Two weeks later, I’m in downtown Houston at the brightly colored digs of Rusty Hardin & Associates. Hardin is late. No matter. I’m in his office, reading from a seemingly unending rogue’s gallery of wall-mounted newspaper clippings, many inscribed with grateful words from high-profile defendants upon whose victories Rusty built his celebrity practice. Among these are photos of former Houston Rockets coach Rudy Tomjanovich, who was charged with DWI within a month of his team winning the 1994 NBA championship (case dismissed); former NFL quarterback Moon, who was charged with domestic violence (jury acquitted in 30 minutes); and former Boston Red Sox star Boggs, who was sued for verbally assaulting a flight attendant on Continental Airlines (jury acquitted in four minutes).
“So how does one go about building a celebrity practice?” I ask Hardin after he finally shows up.
It’s luck, he says, and word of mouth. “I’ve been fortunate to get good results.”
Noticeably absent from his wall of fame are any certificates from criminal-defense-attorney associations. Hardin says he has never joined one because he doesn’t see himself as the typical criminal defense attorney. At his core, Hardin is a prosecutor, having spent 15 years in the district attorney’s office in Houston, never losing a single felony case. After law school, he convinced me to apply for a prosecutor’s job in Houston — no better way to gain trial experience. I didn’t get the job. The hiring committee didn’t think I could put my heart in a death-penalty argument. Hardin held no similar compunction. He helped send 14 men to death row.
“When I left the DA’s office at 49, I decided I would represent only people I liked or felt comfortable trying to help,” he says. Hardin refuses to represent drug dealers, sexual offenders or spouse abusers — unless he believes they are innocent. (He also has a large civil practice.) “I do represent guilty people, but I recognize my own limitations. I would be totally ineffective asking the jury to do something I don’t believe in.”
These kinds of comments don’t endear him to the criminal-defense bar, some of whose members feel he is still too much the prosecutor and unwilling to take the gritty cases that truly define what it means to practice criminal law. Representing Calvin Murphy seemed the exception. In 2004, the NBA Hall of Famer was charged with six cases of sexually molesting five of his daughters.
Recalls Murphy: “Before he took the case, Rusty did an investigation to make sure in his mind that I was innocent. I know with Rusty, he would not have taken the job if he had not believed in me.”
Convincing a jury of that belief was another matter entirely, but Hardin did it. He coaxed one daughter into agreeing that she “sometimes just made things up” and successfully argued that the testimony by all the daughters — who were adults before they made their claims — was motivated by revenge. The jury deliberated less than two hours before finding Murphy not guilty.