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Monday, October 11, 2004

Beldar's first trial: Music Capital Inc. v. Knievel

This is a completely self-indulgent post, apropos of nothing in particular.  It's just the story of the first jury trial in which I was ever involved — the trial that convinced me that I wanted to make my career as a trial lawyer.

I had no lawyers in my family.  Growing up, I'd thought I'd probably go to medical school until my older sister made a casual comment to me while I was in high school:  "I just don't see you as a doctor," she said, and when I asked her what she could "see" me as, she said, "I dunno — maybe a lawyer or something."  Based on this deep, profound, and thoughtful observation (she didn't know anything much about lawyers or doctors, I think, but her boyfriend at the time was a Marine who planned to go to law school later), I switched career goals on the spot.  And so it was that even as I neared the end of my first year at Texas Law School in the spring of 1978, I still had only the vaguest notion of what being a practicing lawyer might entail.  Until I started interviewing with Austin firms for a summer job, I'd probably spent a lifetime aggregate total of less than an hour in anyone's law office, and my notions of what happened at the courthouse still came mostly from "Perry Mason" re-runs.

In those days, the big Texas mega-firms from Houston and Dallas generally didn't hire students who'd only completed one year of law school as summer clerks, and they had only small satellite offices in Austin that mostly did lobbying and regulatory work.  Many other indigenous Austin-based firms were mainly known for their political connections and acumen, which didn't particularly interest me:  I knew that I needed to learn about lawyering first, before I explored what else could be done with a law degree.

On the basis of good first-semester grades, however, I managed to get myself hired for the summer at my first choice among the Austin firms I'd applied to — Graves, Dougherty, Hearon, Moody & Garwood (as it was known then, before name partner Will Garwood was appointed to the Fifth Circuit). Based on the breadth of their practice, the credentials and reputations of their lawyers, and the firm's history and blue-chip client list, Graves Dougherty was (and still is) at or near the very top of anyone's short list of premiere Austin-based law firms.  Of the four law clerks Graves Dougherty hired from my law school class for that summer, three of us ended up making the Texas Law Review and working as federal circuit court clerks after graduation (and one went on to clerk for Rehnquist).

Probably through dumb luck rather than merit, I managed to get the plum assignment of the summer — helping partner H. Lee Godfrey (now a name partner at Houston-based Susman Godfrey) and then-associate David H. Donaldson, Jr. prepare for and try a jury case in which the firm's client was Evel Knievel.

Yes, that Evel Knievel.


A couple or three years earlier, Willie Nelson had held the first great outdoor Fourth of July concert in a pasture near tiny Liberty Hill, Texas, outside Austin, for which 100,000+ folks had bought tickets, drunk lots and lots of beer, and developed fierce sunburns.  Other promoters were looking for ways to emulate Willie's success.  A group of them had decided that a Labor Day 1976 event featuring Evel Knievel — who was then probably at the peak of his international fame and celebrity — making a spectacular motorcycle jump over seven buses would go over like gangbusters and make them all rich.  The promoters had tracked down Mr. Knievel in the bar of the Las Vegas MGM Grand Hotel.  Literally on the back of a cocktail napkin, they'd together sketched out a contract to secure his appearance and performance.  Then they'd gotten the hotel personnel to type up the result, which was duly signed by all concerned back in the bar.

A key provision of the contract was the promoters' guarantee that they'd pay Mr. Knievel $100,000 upon his arrival in Austin for the performance.  But as things turned out, when Mr. Knievel and his entourage and trailer-loads of gear hit town, the promoters didn't have the cash.  So off into the sunset rode Mr. Knievel and his crew, and the event fell through.  Daredevil Evel Knieval The promoters thereupon sued Mr. Knievel for $550,000 in state district court in Travis County for breach of contract, arguing that he'd orally promised to help them promote the event during the summer, and that his breach of that promise had caused them to be unable to raise the $100,000 advance payment.  Mr. Knievel denied having made any such oral promises, and insisted that the promoters were the ones who'd breached their contract.

Before the trial, my job was to do research and briefing on some of the evidentiary issues that we expected to come up during the trial.  Chief among them was figuring out a way to try to keep the jury from learning that after the contract had been signed in the bar and the promoters had left with their copy, Mr. Knievel had jokingly added a few additional terms on the back of his own copy.  My recollection is that the additional terms would have required the promoters, at the moment of Mr. Knievel's jump, to "release 10,000 white doves and deflower 20 virgins," or something pretty close to that.  Since Mr. Knievel's eventual refusal to go through with the jump hadn't had anything to do with the absence of caged doves and willing virgins, we argued — successfully — that these addenda were irrelevant and would be unduly and unfairly prejudicial, and that all references to them should therefore be prohibited in front of the jury.

When the case was called for trial, I was thrilled that the judge allowed me, a mere law student, to sit with Godfrey and Donaldson at the defense counsel's table (although of course I never spoke aloud in front of the jury), and I eagerly lugged briefcases and exhibit boxes for our trial team.  We picked a jury without knowing for sure whether we'd sufficiently impressed on our own client the importance of showing up for the trial.  But he did show up, whereupon Godfrey took me aside and said:

Dyer, this is the most important assignment you'll have all summer!  I want you to stick to our client tonight like glue.  Let him talk to the reporters and the fans, but don't let him say anything stupid.  It's your job to make sure he has a good enough time that he doesn't decide to leave town before he testifies, but not such a good time that it gets into the local papers or on the local TV news.  If you call me at home, it better not be from jail!

