T. Cullen Davis. Burleson admits he was lucky to be in the position to get that case (he was holed up in a Fort Worth hotel room after a marital tiff where one of Davis’ civil lawyers found him and asked him to take control of the fast-moving Fort Worth murder case). How he organized that defense-and the following one when Davis was charged with hiring a hit man to kill his divorce judge-is now history. Davis, who was thought to be guilty by almost everyone but the jurors, was acquitted in both cases.
Many point to Richard “Racehorse” Haynes as the key to victory, but those who understand the octopuslike elements of those cases give Burleson his due. The two Davis cases might have been the most lucrative for attorneys in local history, and it’s a safe bet the defense team’s expenses totaled more than any other half dozen cases one could name. (It’s said that Davis paid close to $6 million for his freedom. Burleson isn’t saying, but he will say the publicity that he and his associates received has resulted in scores of other clients.)
Actually, says Burleson, having all the money needed to defend Davis was a mixed blessing. “It was wonderful to have all the funds needed for that case, but in another way, it was terrifying. Everything was so time-consuming, keeping up with all the copy, the witnesses and all the rumors. I sat up many nights wondering what else we could do. To sit there knowing that there might be something else, something that might help one-tenth of 1 percent-it was unsettling at best.”
Burleson says the fact that Davis was held in jail without bond was a plus for his defense team. “That was the greatest help the state gave us because it made him more resolved to win and not be concerned about money.” Burleson says the $6 million estimate doesn’t sound unreasonable.
Burleson and associates-Mike Gibson, Steve Sumner, Bob Hinton and others who worked behind the scenes-didn’t get all that money. There were scores of secretaries, witnesses, and probably $200,000 in investigative fees paid-and 15 other attorneys used in various capacities. Burleson recalled that one Washington lawyer got $10,000 for filing a single brief before the U.S. Supreme Court.
Much has been written about the caliber of defense witnesses in the Davis case-generally that some of them came straight from a casting agency. Burleson bristles at that allegation. He says he had encountered several clients who told him they were guilty but planned to lie on the stand-all of whom, he claims, were quickly told they needed another lawyer. “I have a saying that I will do anything for a client except be his cellmate,” he laughs.
Some fellow lawyers, while giving credit to the rather brusque Burleson, claim Davis would never have “walked” had it not been for the flamboyant Haynes. They say that Burleson just doesn’t have the “presence” in court to pull off such a win. “That’s where Phil is smart,” says one lawyer. “He knows what it takes to win a case, and he goes after it. And don’t doubt for a minute that without Burleson’s great organization skills, Haynes probably wouldn’t have been able to pull it off, either.”
One of Burleson’s better accomplishments may have been the Darrell Cain case, in which the Dallas police officer put his gun to the head of a 13-year-old Mexican-American youth in a squad car and fired, killing Santos Rodriquez.
Burleson produced evidence that showed that Cain had a gun with an abnormally large handle and that when he attempted to shuck the bullets, the handle caused one or more to remain in the gun. Cain’s defense was that he was just trying to scare the boy: that he thought he had ejected all the bullets. The jury obviously bought Burleson’s theory, but felt the officer should not have been threatening the boy in such a manner. He was sentenced to five years.
Burleson admits one of the greatest problems a defense attorney has is his client lying to him. He puts most of them on a polygraph. “I believe in polygraphs.” he says. “If you have a good operator, I think they work most of the time.”
Burleson says he was pleased that Henry Wade agreed to give engineer Lenell Geter a polygraph and release him from armed robbery charges if he passed, even though Geter refused the opportunity.
“It seems to be a real endorsement for the polygraph from Wade, who is the outstanding D. A. in the Southwest, if not the nation.”
IN JANUARY OF 1981, Douglas Mulder surprised the legal community by leaving Wade’s office to enter private practice. In those three years, he has become one of the most formidable lawyers in the area.
