When Racehorse Haynes galloped into Bryan
Friday, Richard "Racehorse" Haynes died at the age of 90. If you're an attorney or follower of the legal world, the name resonates loudly, and for a few weeks in November 2008, his voice softly echoed in a Bryan courtroom during one of the biggest trials in the region's history.
He also joked about suing me. Repeatedly.
Here's some background on Haynes. As he explained to Super Lawyers, he got the Racehorse nickname not for any legal act or achievement, but because he was the fastest kid at his junior high school. Later in his teenage years, he fought in the battle of Iwo Jima, saving two drowning, wounded Marines. He was a boxer, but once he got into the legal ring, he became famed for the cases he defended (T. Cullen Davis) and the lengths he went in those defenses (taking a cattle prod to his body in front of a jury). The Dallas Observer had a fascinating piece on his career in 2003.
When it was announced Racehorse would be running into Bryan to defend P. David Romei, it was a remarkable escalation of what was already set to be a legal drama, one I would cover in my first of five live blogs from a Brazos County courtroom.
To simply look at the charges and make a judgment on the significance of the trial would not be enough. It would fail to take into account a massive point: the political power Romei carried in College Station. As would come to light in court, the former leader of the Arts Council of the Brazos Valley purportedly had significant strings he could pull, allegedly launching into tirades in the faces of top leaders, demanding actions and votes, writing speeches for the then-mayor, all as Romei raised significant dollars for what many would consider worthy arts efforts.
You can still find plenty of pieces of art around town that he spearheaded. Veterans Park in College Station has a veterans memorial in large part because of Romei's work. President George H.W. Bush spoke at its dedication and praised Romei, himself a veteran. So great was Romei's influence that the Arts Council building was named after him while he was very much still in power.
In short, he was a really big deal in town.
So it was a really big deal when Romei was charged with stealing and misusing money from the non-profit he led. He was accused of using arts money for trips to Europe, personal medication and political contributions, along with pocketing a City of College Station sum meant to pay for the lighting of a statue. The greatest charge he faced was a third-degree felony, but Romei being the accused upped the ante.
And then he upped it to another level when he brought in Racehorse Haynes, a man who had represented more than three dozen defendants facing the death penalty by that point. In the 2003 Observer article, he said none had gotten that ultimate punishment. He was good at his job, and he'd be representing Romei.
Over the days (and days and days) of testimony and arguments, there was no cattle prod moment, but even in his early 80s, he was certainly feisty, dogged in his questioning of witnesses, passionate in his statements to the jury. The one moment of color that has always stood out most to me came from his closing arguments. Earlier in the trial, he had been particularly persistent in questioning a district attorney's office investigator, trying to find any semblance of mishandling of the case. Then in closing, he pointed to the investigator sitting in the gallery, telling the jurors he was smiling "like a jackass eating cactus," though clarifying the investigator was a nice guy.
Looking back at my blog brings back lots of memories. Haynes regularly jokingly threatened to sue me if he tripped over the power cord running from my camera. After being late on the first day and earning some consternation, he got laughs from the court throughout the remainder of the trial for his routine, proud announcements that he was on time. At first, he joked about the sticky notes prosectors were putting on evidence, but Romei got upset when jokes were made about the notes on his family's death certificates. I noted how Haynes was normally soft-spoken (from my blog: "If a pin dropped, you wouldn't have been able to hear Haynes"), but had his moments of animation, including with a bookkeeper as he tried to trace trails of money through a rough system of record keeping he would spin positively to the jury as "unique." Like any good lawyer, he was intense in his defense, always noting Romei's positive attributes and contributions to the community, a boxer fighting passionately between the courtroom ropes to shine light, all while remaining cordial with prosecutors.
Ultimately, Haynes and his immense ability couldn't get Romei fully off the hook. Though he was acquitted of using Arts Council money for trips and medication, Romei was convicted of taking the city's $7,400 for the statue-lighting and using Arts Council money for political contributions. In the punishment phase, more questionable acts were presented by prosecutors. There was an unaccounted for $150,000 surplus on the $1.2 million construction of the Arts Council building, the building that would bear his name until his conviction. Romei also took a $90,000 commission on $450,000 given by the City of College Station for the building. Romei was ordered to pay back $268,000 to the Arts Council and the city. He would later get a 30-day jail sentence after pleading guilty to charges related to the political contributions.
As far as Racehorse goes, I remember him being kind and respectful to me, a young reporter who would add significantly to his reputation and win recognition for covering the trial. I hope I earned some respect from him. Attorneys and journalists can often find themselves at odds, but I aimed to be fair because it's what's always called for, especially in the biggest of trials involving the biggest of community figures represented by the biggest of lawyers.
RIP, Mr. Haynes.