It’s a secret of my Yankee upbringing that I’ve always had a taste for Southern storytellers like Brother Dave Gardner. I also went to law school in Oklahoma. Maybe this is why I thought it was common knowledge that, in the great American Southwest, trial lawyer and tent preacher can be pretty much the same job.
I learned otherwise seven or eight years ago when Richard “Racehorse” Haynes came up from Texas to speak at the winter meeting of our state bar association.
I thought Haynes was in fine form that night, but the story he told got mixed reviews from the Maine lawyers who heard him. Like many southern preachers, he structured his talk around a couple of repeating phrases, the most memorable of which was, “And I asked myself, ‘What would a real lawyer do?'”
We had heard him ask himself this simple question several times when he began to tell us about cross-examining a prosecution witness in a rape and murder trial. The witness, Haynes believed, was the actual rapist/murderer; and the goal of the cross-examination had been to get a Perry Mason-style courtroom confession. After the preliminaries, Haynes had begun a series of rapid-fire questions of the sort not every lawyer can get away with.
“You forced her into your car. Didn’t you?” thundered Haynes.
“No!” croaked the witness.
“Then you raped her! Didn’t you?”
“And then you killed her and threw her poor little nekkid body in a ditch and drove away! DIDN’T YOU?”
At this point, the witness clutched his chest, cried out in pain and fell out of the witness box onto the carpet in front of the bench.
“He was having a heart attack!” said Haynes, his voice rising. “And I asked myself, ‘What would a real lawyer do?’ And I got down on the carpet beside him. I pointed my finger in his face, and I said, ‘Tell us the truth before you die! Don’t you go to your God with sin in your soul and a lie upon your lips!'”
I don’t know what Haynes was expecting from his Yankee audience at that point, but it probably wasn’t the stony silence he got. Frankly, I wasn’t expecting it either. I thought Haynes had a hell of a story going and that he was telling it brilliantly. But the silence broke the rhythm. To be honest, I don’t even remember how the story ended—whether Haynes got his confession, whether the witness died on the courtroom rug.
All I remember is the Maine lawyer who turned to me and said, “You know, I once had a witness who had a heart attack on the stand. I gave him CPR. I’ve always felt that was the right thing to do.”
I agree, but Haynes had a better story.