First it was former death row inmate Muneer Mohammad Deeb, the once-convicted mastermind of the Lake Waco triple murders.
Now it’s Vernon Howell, the self-described apocalyptic messiah who, along with more than 90 of his followers, has kept federal agents at bay for more than a month inside his compound.
Waco residents are becoming increasingly familiar with Houston attorney Dick DeGuerin.
A one-time protégé of fabled attorney Percy Foreman, DeGuerin has built his own reputation representing high-profile murder defendants, including two whose cases became the basis for successful books and television movies.
DeGuerin was hired by Deeb’s parents to represent him in his capital murder retrial. The 1982 deaths of Jill Montgomery, Raylene Rice and Kenneth Franks was one of the most notorious cases in Central Texas history.
Deeb, who was charged with cooking up the bungled murder-for-hire plot, sat on death row for six years after his conviction in Cleburne in 1985. The Court of Criminal Appeals overturned his conviction and awarded him a new trial.
DeGuerin won Deeb’s acquittal in January, after a lengthy trial in Fort Worth, for which DeGuerin reportedly was paid $250,000 by Deeb’s parents, Jordanians who now live in Saudi Arabia.
The case inspired Carlton Stowers’ successful true crime book Careless Whispers and a made-for-TV movie aired earlier this month starring Robert Conrad.
Now DeGuerin is in Waco, meeting Monday and Tuesday with cult leader Howell, who changed his name to David Koresh. Federal authorities say DeGuerin risked his life by walking into the Branch Davidian compound.
DeGuerin, 51, hired by Howell’s mother, Bonnie Haldeman, unsuccessfully tried to get in to see Howell three weeks ago, saying at the time that Howell should be allowed access to an attorney because he technically was under arrest.
“They are in a state of siege, which is the same thing as being under arrest, and a person under arrest has a right to talk to a lawyer,” DeGuerin told the Tribune-Herald at the time. “In fact, anybody has a right to talk to a lawyer, and if there is anybody in this country who needs a lawyer, it is David Koresh.”
DeGuerin told reporters Tuesday that getting to meet with Howell is a step in the right direction.
“I think it’s progress that I’ve been allowed to meet with my client and reassure him that the court system as I know it to be will treat him fairly,” he said.
Some attorneys criticize DeGuerin’s growing role in the cult standoff as a publicity ploy, and most disagree that those involved in standoff situations have a right to counsel.
“He is certainly a fellow (who) has a feel for drama and has a feeling for taking high-profile cases,” said Assistant Montgomery County Attorney David Walker, a one-time foe.
“I’m certain that some of his motivation is that this is an event that the media certainly in Texas and a large part of the country are focusing on, and it’s not going to hurt him one bit to be in the middle of it,” Walker said.
Frustrated federal agents hope he can help bring about an end to the stalemate.
“If they talk to Dick long enough, they’re going to be absolutely sure that they’re well-represented,’ said David Berg, a Houston attorney who said he has known DeGuerin for 25 years.
Berg described DeGuerin as extremely hard-working, a “complete professional” who personally is somewhat remote.
“I think Dick keeps to himself, doesn’t reveal his emotional hole cards — and shouldn’t,” Berg said.
“In a city where the lawyers are the celebrities — there aren’t movie stars, there aren’t business people — and people here are very committed to the practice of trial law, DeGuerin is in the top rank,” he said.
DeGuerin has acknowledged that he generally charges $100,000 or more for a routine homicide case, although he told Walker during a high-profile 1986 trial that some cases are more valuable for publicity than money.
“He may be legitimately concerned with the rights of those people there in the compound in Waco, but I can certainly tell you that he won’t avoid or refuse any publicity that comes his way because of it. Maybe to some extent it’s part and parcel of that part of the legal practice,” Walker said.
DeGuerin and Walker clashed in a sensational “love triangle” murder trial in 1986.