Business As Usual

The State Bar of Texas tries again to KAYO John O'Quinn but can't lay a glove on him

With a harsh spotlight on the bar and a chorus of critics waiting to charge "sell-out," the powerful organization found itself politically obligated to go to trial. Handling the case was Lonny Morrison, a former state bar president from Wichita Falls who has made a crusade of trying to improve the legal profession's image by tightening solicitation rules, and Broadus Spivey, a respected Austin litigator.

Spivey let it be known how important he considered the case to be when he told the jury, "You are the first jury in America to have this opportunity -- never before has there been a higher lawyer and more sordid facts ... There's gonna be other plane crashes, and they're going to attract the hordes, but believe you me the hordes are watching this case, and they'll hear your verdict."

For his part, O'Quinn went through a string of high-profile attorneys, including Michael Tigar, who represented one of the Oklahoma City bombers, and David Berg, the prominent Houston attorney who dropped out of the case three days before trial. ("John had promised that he would let David run the trial his way, but as it got closer he just couldn't stop interfering," says a Berg confidante.)

Despite the string of defections (and a 90-day stay in a clinic to treat alcoholism and stress), O'Quinn amassed a quality team of litigators to represent himself, Shaw and Musslewhite at trial.

Despite Spivey's rhetoric -- he eventually would tell the jury: "Your children and your children's children will look back on this and ask if you took the opportunity [to fix the legal system]" -- the bar's case headed south with alarming alacrity.

There was Betty Edward, the "people person" investigator who first took her charges to the Wall Street Journal. She said she was promised $25,000 for each client she signed up.

O'Quinn's attorney was his former law partner, Ernest Cannon, a determinedly folksy Madisonville lawyer who's a cross between Red Duke and a Texas James Carville (his cross-examination of one witness included the "don't confuse me with a lawyer" tactic of drawling about how the bar had previously "gone through Exhibit This and Exhibit That" on direct examination).

Cannon got Edward to admit her name is really Betty St. Remy-Charter and that she adopted "Edward" in 1994 to be a possible beneficiary of a former live-in boyfriend's. He got her to admit she couldn't remember the last time she paid taxes. He got her to admit she was hoping to sell book and movie rights to her story, rights that would require an O'Quinn defeat, a defeat that would require her to tell a good enough story to convince the jury.

After Edward came Charles Musslewhite, Benton's son.
A balding, pudgy guy who tried to assume an air of gravitas by perpetually keeping his mouth downturned, the younger Musslewhite was in over his head almost immediately.

Squirmingly defensive, he allowed how the only instructions he had received from his father and O'Quinn were to do everything by the book (the defense team would repeat the phrase "Dot every i and cross every t" ad nauseam). He said he had witnessed Benton lecture Betty Edward and George Dillard, the rookie investigators, on how to keep within bar rules.

He called the speech "the Benton Drill," a cover-your-ass performance that was all but delivered with a wink and nod. He said he, Benton and O'Quinn were "speaking in code," referring to runners as investigators and talking about paying investigators for their time instead of for the cases they signed up.

"The words that they used were lawful, but my instructions were to get business, and the way to do that is door-knocking," he said.

O'Quinn's attorneys, theatrically expressing bafflement, wondered why three co-conspirators, alone in a room, needed to use a code among themselves. Charles Musslewhite could point to no specific instructions to break the law but gamely kept insisting that the real message behind the words he was hearing was to go get cases any way he could.

"There you go again," said Cannon after trying yet again to get Charles to pinpoint a conversation. "I'm not asking you what you think they said; I want the actual words they used."

Charles insisted that O'Quinn had been intensely interested in the goings-on in South Carolina, although phone records seemed to contradict his testimony. "John expressed concern any number of times about the amount of money being spent without results," he said.

Defense attorneys made sure that the jury knew Charles was cooperating with the bar and that sentencing for his ethical violations, as well as for criminal offenses in South Carolina, was still pending and would be affected by the worth of his testimony. They also pointed out that while Charles was to get 3 percent of any fees for the initial Doucette case, he stood to get 11 percent for any other South Carolina cases O'Quinn might handle (O'Quinn was to receive 67 percent of the fees in both circumstances, with the rest going to Benton Musslewhite).

Like Betty Edward and Sally Stephenson, Charles also had to admit he had told several versions of his story under oath.

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