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Defense Attorney Percy Foreman Dies

August 26, 1988

HOUSTON (AP) _ Flamboyant defense attorney Percy Foreman, who bartered a guilty plea for the life of the man who assassinated the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr., died Thursday at the age of 86.

Foreman died of cardiac arrest, said Methodist Hospital spokeswoman Brenda Koch. Family members did not wish to release further details, she said.

Foreman once estimated he had tried 1,500 death penalty cases, but of his clients, only one, a restaurateur named Steve Mitchell, was executed. Mitchell was convicted in 1952 of shooting his wife, and Foreman, who consistently opposed the death penalty, said later Mitchell ″deserved to die.″

″You can’t win ’em all,″ Foreman said of the case, but later confided he blamed himself.

He persuaded James Earl Ray to plead guilty to the 1968 slaying of King, the Nobel Prize-winning civil rights leader, in exchange for a 99-year sentence. Ray charged later that Foreman pressured him into the plea by saying the odds were 99 percent certain he would go to the electric chair if he faced a jury in Tennessee.

Ray contended he only purchased the rifle used in the Memphis assassination and gave it to a man named ″Raoul.″ He charged Foreman failed to investigate two mysterious Louisiana men who, he contended, would have helped his case.

But Foreman testified before a U.S. House assassinations committee in 1978 that Ray admitted to him he faked the story of a conspiracy and thought the killing would make ″a hero to the white race.″

″His style, his technique, his manner of handling himself before the jury had a dramatic effect on my career. Not only mine, but many other men and women in the state who practice law,″ said Houston’s other famous attorney, Richard ″Racehorse″ Haynes, who used to skip law school classes to watch Foreman in court.

″I think his loss is a major loss in the quality of law. He’s gone but will not be forgotten. I believe he will be the yardstick from which we will judge the other lawyers,″ Haynes said.

Foreman was born June 21, 1902, in a log cabin near the East Texas town of Coldspring. His first job was as a shoeshine boy in Polk County, where his father was sheriff.

He began studying law after World War I and kept the $5 bill he received as the fee for his first legal case - drawing up a lease on a five-acre orchard.

Foreman reacted in character April 30, 1982, when a woman whose divorce he had handled was arrested and charged with trying to hire someone to kill him.

″I’m too busy to die,″ Foreman growled when asked for comment.

He built a practice based on unswerving loyalty to clients. ″They may not always be right, but they are never wrong,″ he once said.

″In a murder case, you should never allow the defendant to be tried,″ he explained. ″Try someone else - the husband, the lover, the police, or if the case has social implications, society generally. But never the defendant.″

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