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Back in the game Dax faces a challenge: Will he win or lose?

THE BALTIMORE SUN

Sitting in his Corpus Christi office one day last July, Dax Cowart got the news that his law firm had assigned him to a trial scheduled to begin Oct. 20 in the nearby town of San Diego, Texas. It would be his first time out as co-counsel before a jury.

Dax was excited. He was also nervous. He knew the difficulties he faced. Because of his blindness, he would have to rely on the attorney working with him to read the facial expressions and body language of the jury, the judge and the witnesses. And because he could not make notes in braille -- his fingerless hands made reading such notes impossible -- he would have to commit everything to memory.

He worried, too, about whether his impaired hearing would prevent him from hearing accurately what was said in the courtroom, where there would be a substantial amount of peripheral noise coming from all directions. But his biggest concern, the one that far outweighed all the others, was Dax's fear that any mistake he made might hurt Roberta, the woman whose personal injury case was his to win or lose.

More than most, Dax could empathize with the plight of this young Mexican mother of four, whose husband had left her after an accident paralyzed her from the waist down.

Dax's own life had been ambushed by an accident 25 years earlier, when he was about the same age as Roberta, and he felt a tremendous responsibility about his role in shaping a better future for her.

He had watched his own future disintegrate after the explosion that killed his father and destroyed him physically: his lips, nostrils, eyelids, ears and most of the skin on his body burned away, his eyesight ruined, his hands maimed. It was not a life that Dax could imagine living. From the beginning, he had fought for his right to stop treatment and be allowed to die.

But his doctors had not agreed. They felt Dax was in too much pain to know what was best for him, and it was their duty to care for him. His mother, a deeply religious woman who held power of attorney and gave doctors permission to treat her son, didn't want Don to die before he had made his peace with God.

And so Dax Cowart, despite his repeated requests, had been forced to live.

Through depression and suicide attempts, through failed marriages and failed careers, through 10 years of law school, he had struggled to take this life fate had handed him and make it work.

In the case of Roberta, who had fallen through the attic floor of a newly built house she'd been hired to clean, Dax, 50, saw a chance to help this young, paralyzed mother who was claiming negligence on the part of a subcontractor who helped build the house.

He also saw an opportunity -- his first since the explosion -- to get back onto the "playing field" from which he'd been banished 25 years earlier.

Although he could no longer engage in sports, Dax's competitive spirit from his football and rodeo days remained. He wanted to win this case.

"You know, a lot of reporters -- and doctors, too -- write that I'm a 'successful' lawyer," Dax observed a few days before the trial. "But none of them has ever asked me any questions that would evaluate whether I'm successful or not. By my own definition, I will not be a successful lawyer until I have tried a case and done a damn good job of it."

Several weeks before the trial, Dax and his co-counsel, John Flood, made the 50-minute drive from Corpus Christi to San Diego. Dax wanted to "see" the courtroom where the trial would take place.

"This is a great courtroom," John told Dax. "It's a homey place. Not intimidating. This is the perfect church to be baptized in, Dax."

Dax sat silent for a while in the spectator's gallery, feeling the space. Then: "Yeah, John, you're right. I really like this."

It was up to John to help Dax get the feel of the room, to somehow sense the setting, to anticipate the locations of the trial's cast of characters.

And so they began.

John and Dax walked the length and width of the room.

Dax sat in the jury box and in the judge's chair and on the witness stand.

John positioned Dax in front of the jury box and then sat in each of the juror's chairs, talking to Dax so that he could learn how to make eye contact with the jury.

They arranged a series of mats for Dax to stand on: each one would serve to position him in front of a witness, the judge or the jury.

He worried about his opening statement, knowing he'd have to do it without a checklist or notes, relying entirely on memory. The opening was crucial to getting off on the right foot with the jury. Or the wrong one.

Of course, for Dax, first impressions were more important than usual. But the jurors already had seen Dax; he'd met them during jury selection.

At first, juror Rosario Voorhees had thought Dax was the person being represented in the case. She was shocked to find out he was the attorney and wondered what terrible thing had happened to him. But the more she listened to Dax during the selection process, the more she thought: He seems like a wonderful human being.

Day One of the trial. October 20, 1997. 9 a.m. San Diego, Texas.

