Questions and Answers
with Paul Looney and Clay S. Conrad
April 25, 2013
Roxanne: How is it you came to be criminal defense lawyers?
Clay: I’m just a contrary soul. I grew up hearing you can’t fight city hall so I had to find a way to fight government for a living.
Paul: I was in the securities industry; Vice President of Direct Placements with Shearson, Lehman, Hutton and they were having prison rodeos back then. The prisoners were the rodeo combatants. And they did it the more they entertained by getting gored or whatever. They received early release credits. So they were so desperate to get out of prison that they were running and jumping in front of cows to get stomped because they wanted out. These people were getting paralyzed. I saw this stuff going on and everybody was excited and cheering every time somebody got to be where they had to be carted off. They’re unconscious and crap and I’m sitting there thinking the Romans with the Christians have nothing on us. We’re doing the same damn thing. 1700 years later we’re doing the same damn thing.
I was just furious. I looked at the guard nearest me and saw his gun and I saw another guard and I thought “I think I can overwhelm this guy and get his gun. And if I hold him hostage, maybe we can get some other guns and we can get some of these people out of this place”. And I sat there with this powerful urge to do that. I mean, I wanted to so badly to get those people out of there. That was ‘79. I sat through the rodeo, I sat through the Judds performing on the back of a ’65 Impala in the middle of the rodeo arena and I went home and I told my wife “Life’s about to change.” We were making a lot of money. I said “Life’s about to change because I’m quitting my job and I’m going to law school.”
Monday morning I go in for my 8:00 call and I get on the little squawk box and I said “Before we go anywhere with this call (to the chairman of the company), I said “I’m resigning, effective this morning…do you want me on the call or do you want me off the call?” And everybody was just shocked because I was the youngest VP in the company. And by 8:15 I had resigned, and walked across town to enroll in the South Texas College of Law. I sat down and told them “I’m here” only to find out that you don’t enroll that late. But I’d already quit and so I had to go through all the stuff and it was almost a year before I was in law school. It was about 7-8 months anyway and I went to law school for the sole purpose of making sure that people don’t go to cages.
Roxanne: When you know someone is guilty, how and why do you defend them?
Clay: I defend them to the best of my ability. The fact that they’re guilty doesn’t affect whether or not they’re entitled to counsel. Unless I’m a witness, all I know is what I’ve been told by other people including them I might believe they’re guilty but it’s still the burden of the state to prove it beyond a reasonable doubt and it’s my job to make that as difficult for the state as possible and if they can’t get there, it’s not my fault, it’s the state’s problem.
Paul: Mine is very different. I don’t give a shit if they’re guilty or innocent, they don’t need to be in a cage and they don’t need the government ganging up on them. And even when I met Tim McVeigh, the one thing I saw in him was a guy being bullied. The entire United States government was against one man. And I can’t stand that shit. And I don’t care who they are, they don’t need to be in a cage and they don’t need to be bullied by the entire wave of society being against them. And if they do that, I want to be there and I want to fight back with them. I’ve always wanted to screw with any bully.
Clay: I’m looking at what’s happening in Boston right now (Marathon Bombing), where they just arrested Dzhokhar Tsarnaev and in the process you have police going door to door in Watertown, forcing people out of their houses at gunpoint, searching every house in the neighborhood, forcing everyone to go out with their hands above their head, yelling at them, telling them to shut up…
People applauded them as heroes. I don’t care what this guy did, they’ve got no right to go to people that they have no reason to suspect just to check to see if he’s in every house in the neighborhood, forcing everyone, treating everyone as criminals. These are out of control. We have police forces with more and more military equipment; they break the window into peoples’ houses and throw in flash bombs that explode with light and sound in order to stun people
Someone has to police the police and that is the job of criminal defense lawyers and it always has been.
The police were telling everyone not to be by their windows. Now people with automatic weapons on the sidewalk saying “Get away from the windows”. Excuse me??? I mean, this is not a military action in Afghanistan. This is what they’re doing on the streets of America. And the only reason that it received attention is because it was such a huge case. If this was a less spectacular case, they’d be doing the same thing but we wouldn’t know about it.
Roxanne: If you could be doing anything other than being a criminal defense attorney, what would that be?
Clay: I’d probably own a recording studio in New Orleans.