Mulder, 46, was viewed as the heir apparent to Henry Wade, based on an impressive record as a prosecutor in the district attorneys office for more than 16 years, 11 of them as first assistant to Wade (there were 180 assistants when he left). But an opportunity came along that Mulder just couldn’t turn down. A wealthy East Texas man whose son was charged with capital murder offered Mulder the case-at a fee five times what Mulder made annually at Wade’s office.
Bobby Joe Manzell Jr. was charged in a case in which four men burglarized a man’s home and shot him to death when he confronted them. One of the burglars had turned State’s witness. Through strong investigative effort, Mulder showed authorities in Smith County (Tyler) that their case had holes in it, at least as far as Manzell was concerned, and the Smith County District Attorney dropped the charges 11 months later.
Mulder was off and running. He was hired by a Bryan man who was charged with stabbing a college student 24 times and had given an eight-page confession. After a seven-week trial, the killer was acquitted on the capital murder charge and found guilty of the lesser charge of manslaughter, for which he was sentenced 15 years. “Needless to say, we didn’t appeal it,” Mulder says.
Then quickly came a job that may have been the biggest capital murder case in several years in Central Texas: Jack Lee Minica of Brady was accused of killing two women and a man in an insurance scheme.
Mulder asked for a change of venue and got it, although it may not have seemed like a blessing at the moment. The judge moved the trial to Kerrville, a very pro-prosecution and pro-capital punishment area. Of the 97 potential witnesses, only two of them were against the death penalty. “In Dallas County, for instance,” Mulder explained, “You’d find about 30 percent opposed.”
In a tense, emotional seven-week trial, Mulder convinced the jury that two associates who testified that Minica had confessed to them were not to be believed. Minica was acquitted.
The Minica case was considered such a startling victory that Mulder received several other clients as a result. Genene Jones, the nurse who was convicted in Georgetown recently of killing a small child by injecting the child with succlychlorine (a muscle relaxant), tried to get Mulder to defend her. Jones met with Mulder several times, but he refused. She later said that she only had $65,000 and that Mulder didn’t think that was sufficient. She went to trial with court-appointed attorneys.
Although Mulder handles a variety of cases, capital murder seems to be his forte. He’s been involved in eight and has gotten what his clients consider “wins” in each.
“I didn’t have any trouble moving from prosecutor to the defense,” he says. “The whole thing is wanting to win.”
FRANK JACKSON, 44, seems destined to carve a place for himself among the lofty. A tall, extremely handsome ex-pro football player (Kansas City Chiefs and Miami Dolphins), Jackson originally wanted to become an eye surgeon, but while playing in Miami, he happened to drop in on the famous Candy Mossier murder case.
Mrs. Mossier was charged, along with her lover/nephew Melvin Powers, of killing her multimillionaire husband, Jacques, in one of the century’s most-publicized trials. Percy Foreman was in his heyday representing Powers. Jackson recalls that watching the masterful Foreman mesmerized him to the point he shortly thereafter entered the University of Miami Law School.
After that he took the Texas Bar and began prosecuting misdemeanor cases in Wade’s office (at $732 a month). “Athletics teaches you how to react to pressure,” Jackson says, “and a good trial lawyer lives with pressure constantly. That’s why there aren’t many old criminal lawyers.” After about two years, he entered private practice, and like most beginning lawyers, he took everything that came through the door.
He recalls his first big case, an aggravated robbery defendant named Monkey Yarbor-ough. He lost it, and since Yarborough had been convicted twice before on felony charges, he got “the bitch,” the term used for the habitual criminal-life imprisonment for the third one.
“That’s the toughest kind of case to win,” he says. “Usually, all you can round up is a mother who says he was home with an earache. That’s little or no help when the state has four or five eyewitnesses who identify him as the gunman.”
Before long, Jackson was holding his own, winning some important ones. In 1974, he won a complicated case in which his client was accused of delivering LSD by convincing the jury that his man was entrapped-one of the first such not guilty verdicts in the country.
In 1976, he represented Robert James Hardin, an ex-Department of Public Safety narcotics officer who was accused of violating the civil rights of a man the government claimed he pulled off a dialysis machine and beat up en route to jail. Hardin had been spotlighted in a Dallas Times Herald investigative series, and the case was extremely controversial. Other lawyers claimed that Jackson’s deft organization of the case netted the not-guilty verdict.