The plaintiff, wearing a white pantsuit, sits in a wheelchair next to her attorneys, Dax Cowart and John Flood. On the table in front of Dax is a round white rock he brought back from trial lawyers' college in Wyoming. He likes knowing it's there.

The jury -- six men and six women -- has been seated.

The presiding judge, the Honorable Ricardo H. Garcia, addresses the jury and then turns to the lawyers: "Is the plaintiff ready to make an opening statement at this time?"

"Yes we are, your honor," replies Dax, turning to his co-counsel who leads him to the mat in front of the jury.

"OK?" asks John Flood.

"OK," replies Dax.

With his blue eyes fixed on the jury, Dax begins his opening statement: "Good morning. We are about to begin on a journey together this morning. It's a journey we should have a great respect for because it's about love. Love for justice and for our fellow man. ..."

And with those words, Dax Cowart takes another step in his long journey.

Three days later, on the last morning of the trial, Dax rises early and puts on the clothes he picked out the night before: A western suit, string tie and cowboy boots. The most important item of clothing, however, he plans to carry in a box.

It is a black felt cowboy hat, a gift from some of his colleagues at Gerry Spence's trial lawyers' college. He has never worn it, keeping it in a hatbox until the right moment.

If I'm successful today, he thinks, picking up the hatbox, I'll wear it.

He has not slept at all, worrying about his closing argument. He knows it will be the last thing the jury hears and he wants it to set the right tone for their deliberations.

It is drizzling slightly at 7 a.m. when Dax and John drive to the small courthouse. The two men don't talk much; they listen to a tape of Bruce Springsteen: Born down in a dead man's town/The first kick I took was when I hit the ground ...

John Flood, 33, has enjoyed working with Dax, even though it was hard work. He found the older man's preparation for the case as thorough as any he'd ever witnessed. He has already decided he'd like to work with Dax again.

They find the courtroom more crowded than usual. The news that Dax is presenting his closing argument has attracted a number of lawyers and courthouse employees. Friends have shown up, too: Bob Hilliard and Sarah Walters, Dax's personal assistant.

This is the day Dax has long awaited. He is ready to "fight like hell" for his client.

Standing on a mat in front of the jury, Dax begins by talking about all the difficulties his client faces as a single mother in a wheelchair; the physical limitations that will change forever her personal life; the losses to her children because of the accident.

Slowly and deliberately, he takes the six men and six women of the jury on a journey through his client's future life, the life an accident of fate has handed her. The life she now must live.

The jurors listen, caught up in a story that suddenly seems their own: What happened to her could happen to me.

But another story is being told here, too. And the jurors know it. In his powerful evocation of a life fractured in minutes on an ordinary day, Dax Cowart is telling his own story.

Dax closes by singing some verses from a Bob Dylan song, "Girl from the North Country." He calls it a song about "caring for one another."

The courtroom is silent except for his soft, reedy voice:

Rivers freeze and so does rain

Please see she has a coat so warm ...

He ends with these words: "She has been my responsibility up until now. But now she's in your hands."

The jury's deliberations begin by lunchtime. After going out to eat, Dax and John Flood return to the empty courtroom. Dax sits down in one of the gallery chairs and promptly falls asleep.

He is wearing his cowboy boots, his legs stretched out in front of him, his arms up on the backs of the seats beside him. His head is down, cocked to one side.

Seeing Dax in this position reminds John Flood of something he has seen before. But he can't quite figure out what.

For a long time he stands there, looking at Dax. Then, suddenly, it comes to him:

He looks like Christ on the crucifix -- after his death, after the lance went in. It's like a death has occurred. And a rebirth.

Two hours later, the jury returns its verdict: They find in favor of the plaintiff, awarding her $3.5 million and $1 million to each of her four children.

It is over.

Except for one thing.

Dax carefully opens the hat box and removes the black felt cowboy hat with the tall crown and large feather.

Once, Dax Cowart was a young man, only 25, who ran through fire, starting out as one person and emerging from the flames as another.

Placing the hat on his head, he walks outside and down the courthouse steps, where a small crowd has gathered to congratulate him.

The smile on Dax Cowart's face says it all: It is the smile of a man who, on this day at least, is happy to be here.

Pub Date: 4/30/98

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