Chapter 2: The Court of Law
In my career as an attorney, I’ve played all three major roles in the courtroom drama that is the focal point of our American judicial system.
Once a jury trial begins, the victim and the accused are secondary players. It is the prosecutor, the defense attorney, and the judge who dominate the proceedings. Their influence on the outcome of a case is undeniable.
Some have compared a jury trial to a chess match, but I think it far more resembles a basketball game. Perhaps that’s why basketball is played on a “court.”
Preparation is important, and the rules of engagement must be followed, but an attorney, regardless of the client’s point of view, must excel at both offense and defense in order to earn a winning verdict.
Occasionally, but not very often, a trial goes into “overtime.” In our legal system, that’s known as a “mistrial,” which comes about as a result of an error in proceedings or when a jury is unable to reach a unanimous verdict.
One case in which I was involved as a defense attorney went into “triple overtime,” which turned out to be the most enthralling experience of my nearly fifty years as a lawyer and a judge. I’ll write about that in the chapters to come.
But the single trial which shaped me most as an attorney and, although I was unaware of it at the time, began to mold my current Christian convictions, took place in the aftermath of one of the most vicious murders in the history of my Texas town.
Unlike many of my legal peers, I gave virtually no thought to becoming an attorney when I was young.
I received my undergraduate schooling at Texas A&M University, just a few miles from my parents’ home in Bryan, and as the son and grandson of bankers, dutifully pursued a major in finance.
I give credit to my father for pointing me in a different direction.
One night on a visit to my parents’ home during my senior year at A&M, Daddy and I got into a bit of a fuss about something or another. While my father and I may have shared different outlooks on what it took to become successful in life–his way was proven, mine was mostly idealistic at the time–we both possessed a sizable stubborn streak.
Thus, we squabbled occasionally, which led to words from Daddy which altered the course of my life.
‘Trav,” Daddy said, using the foreshortened version of my name which everyone who knew me used at the time, “you like to argue so much, why don’t you become a lawyer?”
Truth be told, I didn’t have a lot passion regarding the financial future which seemed to be my destiny. Entering Texas A&M, I had joined the school’s Corps of Cadets, and with the Vietnam War raging in southeast Asia, I figured I was destined to wind up there.
Surprisingly, Daddy’s emotionally-charged suggestion struck an immediate chord within me. Since I was fairly certain I didn’t really want to spend my life behind a desk working at a bank, maybe he was right.
And it did seem I liked to argue.
I never did make it to Vietnam, but I had friends from the Corps that did and died in service to country.
The Vietnam War was one of the most divisive times in our nation’s history. I still have strong feelings about that period, but my thinking on the matter has changed dramatically through the years.
More on that later.
I attended Baylor Law School in nearby Waco, Texas. My attendance there provided my military deferment. After graduating and passing the bar exam–a “death and resurrection” story I’ll get to later–I returned to Bryan with a new wife, ready to put my legal expertise to work.
And I did so, at least for starters, at Daddy’s bank.
I knew, even before I took the job, the bank couldn’t offer me the kind of experience I craved. My work had mostly to do with such things as contracts and foreclosures, but Daddy had put me through both college and law school, and I felt I owed him at least a little bit of my time and new-found legal talent.
In addition to my work at the First National Bank of Bryan, I entered into private practice with another young local attorney by the name of Neeley Lewis. Neely had grown up in College Station, son to an A&M professor. He had gone off to the University of Virginia to get his undergraduate degree, but returned to Texas to study law at Baylor, where he was a year ahead of me.
In working professionally with Neeley, I discovered a hunger to become a criminal attorney.
One case in particular whet that appetite.
I was hired to represent a young solider stationed at Fort Hood, southwest of Waco.
He had been returning to his post one night, speeding through the small town of Belton, Texas, when he ran a red light and hit a woman who had stepped into a crosswalk.
She died from the injuries she received in the accident.
The ensuing trial was a basically a “no contest” case.
Given my lack of experience, the prosecutor walked all over me. The judge also did a rookie like me no favors, siding with the prosecution at almost every turn.
My client was found guilty of vehicular manslaughter and sentenced to five years in prison. In hindsight, that was probably the best outcome he could have expected, but I came away from the experience feeling like I had done a poor job.
Still, I was eager to learn from the experience and try again.
Eventually, I decided to do the illogical thing: run for the office of Brazos County district attorney. I was still incredibly inexperienced as a trial attorney, but I loved being in a courtroom and the challenges the setting provided.
A lawyer once told me that trying a criminal case is like “capturing a speck of dust floating in the sunlight.”
That guy was a lot more esoteric than I am, but his point is well taken. Both defense attorneys, as well as prosecutors, have to be sensitive to many things. Everything you do is done to persuade the jury to take your side of a case. How you dress, how you move about the courtroom, your tone of voice in the moment, and how and when you make eye contact with the jury matter greatly during proceedings.
