Percy Foreman. 16" x 21". 2017. Collection of the artist. Montreal, Canada.
Although trial lawyer Percy Foreman died in 1988, the Texas firm he founded still bears his name: Foreman, DeGeurin & Nugent. Foreman, once presented with an award for “the world’s best lawyer,” practiced law in Houston for more than sixty years handling murder and divorce cases. He is reputed to have once said, “I like a murder trial best – there is one less witness talking. ”Foreman was a legendary figure in the courtroom, with the characteristics of lawyers memorialized in 40s and 50s black and white movies: an imposing figure, a voice that filled the room, and formidable cross examination skills.
Percy Foreman (1902 - 1988)
Education and Career
The son of a rural lawman, Foreman dropped out of school at age fifteen, but ultimately got a degree by correspondence courses and entered the University of Texas Law School. After graduation, he worked briefly as an assistant prosecutor, but eventually opened his own firm in Houston in the 1930s. Foreman began squaring off against prosecutors and developed a reputation as the “go-to” lawyer in murder cases. As described by Foreman, DeGeurin & Nugent, Foreman’s philosophy could often be boiled down to: “You should never allow the defendant to be tried. Try someone else—the husband, the lover, the police, or, if the case has social implications, society generally.
But never the Defendant. ”The Time profile called him, “the biggest, brashest, brightest criminal lawyer in the U.S.”In 1966, Foreman represented Candace Mossler and Melvin Lee Powers in one of the first highly-publicized murder trials in America—both were acquitted. Time and Life Magazines both profiled Foreman afterward. The Time profile called him, “the biggest, brashest, brightest criminal lawyer in the U.S.”
The Mossler Powers trial was but one of many infamous cases. Foreman represented a number of notable figures throughout his career, from Mafiosos to Jack Ruby, the man who shot John F. Kennedy's assassin. James Earl Ray, the man convicted of killing Martin Luther King, Jr., retained Foreman on the eve of his trial. Foreman convinced Ray to accept a plea offer rather than face execution.
Texas legal historians often refer to the Diego Carlino trial where Foreman accused the sheriff and a Texas Ranger of beating a confession out of his client. After the not-guilty verdict, the lawmen jumped over the rail in the courtroom and went after Foreman. Many lawyers urged Foreman to press criminal charges, but he is reported to have said, “ I harbor no malice towards these poor misguided minions of the law.”
The practice of law consumed Percy Foreman’s life. He once docked a former partner two days’ pay for joining a former attorney-client for an out of country victory celebration. Foreman, quoted on his firm’s website, “For me, practicing law is the be-all, and end-all. I don’t practice law to take vacations and play golf.”Foreman’s theory of litigation was that, “You don’t approach a case for abstract justice—you go in to win.” But in regards to himself, Foreman’s a quote from his 1988 New York Times obituary puts it best: “There is no better trial lawyer in the U.S. than me.”