Paul: This is the only job I want; this is the only job I’ve ever wanted. I would do it for free if nobody would pay me. They do pay me so I insist on being paid…but I don’t ever want to retire, I don’t ever want to quit and I don’t like it when I’m on vacation for very long because I miss it a lot. This is all I want to do.
Roxanne: Of all the cases you’ve defended, tell me about one or two that are memorable to you and why.
Paul: What’s that lady that had her cocaine in her rent car in Laredo? She was driving a rental car and had 8 kilos of cocaine in the rental car and got caught. And she was guilty enough that she failed polygraphs and everything else. But she really struck me as a sympathetic soul because she was being used by one of our long term clients to take all of the risk for him to make some money. And she was doing it because she had a household. She couldn’t pay the bills. And she had three kids. She was pregnant with her fourth one. And I just felt like that case was the one where I was really doing God’s work by keeping her out of prison because she was as much of an innocent player in that whole thing as a person can be but she was on the front line and she was going to take all of the heat and it was going to completely destroy their whole family. That one was just really got under my skin a lot. That one jumps out at me.
Clay: It’s so hard to name just one…there have been a lot of them. If I have to come down to one, it’s probably going to be the huge case that was 473 kilos of cocaine and I have it on good authority that is more than a user amount. It’s a little more than half a ton. It was fought through a motion to suppress hearing that was denied and then we fought it on appeal and it was reversed. And the client was this big huge guy with a black belt and he called me from prison right after we had it reversed and I told him we won. And he broke down crying. And I think that’s probably one of the most memorable moments was this big mountain of a guy with a black belt in karate just breaking down crying because it meant he could go home to his family.
Paul: You know the second one that came to me while you were talking was that guy that did the tile work. And we tried that in such a rigged courtroom in front of a biased judge and the guy was as innocent as can be and the railroad was about to be…I mean he would have been run over with anybody but us and stuff we had to do in that case to be able just to hold our own against such a biased judge…it was creative and tricky and by the time the jury came back and said “not guilty”, do you remember what I did? I fell down in my chair and I started crying and remember how he looked over and he was kind of embarrassed and I was sitting there crying. I was so scared in that case because he was innocent and the judge was railroading him so badly.
Clay: You know you asked earlier how we represent guilty clients? It’s actually more stressful and much harder to work with an innocent client because it’s all on you with an innocent client. If you have an innocent client, that’s someone who isn’t entirely at your mercy – at the mercy of the job that you can do. So, it with an innocent client, you know that you can’t plead guilty; you know that you can’t compromise; you just have to win. And it is just the sense of personal responsibility you feel I think is the greatest when you have an innocent client. When you have a guilty client, you evaluate the case and you get the very best result that can possibly be gotten and if that’s an acquittal – great. If that is a great plea bargain, sometimes you have to take it. But in the long run, you know he was the one who got himself into the mess. With an innocent client, you got no choice. You just have to win.
Roxanne: Tell me about winning a case when there were tremendous obstacles against you.
Paul: You know, people accuse us of cherry picking our trials, or accuse me of it. I’ve had lawyers say “well, if you got that many jury trials that you’ve won in a row, you’re cherry picking what you go to trial with and what you haven’t gone to trial with.” You know, they needed to be there for a couple of those like I think the guy with the gun in the back seat on the floorboard after being a felon and he confessed to the cop that he had the gun and we still managed to win by attacking the cop. And there’ve been a lot of them that I can’t even imagine that. Which case did we win that was against the greatest odds? I don’t even know which time that would be. There’ve been a bunch of them. The one I was talking about earlier where she had the 8 kilos of cocaine in her rental car. She admitted to going to Laredo to pick up the car and bring it back and she didn’t know what for. Well if that’s not at least willful ignorance, I don’t know what is. She’s the one who rented the car and she’s been in Nuevo Laredo and she comes across the border with 8 kilos of cocaine…that’s an “against all odds” one.
Winning a felon in possession of a firearm whenever he confesses where he bought it, when he bought it…is an “against all odds” win. But there have been several of those…
Clay: Yeah, then there’s the one case where there was cocaine on the floor of the car and you were um…
Paul: I put the little thing down under a cops chair during the lunch break and they had cocaine in the small package that was dropped down on the floorboard. That’s commonly what people do when they’re stopped. And they were trying us for it and so I knew we were behind the 8 ball and I had the cop on the witness stand. The judge broke us for lunch and I forgotten what I did. Maybe I cut up a note. Were you there?
