Minnesota Viking Adrian Peterson’s Texas attorney is as much an MVP in the courtroom as the running back is on a football field.
In his taupe and gray suits paired with sherbet-colored ties, the mop-topped 73-year-old Rusty Hardin stands out in a crowded courtroom even before he begins speaking in his soothing North Carolina drawl. He’s got a down-home nickname, an easy smile and the demeanor of a friendly Southern gentleman. For his trial opponents, he’s a legal assassin in the guise of an avuncular everyman.
For more than 20 years, Hardin has overcome negative pretrial publicity to win favorable verdicts against heinous criminal charges and complex civil matters. He defended Major League Baseball pitcher Roger Clemens on a perjury charge, Vikings quarterback Warren Moon against a spousal abuse claim, accounting firm Arthur Andersen for complicity in the Enron scandal and the estate of oil baron J. Howard Marshall against a claim from his widow, stripper-turned-model Anna Nicole Smith.
“Screw you, Rusty,” Smith infamously said to Hardin as he cross-examined her. Smith was 26 when she married the 89-year-old tycoon. When he died 14 months later, she sought a claim to his fortune even though she wasn’t in the will. Thanks to Hardin, she got nothing. Smith died in 2007.
Hardin didn’t want to sit for an interview about himself in advance of Peterson’s trial, tentatively set to begin Dec. 1.
The lawyer’s colorful and wildly successful legal history, however, previews what might come if the running back sits behind a courtroom defense table in Montgomery County, Texas. This much is clear: The advantage of having Hardin as an advocate in a courtroom would be hard to overstate.
Humor — with an edge
Like many clients Hardin has represented, Peterson faces a grim charge. He is accused of felony child abuse for whipping his 4-year-old son with a switch. Peterson, who has been sidelined since his September indictment, is pushing for a speedy trial with the aim of clearing his name and getting back on the field.
Previous trials offer online video of the sort of courtroom panache that can be expected from Hardin. In the cross-examination of Smith, she whimpers from the stand that Marshall was the “light of her life.” Hardin elicited the “Screw you” with his follow-up question: “Have you been taking new acting classes?”
His favorite moment in that trial, Hardin said in a 2010 interview for the Litigation News Network, came when he asked Smith how she could spend $100,000 a week. “She … says, ‘Rusty, it’s very expensive being me,’ ” he recalled.
To kick off his closing arguments in the trial, Hardin brought in a boom box and played Debbie Boone’s 1970s hit, “You Light Up My Life.”
“The thing about juries is, as long as you’re yourself, they’ll forgive anything,” he said.
‘A charm with juries’
His adversaries respect him. Phil Grant is the first assistant district attorney in the office prosecuting Peterson. Grant calls Hardin “an exceptionally talented” lawyer. “We look forward to trying this case against him,” Grant said. “He’s always very professional to deal with, but you had better be prepared. You better bring your ‘A’ game.”
Among those Hardin admires, he said in a 2010 interview, is Robert Fiske, a white-shoe New York lawyer appointed by the U.S. Justice Department as a special prosecutor in the President Clinton-era Whitewater scandal. Fiske said that he wanted to bring in a Southerner to prosecute Arkansas-based Judge David Hale for his role in the Whitewater scheme.
Two of Fiske’s Texas colleagues recommended Hardin, who had been named 1989 Texas prosecutor of the year for his work as an assistant district attorney in Houston, Fiske said.
Fiske liked Hardin’s style: “He just has a charm with juries. They just love him.”
Another influence was U.S. District Judge Frank Johnson, based in Montgomery, Ala. Johnson ruled in favor of Rosa Parks taking a seat on the bus in 1956. In 1965, Johnson struck down the Alabama governor’s attempt to block the Selma voting rights march.
“He was a man of incredible integrity at a time it was very hard to be so,” Hardin said.
Hardin taught history in a Montgomery high school after graduating from Wesleyan University in Connecticut. His students included Johnson’s son. Johnson wrote a recommendation letter for Hardin’s law school application. It barely worked. Hardin was turned down by more than 20 schools. Only Southern Methodist University accepted him.
Navigating the risks
What drives Hardin is fear of failing his clients. When he left the prosecutor’s office to open his own firm, Hardin said he wanted clients he liked. “I wanted to get up in the morning feeling good about who I represented,” he said.
His tactics have found critics. In the cases of Clemens and Peterson, both men waived their Fifth Amendment right to be free of self-incrimination and testified.
Clemens’ denial of steroid abuse under oath to Congress was the basis of a perjury prosecution. Last summer, Peterson testified to the grand jury about whipping his child.
“Neither believed they had done anything wrong, and neither was willing to let people think they had done something wrong by taking the Fifth,” Hardin said in a recent e-mail. “They were each aware of the risks, but neither was willing to refuse to answer questions” and regret the decision for the rest of their lives.
“Adrian testified … because he believed the grand jury needed to hear his explanation,” Hardin said. “He had already voluntarily been interviewed three times by law enforcement.”
Hardin said he believes it’s wrong for a lawyer to force his client into the safest route.
“The lawyer’s job is to fully advise the client of all the possible ramifications of a particular course of action, and to make sure the client is fully aware of all the possible risks,” Hardin said.
“In each of these men’s situation, I agreed with them, and never tried to talk them out of it. But it was definitely their decision, not mine.”