Robert Gary Noble was an assistant district attorney who was charged that same year with stealing narcotics from a locked evidence room. Caught with the narcotics in his possession, there didn’t seem to be much of a defense, but Jackson convinced the jury that Noble was insane at the time-the first case of that kind won here in recent years.
In 1980, Jackson got another chance on an insanity defense as Alfred Eugene Riccomi, a Texas Instruments employee, shot his daughter and her friend in the front yard of the friend’s house in Collin County. Jackson maintained that Riccomi was so distraught because he disagreed with his daughter’s lifestyle that he just “came apart.” Charged with attempted murder on two counts, Riccomi was acquitted.
There have been many other notable wins for Jackson, including his successful defense of Weldon Wells, a former assistant superintendent of the Dallas Independent School District who was charged with defrauding the district out of millions of dollars-not guilty on all seven counts. In one of the most publicized DWI trials-second only to Mulder’s defense of Sheriff Don Byrd-Jackson got an acquittal for Robert “Bullet Bob” Hayes, the ex-Dallas Cowboy wide receiver. Since Hayes had been convicted earlier on drug charges and was on parole following an earlier narcotics conviction, a loss here would have sent him back to prison.
Jackson has strong views and often states them, causing some to claim he has too much ego. “I think, by nature,” he says, “lawyers are egomaniacs and are jealous of each other,” he says. “I also believe that in their more reflective moments they are some of the most objective and demonstrative people I know.”
“Criminal lawyers do not decide who’s guilty or innocent.” replies Jackson. “That’s outside our frame of reference. If I know a person committed the act he’s charged with, that doesn’t mean that he’s legally guilty. Our job is to make sure the state doesn’t take any shortcuts in proving their case. If they take a shortcut this time, there’s no assurance they won’t do the same in other cases.”
VINCENT PERINI grew up during the Fifties in Abilene and leaned toward a career in the law, but he also had a strong inclination to become a foreign correspondent. He went to Yugoslavia for a year to see if he could hook a journalistic opening.
What he encountered there didn’t sour his ambition toward writing, but it did direct him back to Texas (UT Law School), and eventually to Dallas.
One of the important things he learned in Europe, he says, is how important the United States is and what opportunities are here for an intelligent and involved person.
“I found out, for instance, that Yugoslavia was owned by the U.S.-lock, stock and barrel-and still is. Everybody there was obsessed with happenings in the United States.”
Texas appeared to be the place to nurture a dream. “In your lifetime,” says the erudite 44-year-old Perini, “the place to be is in the United States and the place to be in the United States is Texas. If you want to be in the Rome of your time, I thought, go home.”
Shortly after law school, “V” (as he’s nicknamed) came to Dallas, “hit the ground and hasn’t stopped since.” Perini says he wasn’t an especially good student. (“I was mediocre. I didn’t like law school. I didn’t have the natural aptitude-no steel-trap mind.”) But once in Dallas, grubbing around with the few cases he could muster, he found his niche.
In 1968, seen as an up-and-comer, Perini and his former partner, Frank P. Hernandez, were hired to represent two black militants in a case that although they lost, still lives in Perini’s memory for many reasons. Perini wishes he had not been the green, untried lawyer in that case, which he calls “Dallas’ Sacco and Vanzetti trial.”
To understand that case, one must recall the mood and circumstances of that era. The case went to trial in the summer of 1968- just weeks after the assassinations of Robert Kennedy and the Rev. Martin Luther King and only a few days after the infamous Democratic National Convention in Chicago in which the Yippies and civil rights demonstrators battled Mayor Daley’s police force.
Dallas had escaped the turmoil and bloodshed that many American cities had seen that year. But the mood was apprehensive, to say the least. “Dallas was counting the days before its riot,” says Perini, “There was a contingency plan for some of the lawyers to be prosecutors in case there were mass arrests.”
