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Obituaries

Warren Burnett, 75; Texas Lawyer Quoted Bard, Bible

September 29, 2002|From a Times Staff Writer

Warren E. Burnett, a Texas lawyer as colorful as a kaleidoscope who was equally adept at sending one murderer to the electric chair and getting another off by describing him as "temporarily dethroned of reason," has died. He was 75.

Burnett, also known for championing civil rights, died Monday of a heart attack in Fort Davis, Texas. He lived in League City, near Galveston.

With his size 14 shoes, Harley-Davidson motorcycle, private planes he could fly himself and whiskey-laced victory parties that could go on for days, Burnett cast a big shadow across the arid plains of west Texas.

The courtroom orator, who could quote Shakespeare and the King James version of the Bible, was struck by the fatal heart attack while sitting on a porch with a cold beer in his hand. Some might consider that a poetic exit for the lawyer who once offered a cost-free defense to the only saloonkeeper in lonely Mentone, Texas, when the state liquor board shut the bar down for a week.

Burnett handily won the death sentence for a killer he prosecuted during his first term as district attorney in Odessa, Texas. The hitchhiker was accused of accosting two couples at gunpoint, tying up the men and assaulting their wives, and then begging for his life so that he could die in the electric chair after one husband broke free, grabbed the gun and shot him in the leg. Burnett so emphatically stressed the killer's "wish" for execution that jurors required a mere 32 minutes to order death by electrocution.

The lawyer, who later became a staunch opponent of the death penalty, was just as successful in defending an 18-year-old man for blowing a 15-year-old schoolgirl's head off with a shotgun. His client, Burnett argued, was so "temporarily dethroned of reason" that he thought he was performing a kind deed after the girl said she wanted "to live with the angels." The youth was acquitted.

Burnett's witty phrasing was not limited to legal issues.

When the city of Odessa once hired the legendary trial lawyer to wage a battle for a four-year state university, and a judge questioned the need, Burnett assured him: "Your Honor, there is enough ignorance in Odessa to justify an eight-year college."

And in 1992, when The Times profiled the city of Toronto, Burnett as a visitor offered his assessment: "This is a city where everyone looks as though they're on their way to band practice."

Born in the mining town of Austinville, Va., Warren Edsel Burnett dropped out of Virginia Tech to serve in the Marines in China and Burma at the end of World War II. Afterward, he joined a buddy at Lamar College in Beaumont, Texas, and then went to Baylor Law School. After a brief stint in the San Antonio district attorney's office, he moved to Odessa in west Texas.

In 1968, after a meeting of liberal leaders and lawyers ready to represent them, Burnett became a champion of civil rights. He organized marches, picketed supermarkets during Cesar Chavez's grape boycott and waged court battles for school integration and the United Farm Workers. Burnett, who won numerous seven-figure jury awards, often took on the cases of minorities and indigents without charging any fees.

He is survived by his wife, Kay Taylor Burnett; three children; three stepchildren; and three grandchildren.

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