By Sean Pendergast
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The large ceremonial courtroom on the third floor of the Harris County Civil Courthouse was quiet. Sally Stephenson, a matronly African-American woman from rural South Carolina, was testifying on behalf of the State Bar of Texas as it tried yet again to nail John O'Quinn to the wall.
Stephenson's Deep South accent was at times nearly impenetrable, and she had to hold a microphone in her hand to be even halfway heard. Still, state bar lawyers had slowly led her through a recitation of how O'Quinn's team had threatened to take away her grandchild if she didn't hire them to represent her in a lawsuit over her son's death in an air disaster. The bar's attorneys had asked her to use her own words and to take whatever time necessary to tell the tale.
Then the cross-examination began. Stephenson had to admit she has told several versions of her story and said she couldn't remember giving a video deposition saying she never felt threatened by O'Quinn's team, led at that point by attorney Carl Shaw.
The courtroom was quiet as defense attorney Don Riddle shuffled his papers, looking for his next questions. Jurors used the pause to shift in their seats. Audience members glanced at the clock.
Then it came, apropos of nothing in particular, and louder than anything she had said so far: "I do remember Mr. Shaw called me a BEE-YITCH," Stephenson suddenly announced, her accent stretching the word to two syllables.
If you couldn't quite see the light bulb over her head as she suddenly remembered a supposedly key part of her story, you could have all but heard the click.
Stephenson plunged gamely on: "He was in my front yard when he said it -- no, he was not in my front yard, they were just going in my front door."
Or, as it turns out, he wasn't, depending on which sworn statement of Stephenson's you chose to believe. In some she denied ever hearing the comment, in others it was a bit more complicated: "You signed a statement," Riddle asked her, "saying that [a state bar lawyer] had told you Carl Shaw called you a bitch, isn't that right?"
"I feel that he wouldn't have told me that if it wasn't true," Stephenson answered. "I didn't treat O'Quinn's lawyers bad enough to have them call me a bee-yitch."
And with that, yet another state bar witness had bitten the dust. In what is likely the most high-profile ambulance-chasing trial ever brought in the United States, the bar's case rested on a trio of witnesses who were unbelievably inept: a main accuser who cheerfully allowed how she couldn't remember the last time she paid taxes and who had to admit she was using a false name she assumed to help along an inheritance scam; a smarmy attorney testifying against his father in return for a lighter sentence, and Stephenson, an innocent woman who seemed, through little fault of her own, to change her story to agree with whichever smooth-talking attorney had spoken with her last.
It was a motley crew indeed, something a state bar lawyer admitted in final arguments when, invoking a truly Texan trio of saints, he told the jury that you just don't find "Billy Graham, the pope or Roger Staubach" involved in these kinds of schemes. The jury all but laughed the bar's case out of court, however, taking less than an hour to acquit O'Quinn, Shaw and Benton Musslewhite, the longtime O'Quinn associate who watched his son Charles testify against him.
Somehow, the bar had convinced the jury that all the wrong done in the case -- threatening families, sneaking into a victim's hospital room, knocking on doors of grieving relatives -- had been done by the bar's own witnesses and that the defendants had no knowledge of what was going on.
There are those in the Texas legal community who are familiar with O'Quinn's legendary tightness with a buck and Musslewhite's loose interpretation of rules barring improper solicitation who find it hard to believe that O'Quinn wouldn't have been keeping close tabs on what the bar claimed was a $100,000 ambulance-chasing operation, and that Musslewhite wouldn't have been knocking over wailing grandmothers to get to bawling mothers if he needed to sign up a case.
But the state bar couldn't prove anything in court. And John O'Quinn, the Great White Whale who has obsessed and bedeviled a healthy portion of the bar for years and years, had gotten away again.
To be fair to the bar, if the witnesses' stories had remained consistent, there might have been a compelling case to make. On July 2, 1994, a USAir jet crashed near Charlotte, North Carolina, killing 37 people and injuring 20 others.
In the world of high-stakes litigation, few things can set off a scramble among lawyers like an air disaster. The cases are usually juicy, the airlines make easy targets and, perhaps most importantly, crashes occur regularly enough that firms specializing in them know the drill. They keep brochures and videos handy, and they know just how far they can push the solicitation rules without crossing the line.
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