Business As Usual

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

Even with visiting judge Bill Rhea strictly enforcing time limits on each side's presentations, O'Quinn and Cannon spent a half-hour or so in a vain attempt to aw-shucks the jury into appreciating O'Quinn's legal brilliance and admirable humility.

It was perhaps epitomized by this eye-rolling exchange:
Cannon: How'd you do in law school?
O'Quinn: Pretty good.
Cannon: What's "pretty good"?
O'Quinn: Okay, I did very good.
Cannon: What's "very good"?
O'Quinn: (a sigh, a pause) I was first in my class.

More damaging than the false modesty, though, was O'Quinn's cross-examination by Morrison, a beefy, smiling galoot from Wichita Falls.

As the man rumored to be most dead-set against any settlement offer, he was perhaps not ever going to be on O'Quinn's Christmas list. But O'Quinn wasn't just curt with him -- as soon as Morrison got up to question him, O'Quinn ostentatiously turned almost completely around in his chair, showing nothing but his back to Morrison, the courtroom and even some of the jury. When Morrison tried to walk to the defense side of the courtroom to make some eye contact, O'Quinn leaned far back in his chair, letting the judge's bench cut off Morrison's view, and he bowed his head to give close examination to his fingernails.

Worse, O'Quinn insisted that people like Betty Edward and George Dillard were running an investigation and an investigation only and that almost no thought was given at all to the possibility of any new cases coming in. Instead of Benton Musslewhite's casual agreement that new business -- albeit completely legally gotten -- might have come in, O'Quinn all but tried to leave the impression he would have turned down new cases.

Darlene Hopper, an O'Quinn full-time employee, went to South Carolina "on her own," he said. When Morrison asked if he had contemplated getting any additional business by sending people to South Carolina, he said, "The contemplation was that additional employment might result from the sending of the Shapero letters and the [Shapero] brochure."

Asked if he would deny that cold calls were made on his behalf, O'Quinn said, "I have no knowledge of that.... I'm not suggesting they were made or not made, I have no knowledge. Charles has told so many different stories about all that I can't figure them out."

If any members of the team -- whom he said he hardly knew and had no control over -- were inquiring whether victims had lawyers, O'Quinn said, it was because he was looking for help on the case he already had through Benton's current clients, the Doucettes.

"Frankly I was looking for allies," he told Cannon. "If I could possibly network with an ally, with South Carolina lawyers and people, it would help this case tremendously.... It would be an enormous benefit. [The Doucette's badly burned son] couldn't talk about what it was like on the plane before it crashed, with it jumping around in the air. Witnesses were vital, absolutely. The case couldn't be done without that."

And therefore, he said, his energetic team of not-quite-trained investigators, working out of a war room in a suite in the Columbia, South Carolina Adam's Mark hotel, having daily "to-do" meetings and getting up to $1,000 a day, needed to be talking with people who had been injured or had lost loved ones in the crash. They were eventually joined by Carlos Williams, a local who said he was a part-time preacher, part-time private investigator. If any members of that team did anything improper, John O'Quinn knew nothing about it. And in fact he'd have been mightily angered if he had found out.

A steady stream of lawyers had been drifting into and out of the courtroom's seating area throughout the two-week trial, unable to resist a glimpse of the biggest show in town. On the day of final arguments, more than 200 people crammed into the room, filling the benches and lining the walls.

Former mayor Bob Lanier and wife Elyse arrived fashionably late, standing patiently until a bailiff secured them comfortable chairs behind the state bar's table, where they sipped coffee. At a break, room was made for them behind O'Quinn's team, just in case the jury had somehow gotten the wrong message.

For the bar's lawyers, the case was a magnificent chance for the public to get back at every conniving lawyer who had ever preyed on a grieving widow.

"This is the greatest iceberg on the sea of ambulance-chasing in the history of mankind," said Spivey, on his way to exhorting jurors to think of their children's children. "An iceberg, you know, 83 percent of it is under the surface. What you don't see is what is below the surface.... It's what you haven't seen here, but what you must infer from circumstantial evidence, that is most important. This is the most significant opportunity to do something in the field of law that needs tending to."

Spivey also offered his version of the O'Quinn-trying-to-topple-Jamail theory but added that O'Quinn "could never touch [Jamail's] coattails, because that would require integrity, honesty and restraint."

For the defense team, the case was personal -- "I see jealousy, envy, covetousness," Cannon solemnly declared -- and fatally flawed. The wrong people were being tried.

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