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Subject: Warren E. Burnett, lawyer

Have beer, will die
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Date Posted: September 28, 2002 11:52:23 EDT

Warren E. Burnett, a whiskey-swigging, Shakespeare-quoting Texas lawyer who achieved near-legendary status by winning big jury awards, taking on seemingly impossible murder cases and defending the powerless, died on Monday while visiting Fort Davis, Tex. He was 75.

He was sitting on a porch with a cold beer in his hand when he had a heart attack, said his wife, Kay Taylor Burnett.

Mr. Burnett lived in League City, Tex., near Galveston, but began building his reputation by hanging a shingle in Odessa, on the plains of West Texas, after World War II.

In a state where sensational trials are high sport, the angular Mr. Burnett — with his size 14 shoes and stentorian oratory owing not a little to the King James version of the Bible — cut a striking figure.

He insisted that he was not the Percy Foreman of Odessa, but that Mr. Foreman, the famed lawyer, was the Warren Burnett of Houston. Larry L. King, the Texas-born author, said that in the 1960's and 1970's Mr. Burnett was as well known as any lawyer in Texas, including Richard (Racehorse) Haynes, the criminal defense lawyer.

One of Mr. Burnett's most famous victories occurred in the late 1960's, when he defended an 18-year-old "model boy," an athlete and scholar. The youth had gently kissed a 15-year-old schoolmate before blowing her head off with a shotgun. He won an acquittal by proving that his client had been "temporarily dethroned of reason" and believed he was doing a good deed. In his arguments, he emphasized the testimony that the girl had said she wanted "to live with the angels."

Mr. Burnett also represented, often for no fee, Mexican-Americans fighting for school integration in the Rio Grande Valley, the United Farm Workers Union in West Texas and various liberal causes in Austin, the state capital.

His good-old-boy style only barely masked his legal cunning.

"He had the ability to cut the other lawyer's throat, and the other lawyer didn't even know it until he tried to turn his head," said Jim Hightower, an author and former Texas agriculture commissioner.

Warren Edsel Burnett was born on May 4, 1927, in Austinville, Va., a company town for a lead and zinc mine. He dropped out of Virginia Tech to join the Marines and served in China and Burma at the end of World War II. A Marine buddy invited him to join him at Lamar College in Beaumont, Tex., where he graduated. After Baylor Law School, he worked for the district attorney's office in San Antonio, then joined a private practice in Odessa. He was twice elected district attorney there.

In his first term, he won the death penalty for a 23-year-old itinerant hitchhiker named Harry Butcher who had tied up two men at gunpoint and then sexually assaulted their wives. The second husband broke free, grabbed Mr. Butcher's pistol and shot him in the leg.

Mr. Butcher begged the man not to kill him, saying he wanted to die in the electric chair. Mr. Burnett made much of "his wish" in his speech to the jury, which granted it in just 32 minutes.

"Butcher was a big step up for me," Mr. Burnett said in an interview with Harper's magazine in 1969. He later opposed the death penalty.

Mr. Burnett then threw himself into private practice, sometimes having two juries out at the same time. He advanced clients thousands of dollars of his own money to persuade them not to settle cases he thought might yield far more money. His victory parties lasted for days. He cut a wide swath generally, with a Harley-Davidson motorcycle and the private planes he flew.

His fame as a legal gun for hire could backfire. He once pursued a case of jury misconduct after hearing a juror declare, "Well, this is one case that smarty-pants Warren Burnett ain't going to win."

Molly Ivins, the columnist and author, said a turning point in Mr. Burnet's career came in 1968, at a conference of members of the so-called New Left and lawyers willing to represent them. She said it was there that he fully realized law's potential for social change.

David Richards, a lawyer who participated in the conference and the author of "Once Upon a Time in Texas: A Liberal in the Lone Star State" (University of Texas, 2002), said: "He was willing to try hard cases in hard places for deserving people and often times to do it without a fee."

Soon, he was organizing civil rights marches, picketing supermarkets as part of César Chávez's grape boycott and representing indigent people charged with capital crimes. He had William O. Douglas, the Supreme Court justice, as a houseguest in Odessa, profusely apologizing for the "Impeach Earl Warren" signs they passed.

In addition to his wife, Mr. Burnett is survived by his daughter, Melissa Burnett of Midland; his stepdaughter, Stacie Leggé of League City; his sons, Abner, of southeastern Mexico, and Paul, of Houston; his stepsons, Britt Pauls of Galveston and Taylor Pauls of League City; and three grandchildren.

Ms. Ivins said his language was vivid, not least when he likened a confused defendant to "a blind dog in a meat house." She recalled the time he was hired by Odessa to lead its fight for a four-year state university. A judge asked if Odessa truly needed it.

Mr. Burnett shot back, "Your Honor, there is enough ignorance in Odessa to justify an eight-year college."

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