Paul: I think I cut up a little post-it note in the size of what they said the container was and I set it down under the chair of the cop and so the cop comes back and he starts testifying about how anybody would have known if it’d been at their floorboard…anybody would’ve known they would have seen it when they sat down. And I got him to affirm that he always checks when he sits down and that he couldn’t get into a car without knowing what was in the floorboard. And I said “without looking down, there’s a piece of a post-it note…is it closer to your left foot or your right foot?” And it was neither, I had it a little off to the side and he said “I don’t know what you’re talking about” and we could all see the little sticky note.
Roxanne: Your law school classmates would say that you were most likely to do what?
Clay: I imagine they probably would’ve expected me to maybe teach? I don’t know.
Paul: I think I would’ve been the one that was expected to have been disbarred or arrested or both.
Roxanne: Who were your mentors?
Clay: I had one professor in law school who was a mentor of mine. His name was James Treece. And he was a bit of a gadfly. I don’t think he owned a tie. He liked to wear like Mexican cotton shirts and khakis and he was brilliant but just incredibly “this is the way I do it and this is the way I’m going to do it” even… just set in his ways and very comfortable with that.
Roxanne: And that’s what you liked about him?
Clay: Yeah, yeah. He said that “you know, most people go to work for big law firms and they make tons of money but you know their wife divorces them, their kids hate them, their dog bites them, and then they spend all their money on shotguns and liquor. And it doesn’t do them any good.” I took that very much to heart. The ideas to work hard but not to lose your perspective and not to forget the reason why you’re doing it in the first place…that it’s not just about a paycheck…and that it’s not about how many hours you put in – it’s about what you put into those hours that determines what kind of job you’ve done.
Paul: Well, the most valuable professional mentors I’ve had were Dick DeGuerin and Ed Mollette but they’re not the most valuable mentors that I had. By far, the most valuable mentors that I had that knew the most about practicing law that taught me the most about practicing law the way I practice law, were two men by the name of John Draper and Harvey Dell Angel. Both were habitual criminals. Both were absolutely brilliant with tremendously brilliant legal minds. Draper and I met each other about a year before I became a lawyer and we bonded and he taught me how to think like a lawyer, how to talk like a lawyer. He did all my research and writing for about a year and a half until he developed liver cancer and died from his heroin use. And I learned more than anything from Draper that these people are people – no less worthy of respect than my daughter.
Then Harvey Angel came along and he’s a serial child pedophile doing habitual criminal time in TBC and he worked for me for about a year and a half and he continued the education that John gave me to start with. These guys – there was just never any battle that they weren’t willing to try to find a way to win. Couldn’t find a way to win a lot of them but they were never discouraged by the enormity of the task and they always said that “anybody can win the things they’re supposed to win. Lawyers win when they’re not supposed to win.” That was their prospective and those guys are probably my favorite and mentors and one of them had to do 20 years in prison – about to get out of prison and the other one is dead.
Roxanne: Tell me about someone whose life you changed. Maybe a client, maybe it’s someone you mentored.
Clay: We had one client who had previously been convicted of murder and he had a long-term drug problem which he had successfully addressed for many years. And then he had surgery. And of course when he had surgery, they gave you pain relievers. Well, guess what? You can’t give a long-term drug addict narcotics for a few months and then expect them to just stop. So he went out and he started using drugs again after his prescriptions ran out. And he was busted with the user amount of cocaine but because of his priors he was a habitual criminal looking at a potential life sentence.
We managed to put together a package to show that this was someone who’d had a lot of problems, he straightened himself out but because of the medical use of drugs, he had gotten back into it again. And he was guilty but the judge reduced his sentence from life to two years and he’s out today and living a productive life. And it took a Herculean effort to show that this was someone who as part of his conviction, deserved a break and deserved another chance and he received it and he’s used it productively and he hasn’t had to hire us again so I assume he’s doing alright now.
Paul: That’s just what I do. I’m kind-of the do-gooder social worker of the group. I browbeat these people over and over and over again. Sometimes I’m successful in changing their lives.
Roxanne: Paul, describe Clay to me. And then Clay, describe Paul.