Ernest McMillan and Matt Johnson were the most vociferous leaders of the Student Non-Violent Coordinating Committee (SNCC) at that time; the SNCC was considered the most radical group around. To the Dallas Establishment. SNCC and the vocal Johnson and McMillan spelled danger. Had anyone known how poorly organized and financed the SNCC was, there would have been little tension, but fear and trepidation were rampant.
The night of July I, 1968, 30 to 40 blacks attended a meeting at the Hope Presbyterian Church in South Dallas and decided to descend upon the O.K. Supermarket at Oakland and Pine to boycott it. The SNCC had targeted the 11-store chain because, it claimed, the stores hired blacks at less-than-equal wages and sold inferior, rotten meat, at higher prices than in other parts of Dallas.
One writer described what happened there as the food-fight scene in Animal House. Bottles were smashed. Eggs and tomatoes flew through the air. The melee lasted little more than five minutes, but when the group left, the store was littered. Johnson said he and three others offered to pay for the damage, but the manager refused. The next day, Johnson and McMillan were charged with destruction of private property, fined more than $50, punishable at that time by a maximum of 20 years in prison.
The two were no more guilty than the others, but they were the recognizable ones, the ones who wore their dashikis and Afros and taunted the Establishment with “black power” rhetoric. They would become an example to other radicals.
“It was clearly the most noteworthy thing I’ve ever done,” says Perini, “but it was so very painful. They were convicted and given 10 years. The unfairness of it all is evident when you consider that at that time-under the old penal code-they could have stolen more than $50 worth and the maximum penalty could have been only 10 years. Here they were facing 20.”
Perini had been practicing just 18 months and Hernandez only a couple of years longer. With Doug Mulder heading the prosecution and an all-white jury that clearly flinched when some of the fellow SNCC members filled up two to three rows of the courtroom, the verdict was never in doubt. Perini well remembers a crushing mistake he made during summation.
“I opened it up. I had been fascinated by the comparison between the people who perpetrated the Boston Tea Party and these men. I said something like, They were making a statement, and so were these guys.’ I argued that our clients should get leniency. I was so naive.
“Prosecutor Curtis Glover stood up and grabbed the Boston Tea Party opportunity: ’You heard Mr. Perini compare his clients’ actions to those of the instigators of the Boston Tea Party. What was the Boston Tea Party? That was the beginning of a revolution, wasn’t it? Just like we might have here in Dallas.’”
In the following years, Perini built a solid foundation as an effective advocate. One of his most recent victories came in the much-publicized trial of five men charged in an ABSCAMlike operation, in which the government claimed they were trying to peddle guns to Libya. Perini, along with partner Tom Mills, walked the five following a spirited entrapment defense.
Some judges and fellow lawyers claim Perini is so outspoken and temper-prone that he often hurts an otherwise solid case. “I tend to be incautious,” Perini admits. But others say that his quick wit and solid knowledge of the law assure his clients a good shot.
Although he has won murder cases, Perini doesn’t get the sensational ones. But he does get a lot of drug- and sex-related cases and the gamut of serious but low-profile cases. It’s said that Perini is the “social set’s lawyer,” since he often appears for those well-known, well-heeled clients who are not desirous of much publicity.
As president of the Texas Criminal Defense Lawyers Association in 1980, Perini pushed for-among other things-more understanding about how defense lawyers set their fees. “Just like sex,” he wrote in the TCDLA’s March 1980 magazine, “fee setting is surrounded by ignorance, fear and guilt. Everybody does it, but nobody talks about it. Why do criminal defense lawyers not talk about fees? Are they afraid to reveal how high their fees are or are they embarrassed at how little they often get paid?”
Perini doesn’t come cheap. There was a time when he worked for peanuts, but those days are long gone. He makes no bones about it. Clients get what they pay for.
BILLY RAVKIND is one of the most successful criminal lawyers in the city, although he’s perhaps the most unorthodox of all. He’s outspoken, outlandish and “off-the-wall,” according to several of his cohorts. He’s also smart, witty and engaging.