The goal is simple: Get the jury to like you as a counselor, whether or not they agree with your side of the case. A favorable opinion of an attorney can often influence the verdict a jury renders.
I knew none of that as I took my legal beating in Belton, but the outcome helped me get focused on my future.
I split time for almost six years doing legal work at the bank and honing my skills as a trial attorney. I paid my figurative debt to Daddy, while slowly improving as a defense attorney. Still, neither Neeley nor I were setting the world on fire in private practice.
By the time I turned thirty, I knew I needed something that would offer me both job satisfaction, as well as a paycheck big enough to support my wife and children. So, in 1978 I officially took a plunge into politics, entering the race for district attorney.
As a DA, I felt I could really practice the law, the key word, I suppose, being “practice.”
To do that though, I had to get elected. While I knew I couldn’t run on my “record,” I did have one advantage: the Bryan name.
The DA position opened through a “musical chairs” scenario which involved, of all people, my own cousin–although he came from the non-Bryan side of the family.
I’m going to write about Bill Davis a lot in this book. While Daddy’s “encouragement” prompted me to consider entering the legal profession, Bill’s example as an attorney and judge inspired me not only to want to become a lawyer, but also to be a good one. I went to Baylor Law School because that’s where Bill had gone.
Bill was a first cousin to my father through my dad’s mother. Bill was an outstanding attorney who, for a time, served as district judge for Brazos County.
The same position I hold now.
When Bill was named to the Court of Criminal Appeals in Austin, his departure from the Bryan legal scene opened up his district judgeship. The county’s DA at the time, Tom McDonald, was appointed to fill Bill’s vacancy. Roland Searcy, the county attorney and the natural pick to move up the ranks, filled the vacancy in the district attorney’s office until elections could be held.
Roland was my opponent in the 1978 Democratic primary for local DA.
Does the fact that I ran as a Democrat and am now a conservative Republican surprise you? Well, if you know anything about Texas political history, it shouldn’t.
When it comes to people of a certain age, most every conservative in Texas was once a Democrat. While I still have friends in the Democratic party today, ideologically, I’m just not able to get on the same page with those who possess a more liberal point of view.
There was a time in Texas, a long time in fact, when Republicans were sort of a political afterthought. Today’s Republican mindset was once the domain of conservative Texas Democrats.
A bunch of us eventually changed party affiliation, including big names like John Tower, Phil Gramm, Kay Bailey Hutchinson, Rick Perry, and Ted Cruz.
Lloyd Bentsen was the last Democrat elected to the U.S. Senate from Texas. Bentsen served as a senator in Washington from 1970 to 1993. He gained his seat by upsetting another long-standing Texas conservative, Ralph Yarborough, in the 1970 Democratic primary. In that year’s general election, Bentsen easily outdistanced a young Texas Republican by the name of George Herbert Walker Bush.
By the time Bush and his presidential running mate Dan Quayle defeated the Democratic ticket of Michael Dukakis and Lloyd Bentsen in 1988, I had been a Republican for a number of years.
Let me say that I’m proud that President Bush later chose Texas A&M as the site of both his presidential library and final resting place.
During my campaign for DA, my father thought it would be a good idea for me to visit the bank and meet a few of his customers. “You’ll get support that way,” he said. “Just go out, be yourself, and ask for their vote.”
I agreed to do so.
One of the first people I met at the bank seemed interested in my message. After I was through, or maybe “seemed finished” to him, he told me, “You’re the first person who ever asked me to vote for them, and I appreciate that.
“I’m going to vote for you just because you asked.”
Campaigning was easier than I expected.
Soon, I walked up to another customer, an older woman with a bitter look on her face. I shook her hand, introduced myself, and without seeking to exchange pleasantries, I launched into my election spiel.
I didn’t get the same positive response as I had with the gentleman before. In fact, I wasn’t eliciting any sort of reaction, but I plowed through to the end.
“You know,” she said after I stopped talking, “you’ve never spoken to me before”–she didn’t look familiar at all–“and now that you’re running for office, you come up and talk to me like a used-car salesman.”
“I wouldn’t vote for you for anything.”
As she walked off in a huff, my first thought was that she had taken such offense to me, she might yank all her money out of Daddy’s bank.
As far as I know, she did not do so. After her rebuff, I left the bank filled with discouragement. I was able to eventually put the episode behind me and regain my enthusiasm for the race. I won my primary by a margin of just a couple hundred votes, out of more than 13,000 cast.
I then easily swept to victory in the general election…because I had no Republican opponent, and just like that, I was the Brazos County district attorney.
I officially took office on November 20, 1978.
And just three weeks later the brutal killing of a local twenty-seven-year-old husband and father set into motion events which would stretch my legal expertise to the breaking point and strain the confidence I had hoped to build between myself and my constituency.
“These trials will show that your faith is genuine. It is being tested as fire tests and purifies gold—though your faith is far more precious than mere gold.” 1 Peter 1:7.