Chris Tritico, a high-powered Houston attorney and Sam Houston State University Alum, recently returned to his alma mater for the University’s annual “Let’s Talk” event (www.shsu.edu/honors/letstalk/). While on campus, he sat down with SHSU Professor Mike Yawn to discuss his career in law and some of his more notable cases and clients, which have included Moses Malone, Gary Sheffield, and Timothy McVeigh. With the Boston bombings bringing terrorism back in the news and today marking the 18th anniversary of the Oklahoma City Bombing, The Huntsville Item is publishing this interview, which has been edited for length and flow.
MY: Chris, you spent some time in Huntsville when you attended Sam Houston State. Can you tell us about your time there?
CT: I got here, and I met my wife, and I fell in love with the campus. I got involved in student politics, and later became the president of the Student Government Association. This is such a special place, and holds such special memories for me. I can’t think of anyplace that I could have graduated from that would be better.
MY: You were actually President of SGA when Old Main burned. Can you describe your memories of that?
CT: Old Main was the centerpiece of a great university. I was at home at my apartment, asleep, and the phone rang. One of my friends said, you’ve got to get back to campus, Old Main’s on fire. It was around midnight, I think, one o’clock in the morning, and I got dressed and ran over to the campus, and it was completely engulfed in flames. The fire department was throwing water on it, but it was too late. I ran into Dr. Bobby Marks and I said, what can I do, and he said, get some people and make a perimeter. And so, we kind of blocked off the walkways to keep people out, and I stayed on campus for 24 hours, helped keep people out of the site while they were trying to preserve it. It was a horrific night.
MY: Other than being president of SGA and filling in as an unofficial EMS worker, how did you get interested in law?
CT: I decided that I was going to be a lawyer when I was seven-years old. There’s never been a time in my life when I didn’t say I wanted to be a lawyer. It’s probably Perry Mason that did it, but I don’t know – that guy never lost a case.
MY: The magic of television.
CT: One of the things that I’ve lived my life by, and I think that my dad taught me this, is to set goals and to always keep working toward the goal. So, when I was seven, I set a goal that I was going to be a lawyer. It was one of those goals that I worked toward through high school, through college, and into law school.
MY: You started your law career with Racehorse Haynes. Tell us about that.
CT: Racehorse Haynes is the premier criminal defense attorney in America. He’s been a dear friend of mine my whole life. My dad and Richard “Racehorse” Haynes grew up together, and when I was in high school, my dad ran into Haynes and told him, “My son wants to be a lawyer.” Haynes said, “Send him by and I’ll give him a job.” At that time, Haynes had just finished trying one of the biggest cases in America: Dr. John Hill [a Houston doctor accused of killing his wife in 1969]. I called Haynes’s office the next day, interviewed shortly thereafter, and they said, soon as you get out of school, come on in. Two days after high school I started working for Racehorse Haynes, and I stayed there from 1979 through college, through law school, and became an associate of his when I got out of law school.
MY: You went on to represent sport stars such as Moses Malone, Gary Sheffield and Julio Lugo, but Haynes also represented a sports star of sorts: Morgana, The Kissing Bandit.
CT: I was there when he represented Morgana. She was a lady who became famous for trespassing onto baseball games. She would jump into centerfield, and run and kiss the pitcher, and then run off the field. What made her so famous was that she had 60” breasts, that’s the truth. Morgana ran onto the field in Houston. She called us beforehand and told us she was going to run out there. I’ll never forget. She ran out there, and they stopped the game, and Nolan got down on one knee [Tritico mimics Ryan, with his arms outstretched] and she ran into his arms. It was pretty funny.
People asked Haynes, “What is your defense?” And he said, “Gravity. She was leaning over to catch a foul ball and gravity took over, and she fell onto the field.”
MY: You’ve represented a lot of celebrities. Tell us how that is different from representing non-celebrities.
CT: When you represent someone famous, no matter how minor the situation is, the media are there. In most cases, the media are there because of the act, not because of the defendant.
Second, a lot of professional athletes get this impression that they really don’t have to do what the rest of us have to do. You have to build up trust with them, and then you have to knock them down a bit, because you can’t sit in front of a jury with a guy who thinks he is bigger than everybody else. A jury’s going to see that, they’re going to hate him, and they’re going to find him guilty for that alone.
MY: Your highest-profile client was Timothy McVeigh. Tell us about representing him.
CT: McVeigh was accused of, convicted, and executed for blowing up the federal building in Oklahoma City in 1995 and killing 168 people, some of them children. I knew about Tim McVeigh what everybody else knew. I saw the “perp walk,” and everybody hated Tim McVeigh, everybody except his dad and his mom and his sister.
I had left Haynes’ office by this time, and I had my own firm, but we were still in the same office building. Haynes called me and told me to come up to his office. When I got there, he said, “Do you want to be famous?” I said, “Well, it wouldn’t hurt my feelings.” He told me that McVeigh’s lead lawyer, Stephen Jones, needed a trial lawyer and that he was going to recommend me. Stephen called me and said, “Why don’t you come to Denver and talk to me?”