Ravkind disagrees that you must go into a case with a theory and then prove it for jurors. He often changes his defense. “I’ve switched theories of defense five times during a trial,” he says. “Sometimes you hear testimony that brings up problems you never dreamed of, so the defense you walked in with just isn’t there anymore.”
After graduating from SMU Law School during the Sixties (he was first in his class), the fast-talking Ravkind took a job with the Justice Department in Washington, D.C., prosecuting tax cases all over the South. The Justice Department was less than popular in the region because of Bobby Kennedy’s strict pro-civil rights stance.
“They sent me out to try these cases and told me to keep tryin’ them until I won one before I came back home,” Ravkind recalls with a chuckle. “I left SMU thinking I really wasn’t going to lose a case. I got my humility real fast. I lost 17 straight.”
Within a few months, however, he had compiled the tax division’s best record. While Milner, Tessmer and the others were notching their belts in state courts, Ravkind leaned toward defending federal defendants in cases involving pornography, narcotics and racketeering, often appearing in other states. “I think I’ve represented half the town of Aspen,” he says.
He turned down many he just didn’t like. Once, he was called to Aspen to help Buz-zy Ware defend serial murderer Ted Bundy. While visiting his client in the jail there, Bundy asked him how many murder cases he’d won and what his theory was. Taking an instant dislike to the handsome but arrogant Bundy, Ravkind snapped, “All I can tell you, Mr. Bundy, is that I’m a lot better lawyer than you are a murderer.” He turned around and walked away from the case.
Milner often works with Ravkind. They seem to complement each other, but some lawyers claim that Ravkind’s too unpredictable to have around. Ravkind is unusual, but-at least for him-it seems to work quite often. He’ll often do exactly what thousands of young lawyers have been taught not to do-that is, ask a question when you have no idea of the answer. The pervading thought is that to do so, a lawyer risks having a witness respond with terribly harmful answers.
Oddly enough, Ravkind has tried only one murder case: a Carlsbad, New Mexico, case in which a lawyer shot and killed his father with five shots to his back. Testimony indicated that the father was gruff, unrelenting and possibly a homosexual. The defendant testified that his father had awakened him with sexual advances. Ravkind’s client was acquitted.
“Violent cases are easy to win, because people understand violence,” says Ravkind, who says he doesn’t like those kind of cases “because I think I could win a lot of ’em. I would feel bad if I got a guy off and he went out and killed somebody.”
Despite his sometimes unorthodox cross-examination manner, Ravkind considers that his strong suit. Oratory is not. “I’m probably the worst speaker of all the lawyers,” he grins. “I think faster than I can talk, and often I change right in the middle of a sentence. Sometimes I read the transcripts later and think, ’My God, I didn’t say that, did I?’”
But he’s comfortable on cross. “I seldom attack a policeman because they’re trained to testify and, usually, they’re telling the truth,” says Ravkind. “They generally know more about your client than you want anybody else to know. And if you keep them up there long enough, they’ll tell you about it.”
But he’ll go after other witnesses. “You’ve got to size ’em up as you go. And watch that jury and see if he’s gettin’ to them. If he’s good and he’s beating you, get away from him. But if you find you’ve got a chance, keep him up there long enough until you get into an area that makes him uncomfortable. Everybody’s uncomfortable somewhere. You just keep talking. Maybe it’s sex, his girlfriend. I’ll ask him, ’Where did you get your dope?’ or ’Do you have any on you now?’ It’s not outsmarting them; it’s just making them uncomfortable, so they won’t appear to be sure of themselves.”
Frequently, Ravkind works on the big-money cases-situations in which banks have violated their fiduciary responsibilities. “I guess they figure I’ll pick out the crooks and work out their bad energy loans for them.”
So what does Billy Ravkind want to be when he grows up?
“All I ever wanted to be was an heir,” he laughs. “I don’t dislike anybody. I can be social, and I don’t drink much.”
WHO DOESN’T REMINISCE about those Perry Mason oldies, in which the dapper criminal defense lawyer fights against great odds for truth and justice? At what appears to be the darkest moment, he suddenly finds the opening-the surprise that forces the guilty person (who is sitting in the courtroom) to confess!