Long before he became a legend in the courtroom, amassing one of the longest winning records in legal history – long before he even thought about law school – famed attorney Richard “Racehorse” Haynes was considering a career in medicine.
“I worked for a couple of weeks at the hospital, and I said, ‘Man, I’ve got to get a profession where if I screw up, you can appeal,’” Haynes said. “Because if you are a doctor and you screw up, you’ve got to go to the funeral, and I didn’t want to do that.”
With that realization, Haynes put his pre-med days behind him and joined the Marines to fight during World War II. When he came home, he enrolled at the University of Houston, where he would attend as an undergraduate and law school student before launching a successful career that would last more than five decades and find him defending clients in some of the most memorable murder cases in Texas’ history.
A Houston native and an athlete throughout his high school years at Reagan High School – Haynes got his nickname “Racehorse” while playing football in junior high – he decided UH was a good option.
“Some of my friends were going there, and I thought, ‘It’s a great place to go. They will crank up the athletic program, and we will be playing football and basketball and running track against some of those smaller schools. UH is the place to be,’” he said. “And sure enough, it was.”
An accounting major as an undergraduate, Haynes did throw himself into athletic endeavors on campus, joining the football, basketball and track teams as well as the unsanctioned boxing team. He met his wife through a friend on the football team. The two married in 1950 and lived in an apartment just off campus.
In addition to athletics, Haynes embraced campus life, participating in a number of activities, including helping to put on Frontier Fiesta, for which Haynes served as the master of ceremonies.
“You’ve got to get involved in those different activities and meet some of the people – get involved and grow up,” he said. “That is why I think UH is a great school, because you can grow up there.”
As the student body president, Haynes made a point to speak his mind, even if it meant stating his case before the university president himself. On one occasion, Haynes said he protested to the president about a request that students sign affidavits declaring that they were not communists.
“I wouldn’t sign it,” he said. “I said, ‘I’m not a damn communist, and I don’t need to sign an affidavit to anybody to say I’m not. Just check my war record.’”
After successfully advocating for other students, Haynes realized he just might have found his talent. He enrolled in law school at the University of Houston – one of a class of about 39.
“The classes were smaller, and you couldn’t goof off very much,” he said. “I met some really fantastic people at the University of Houston. They made a tremendous contribution to the state of Texas and to the nation.”
One of those people was John Mixon, who joined the faculty at the UH Law Center in 1955 – the year before Haynes graduated. Mixon still serves on the faculty today.
“Professor Mixon is … one of the most brilliant human beings that I ever met,” Haynes said. “So anybody that takes a property law course from him has really hit the ball out of the park, because he knows what he is talking about.”
Though he learned a lot from his professors and other classmates at the law school, Haynes said some of the most valuable lessons he learned were taught off campus, when professors encouraged the students to go to the county courthouse and watch trials.
“There were always a lot of great personal injury lawyers and lawsuits,” he said. “We could come and sit in the courtroom and watch them.”
He learned a lot about arguing in front of a jury while watching those trials, but it was personal experience that helped to develop his own courtroom style – a mixture of folksy charm, tough-as-nails questioning, and a dash of theatrics.
His first lesson about how staged drama can impact a jury came within a few days of receiving his law license, when he was already preparing for trial in front of a jury. At that time, courtrooms still contained spittoons for chewing tobacco, and Haynes, in his first address before a jury, accidently knocked it over.
“It made them laugh, and anyway, they found my client not guilty,” Haynes said. “After that, every time I had a case in that courtroom, I moved the spittoon over there so I could kick it a little bit and get the attention of the jury.”
Eventually, the judge got wise to his trick, and asked him if he was planning on kicking the spittoon over again that day.
“I said, ‘I’d like to kick it one more time judge, and I won’t kick it no more,’” he said. “That was the last time I kicked it in the courtroom.”
Through the course of his career, Haynes became known for winning high-profile cases. He represented John Hill, a prominent Houston plastic surgeon accused of killing his wife, and Fort Worth multimillionaire T. Cullen Davis, who was accused of killing his stepdaughter, his estranged wife’s boyfriend and attempting to kill his wife. In 1985, the National Law Journal named him one of the top litigators in the country.
Despite the high-profile cases, Haynes said his favorite case was defending a poor construction worker who was accused of stealing money from his employer.
“I felt really good, because I felt like I had enhanced that fellow’s life and made him believe in justice and made the jury believe in justice,” he said.
Though he is almost 83, Haynes said he has no plans to retire yet.
“Right now, people say, ‘Why are you still practicing?’” Haynes said. “Well, I’m still practicing because I don’t know how to do it yet. By the time I think I know it, it changes.’”
What he does know, he is willing to share – especially with law students. Haynes likes to come back to campus to visit the law school. When he is there, he is constantly amazed at the changes.
“You can hardly drive across it without getting lost,” he said of the campus. “And it’s beautiful. I like to see it from the air. … We’ve got the acreage, we’ve got the buildings, now we’ve got the president. We are doing good. U of H is on the way.”
Haynes loves to show off his Cougar pride, both in the courtroom and out in the community, because he knows he is certain to meet another Cougar.
“I wear my Cougar ring and many times, I have a Cougar pin, because I’m going to have Cougars in the jury and in the courtroom, and that helps,” he said. “The Coogs have a tremendous possibility in Houston and Texas to be all over. The Coogs have just knocked the ball out of the park.”