At that time, I didn’t have any money. I had a small law firm. We were struggling to make payroll. I had to buy an airline ticket to Denver and pay for a hotel room. That was about $1,200 we didn’t have. We borrowed, my partner and I, and I flew to Denver to meet with Jones for two days. The last night, it was about 1:00am, and we had met for ten hours, and he said, “Go to your room and get some sleep. I’m going to think about it tonight, and we’ll talk in the morning, but I really I think I need a woman for the trial attorney.”
I went to back to my room, and I was devastated. This was the chance of a lifetime. The next morning, we had breakfast, and I told him, “Steve, if it’s that important to you, I’ll wear a dress.” He cracked up, and he said, “You know what, you’re the guy.” And so I got the gig. In all, there were 14 total lawyers representing Tim.
MY: Is it difficult for 14 lawyers to work together under this kind of pressure?
CT: The practice of criminal law is the most pressure-filled thing you’ll ever do in your life. Maybe brain surgery is more pressure, but in a capital murder case you are cradling the life of a human being in your hands. But, yes, we had 14 lawyers. Quite frankly, we had too many lawyers. Were there conflicts? Of course. We had conflicts over how we’re going to put this massive case together. We had 32,000 FBI-302s— witness statements. It was 100,000 pages of written materials. Hundreds of hours of video tape. A forensics lab that had all of this bomb stuff, residue. This had to be sorted and processed, and put in some order. It was the most massive undertaking with which I had ever been involved, and I was hired shortly before trial, and I was given the forensics! I had to learn, in six weeks, how to build a bomb, blow up a bomb, and clean up a bomb, along with tire prints, fingerprints, and everything else you can think of forensically.
MY: While you were representing McVeigh, how did your friends treat you at cocktail parties? Were they put off, intrigued, or both?
CT: Both. Few people said anything negative. I don’t own what McVeigh did, and I don’t have to agree with what he did, and I don’t have to have his belief system to stand in a courtroom and say, “Prove it.” That’s what the Constitution requires. The government has to prove you’ve done something wrong, and if they can’t, you get to walk out the front door with me. It’s that simple.
MY: On a more tactical level, how do you defend a guy who’s cooperating with journalists on a book about how committed the crime? [McVeigh sat for interviews with Lou Michel and Dan Herbeck, who later wrote “American Terrorist: Timothy McVeigh and the Oklahoma City Bombing.”]
CT: [laughs] Well, I didn’t know that. Nobody knew that he was working with those guys. When he was in pretrial, there were only a few of us that could get into that prison to see him. But after being sentenced, he had several years before being executed and there was more access. I don’t think he started that book until after he was convicted.
MY: In their book Lou Michel and Dan Herbeck indicated that McVeigh wasn’t always thrilled with his representation, but that he respected you.
CT: We had some major problems in the defense. There were some early leaks, and it was a huge eruption in the case. I knew nothing about those leaks. I was preparing the forensics, so I was off on my own. When the eruption occurred, Tim wouldn’t talk to anybody, and I don’t blame him. I went to the jail about three days later, and the guard told me that McVeigh wouldn’t come out. I said, “Give him my card, tell him it’s me, tell him I’m here alone.” Well, he came in, and he was mad.
MY: You really don’t want Tim McVeigh mad at you.
CT: No, you don’t. But I said, “I know how mad you are. Why don’t we just sit down and talk?” So we talked for about two hours, and I’m not going to get into it because it’s privileged, but at the end of the meeting, he said, “Okay, I will talk with you—only—until this case is over. Within about a week I was able to get him to come back and work with us.
MY: On a more whimsical note, you also represented a Denise Wells, in a case sometimes referred to as “Pottygate.”
CT: She was at a George Strait concert at the Astrodome, which isn’t very potty friendly to women. She was at this concert waiting in line for the restroom, and she couldn’t wait any longer. She walks into the men’s room, and she said she covered her eyes like this [uses his hands as blinders] and said, “Sorry guys, just coming through,” and she went straight into the stall, went to the bathroom, came out, and got arrested for indecency.
We tried that case in municipal court. Cases in municipal court are speeding, running stop signs, and they take about an hour to try. We were in trial in this court for two days, and it went viral. We had reporters from Spain, England, all over the world sent to cover this trial of the girl who went into a men’s restroom. But we won.
MY: We’ve talked a lot about your experience. What advice would you give to those interested in pursuing law careers or those who wish to make a career out of public service?
CT: I said earlier that I’ve lived my life setting goals, and that’s the only way you succeed, by having a goal, reaching that goal, and having another goal. And keep doing that. I’ve tried to do that. I wanted to be a lawyer. I became a lawyer. My next goal was I wanted a talk radio show; I did two of them for ten years. My next goal was to work on television; I’ve done that. And my next goal is to get my own thirty-minute TV show. I think after that, I just want to go on a cruise.