The world is a little darker tonight due to the passing of legendary defense attorney, former prosecutor, and friend Mike Hinton.
I’ve looked through all of my photos hoping to find one of me and the first man who gave me a job in the legal profession, and sadly I couldn’t find one. For those of you who knew Mike, it is understandable that I don’t have a picture with him because he never sat still long enough for me to take one.
The phrase “to know him was to love him” is often said on the occasion of a person’s passing, but I can’t think of anyone more worthy of the phrase than Mike Hinton. Everyone who met him simply loved him. He didn’t really give you much of an option to do otherwise. He was a short, roly-poly man with an exuberance for simply existing. He was perpetually happy and happy to see you. Hugs, cheek kisses, over-the-top greetings followed by sincere conversations punctuated with his staccato exclamations and his deep laughs were Hinton trademarks.
If Mike had been a Star Wars character, he would have been Baby Yoda because literally everyone loved Mike.
But his over-the-top, buoyant personality cleverly hid an extremely formidable trial lawyer who was a very major character in the Harris County Criminal Justice world. He was Mike “Machine Gun” Hinton to those who knew him in the 70s and 80s when he was the Special Crimes prosecutor under District Attorneys Carol Vance and Johnny Holmes. The cases he tried were legendary. The stories of him were legendary as well.
His most famous case from those days was the prosecution of Ronald Clark O’Bryan, the infamous murderer who ruined Halloween by putting cyanide in his own son’s Pixy Sticks to collect insurance money. Years ago, when Todd Dupont and I hosted HCCLA’s Reasonable Doubt, Mike agreed to come on the show to talk about the case for our Halloween episode. As always, he was fascinating and his memory of the case kept us all entranced as he took us back through the horrible case.
When he left the Office, he formed a partnership with the late Johnny Pizzitola and the late Bob Sussman. That firm would evolve over the years but the reputation it held in all of its forms was always golden. Through State and Federal Courts across Texas, the names of Mike Hinton and the attorneys he partnered with meant something. What it usually meant to prosecutors was that they were about to get their butts kicked.
In the summer of 1997, I was between my first and second years of law school when I was introduced to Mike Hinton by a family friend. Mike immediately gave me a clerkship for that summer, which was a good thing seeing as how I was clueless that a clerkship was something that most law students were supposed to do between their first and second years of schooling. Mike told me that he’d pay me $15 an hour, which was far and away the most money my happy ass had ever made in my lifetime. I remember calling my dad to tell him how much I was making and he noted, “Damn, son, I was paying you $8 an hour here at the printing company, and I didn’t even think you were worth that!”
I don’t think I really had an inkling of what a career in criminal law would be like before that summer. I was young and just trying to manage law school, which was proving to be enough a challenge as it was. Suddenly, I had this high dollar job courtesy of a man who was legendary in the field. The firm then was Hinton, Sussman, [Joe] Bailey & [Charley] Davidson, and I spent the majority of the time working with Bob and Joe on a death penalty capital (where I would first be introduced to Kelly Siegler and Vic Wisner).
Although I spent most of the time working for Bob and Joe, the atmosphere at HSB&D was wildly entertaining. At the center of it was the whirlwind of Mike Hinton. He buzzed in and out of the office talking ninety miles per hour and it drew everyone out of their offices just to be entertained with whatever stories he had experienced that day. I could write a book about the short months that I spent there and the funny things that happened — my favorite remains when Mike bailed out of his new car on Memorial Drive because he didn’t know that such new-fangled things as seat heaters existed and he was sure his car was on fire.
But on a more serious note, the lessons I learned from Mike (and every other member of the firm) those short months were ones that I carried with me every day since that summer. The first and foremost thing that they taught me was that everyone in the Harris County Criminal Justice Center world that we come in and out of every day is family. From the Judge to the Prosecutor to the Coordinator to the Clerk to the CLO to the peon law clerk just there for the summer — all were treated like dear friends. They stopped and talked to everyone. Mike knew everyone’s name and pretty much all of their families’ names. He walked through there like a man on a mission to converse with as many people as possible as he could.
He was humble and self-effacing. Nobody thought Mike’s zany stories (that often ended at something embarrassing to him) were funnier than Mike, himself. He was one of those guys who quite frequently couldn’t get through a story without laughing because he already knew how it would end. I’ve never seen anyone pull off hyperactivity so endearingly.
Mike had a fierce pride for the time he spent as an Assistant District Attorney for Harris County. As far as he was concerned, the Office was hallowed ground that produced the finest trial lawyers in the State, Country, and World. That was a sentiment shared by Bob, Joe, and Charley, as well, and it was instilled in those of us who wanted to someday be prosecutors. While some former prosecutors who became defense lawyers were quick to condemn the Office once they left or talk of their time there as a necessary evil on the way to becoming true-believing members of the Defense Bar, that was never the sentiment at Hinton, Sussman, Bailey and Davidson. Although their time there had passed, they all spoke of it with pride and fondness.
That’s something that I carried with me during my time at the Office and the time since I left, and I learned it from Mike Hinton. He introduced me to the Harris County Criminal Justice System and the people I’ve come to know and love in the 23 years (and counting) since that summer.
But by far, the most endearing trait of Mike Hinton’s was the pride he took in all of those who passed through that office. From the clerk who became a lawyer to the lawyer who became a judge, he viewed us all as part of his legacy and he never failed to show how happy that made him. From the regular HSB&D Clerk Reunions at Vincent’s and Nino’s to him just seeing us in court and grinning from ear to ear as he came to talk to us about a case he had with us. I remember being a baby prosecutor and him seeing me in court and running up, hugging me, and saying: “Murray, I’m just so g*ddamn proud of you.”
There were so many clerks that came through that office under his tutelage. The vast majority of them had far longer stays at the office than me, but we all share that common bond of having found our starts at Hinton, Sussman, Bailey and Davidson. The pride that Mike had in us was nothing compared to the pride we had in having started out under his wing.
Although my time there was short, I will always carry with me the lessons learned from this sweet, dear, crazy crazy man. To be a descendant of Michael John Hinton’s courthouse legacy is something that I always have and always will be very proud of.
P.S. If you have a favorite story (that is printable) about Uncle Mike, please share it in the comments. There are so many outstanding tales that need to live on.