And thus did aspiring young lawyer-wannabe Beldar find himself bar-hopping around Austin as Evel Knievel's unacknowledged chaperone.

Mr. Knievel was actually a fascinating man — I came to like him quite a lot.  His lifestyle and worldview were certainly unconventional, perhaps even skewed.  But he was true to his own moral code, and refreshingly blunt and straightforward.  He was a helluva drinking buddy, actually, on both nights I spent with him.

He was also a babe magnet.  We'd walk into a bar and within 90 seconds, he'd be surrounded by beautiful women who were eager to talk to him.  I kept us moving from beer joint to dance hall to nightclub fast enough that we didn't pick up stragglers — he let me drive, amazingly, and I was very, very sober — and on both nights, a bit in advance of closing time (2:00 o'clock a.m.), I managed to get us back to the Cabaret Bar of the recently remodeled, historic Driskill Hotel in downtown Austin, where he was staying.  Both nights ended with Mr. Knievel ordering "champagne for the house!" to wild applause from the gathered crowds.  And then he'd disappear — having found more agreeable (feminine) company for the remainder of the evening — leaving me to settle up the check. 

"Mr. Dyer?" asked the Amex representative over the phone, "Is this really you?"  Yes.  "Can you give us your SSN, date of birth, and mother's maiden name, please?"  Done.  "Well, we just wanted to check with you before approving these charges to your American Express card, since they're several orders of magnitude higher than your cumulative spending history over the past year."  Yes, that's right.  Special occasion.  Thank you, ma'am.  (The firm, of course, reimbursed me, and Mr. Knievel reimbursed it, in due course.)


On the morning Mr. Knievel was to testify, we all rode together to the courthouse.  Mr. Knievel was dressed in his usual fashion, of course.  The public garage outside the Travis County Courthouse had free, self-serve parking — but Mr. Knievel tipped the parking garage attendant with a $100 bill as we walked to the courthouse.  ("Great!" hissed Godfrey in my ear, "News of that will be all over the courthouse within three minutes."  And of course, it was.)

But Godfrey instinctively knew that the absolute worst thing he could have done would have been to try to repackage his client into something more "conventional" or "presentable."  And in fact, Mr. Knievel made a terrific witness on his own behalf.  We won the case with the jury, and Godfrey and I got our pictures in the Austin American-Statesman, along with three nice write-ups during the trial:

Left to right: H. Lee Godfrey, Evel Knievel, and Beldar

Celebrity and hoo-hah aside, I learned a huge amount about picking juries, cross-examining witnesses, and trial practice in general from Lee Godfrey and David Donaldson during the trial.  They're both damn fine trial lawyers, and I still use the things they taught me on a regular basis.  And certainly by the end of that summer, I'd figured out that yes, indeed, I wanted to be a lawyer — and specifically, a trial lawyer

In the years since then, I've carried many another briefcase, learned a lot more, and eventually been the first-chair lawyer on many smaller cases, and then quite a few bigger-dollar cases with objectively higher stakes.  But I've never had more pure fun than I did in the summer of 1978 as the third-chair lawyer-wannabe helping represent Evel Knievel.

(My thanks to Mr. John Chapman of the Austin History Center for his generous help in retrieving the news clippings and photo I've used in this post.)

Posted by Beldar at 07:41 PM in Law (2006 & earlier), Trial Lawyer War Stories | Permalink


Other weblog posts, if any, whose authors have linked to Beldar's first trial: Music Capital Inc. v. Knievel and sent a trackback ping are listed here:


(1) Voice of Reason made the following comment | Oct 12, 2004 1:22:00 AM | Permalink

Awesome, Beldar. You have a real knack for storytelling.

(2) Tim made the following comment | Oct 12, 2004 3:15:27 AM | Permalink

Great story! Thanks so much!

(3) Steve L. made the following comment | Oct 12, 2004 7:48:43 AM | Permalink

As a high school student in Austin at the time, reading about this trial brings back many memories. To me, way back then, Evel Knievel being in the same city as me was about as cool as it could get.

(4) Loren made the following comment | Oct 12, 2004 9:46:38 AM | Permalink

So how was the case decided?


(5) Robin Roberts made the following comment | Oct 12, 2004 10:24:55 AM | Permalink

Wonderful story, big guy, reminded me of my clerking days ... which were less colorful I admit.

(6) Sue Bob made the following comment | Oct 12, 2004 11:38:54 AM | Permalink

That newspaper photo of you is hot!! What a cutie.

(7) Beldar made the following comment | Oct 12, 2004 1:32:14 PM | Permalink

Loren, the jury verdict was in Mr. Knievel's favor, and the judge likewise rendered judgment in his favor based on that verdict.

Sue Bob, unfortunately, none of the young lovelies flocking around Mr. Knievel at the time shared your too-kind judgment. I might as well have been wearing Harry Potter's invisibility cape.

(8) Allen Lewis made the following comment | Oct 13, 2004 2:24:51 PM | Permalink


What a great story! I'm glad you decided to tell it; it makes you more real (and believable) as a blogger. Sounds like a great summer job!

(9) Loren made the following comment | Oct 13, 2004 2:41:14 PM | Permalink

Thanks Beldar, upon re-read, I see where you said that in the article. Great story.


(10) Mark in Mexico made the following comment | Oct 13, 2004 6:36:40 PM | Permalink

Uh, I'm a little confused. That's Godfrey on the right, Kneivel on the left, and you in the center, correct?

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