Paul: He’s the smartest man I know. If you have to have somebody at a computer trying to figure out how to win a case, there isn’t anybody else you want at your computer. Don’t ever turn him lose in front of real people to try to talk to them because he doesn’t speak people. But he speaks judge and computer very well.
Clay: Paul is like real stubborn. He has a little street fighter to him. You know, it’s like you picture someone that they have him down and they’re kicking the crap out of him and somehow he manages to turn it around and win. And sometimes you kind of look and say “how the hell did he do that?”
But that would be my image of Paul is that sometimes when everybody is sure he’s lost…is the time he’s sitting back smiling on “I got this one”. And the son-of-a bitch does when you wouldn’t think he would. But sometimes Paul manages to find a way to win where nobody else knows what he’s going for. And so everybody else thinks they’re fighting this fight and he’s fighting a whole different fight and he’s sitting back gloating but so are they.
Roxanne: What are you going to be doing in 10 years?
Clay: Aging. 10 years…I’m probably going to be sitting at the same desk doing the same stuff…probably taking a little more time off here and there but I’m too old to change careers and I’m too young to retire so I think I’ll stick with what I’m doing for a while.
Paul: I’ll be doing the same thing in 10 years I’ll be doing in 20 years, 30 and 40…I don’t have any desire to not do this job. I don’t want to retire. I don’t want to quit. They’re going to have to drag me out unable to speak before I’ll ever quit doing this. My biggest current goal I just came up with is that I want to try a jury trial after age 100. And it damn sure better be in the cards. This is all I know. This is all I do. My identity is wrapped up in it. My self-esteem is wrapped up in it. I don’t have a world that doesn’t include me being a criminal lawyer. If I’m not a criminal lawyer, I would be completely lost and void. This is all I am.
More than a father, more than a friend, more than anything, all I am is a criminal lawyer.
Clay: If you ask me what I’m going to do in 15 years, then you know, I’d put that one down then if I’m lucky my wife and I will live in a two bedroom apartment in one of the old castles in Budapest.
Paul: And I’ll be practicing criminal law.
Roxanne: If you could change one thing about yourself what would that be?
Clay: I’d be 15-20 years younger.
Paul: By the time I was 31, I’d had 32 full-time jobs. By the time I went back to law school, I’d already been to law school for 2 months 3 different times. And I quit every time. I quit all those jobs.
For whatever reason, everything I’ve ever done has always come tortuously slow. I’ve always failed at everything important over and over and over again before I got it right including the practice of law. My first 17 jury trials were all losses. Every one. After that, they were all without losses. Every one. Just a lifetime of streaks. But I’ve always gone in and the things that were important to me I’d go back to it and back to it and back to it.
I finally read from start to finish “100 years of solitude”. It took like 7 tries because it’s the most God-awful book in the world but I’d started it and I wasn’t going not finish it someday. And the only thing that is left that is really a hole in my life that doesn’t cause me a lot of grief, but it’s a hole…is that someday I want to go back for round 5 of marriage. And do that right because after Round 4 I’m 0 for 4.
Roxanne: Tell me something about you that I haven’t asked that you want me to know.
Clay: Before law school, I was a field engineer in the theatrical lighting business. I worked television studios, auditoriums, technical support for traveling productions, etc. and now I do appeals and pre-trial litigation so in my mind, in a very real sense I still work backstage. I am more of the screenwriter. Paul is more of the actor. And it’s my job to ensure that when he’s in trial, all the ducks are in a row. And it takes both of us. It takes his skill in the courtroom and it takes the preparation work because if the prep work hasn’t been done, he’s just going be in there naked. So in a very real sense I figure I still work backstage. That’s my role and I really like it because I don’t like having everybody looking at me. I get way too self-conscious in that moment.
Paul: You know the one thing that I think that most people underestimate about me is that when I make statements that are seemingly crazy, like that no human being should be in a cage, I almost never say anything I don’t really believe. And I think people underestimate the extreme level of my commitment.
A lot of times I say things that other people listen to and say “well that’s not realistic”. It IS in my world. I believe it. And I don’t stop until I get it. Unless I just can’t get there and then I come back and try again later.
Clay: I told you he was just stubborn.
Paul: But I don’t take on any battles and I don’t make any statements that I don’t really believe.