Waco Quality 1972

In the spring of 1972, Waco Attorney Charles McDonald had a run-in with two DPS narcs outside Nero’s bar in Waco. The run-in cost McDonald five broken ribs, a punctured eardrum, and multiple severe contusions and abrasions of the chest, stomach and head—not to mention a formal charge of assaulting a police officer. The McDonald case occupies the better part of a thick file in the offices of the Texas Criminal Defense Lawyers Association. Says William Reid, general counsel of the TCDLA: “It was absolutely unbelievable what happened.”

Briefly, here is the story:

A task force of narcs, usually about a half dozen, had been hanging out at Nero’s for several weeks. Nero’s is a garish, ear-mauling rock place that caters to young people, some of them, no doubt, dope users. The narcs, however, were there for pleasure as much as business. There had been several incidents before the night McDonald was beaten. One narc propositioned a Nero’s waitress, a Baylor student, in that blunt way that some men succumb to power-he threaten to bust her unless she put out. Another night, there was a hassle when the task force refused to leave at closing time. One narc pulled his gun and tried to shoot out a light in the men’s room. He missed. Later that same night, the narcs went to an abandoned grocery store where they challenged a motorcycle gang known as the Bandidoes to a shootout.

On Saturday night, the night of the beating, the task lorce was celebrating the fruits of victory: 92 sealed drug indictments, handed down by a cooperative Waco grand jury. The record is twisted as to what happened next, but this much everyone agrees on—Agent Billy Clifton and attorney Charles McDonald (who owns the building where Nero’s is quartered) had words, at which time Clifton strong-armed the much older, much smaller attorney to the parking lot, where the beating took place. After that, Clifton and Agent Bobby Adams took McDonald to jail.

McDonald testified that on the way to jail, Clifton kicked him in the ribs. “He said it would be easy to kill me. . . .that all he would have to do would be put some narcotics in my pocket and blow my brains out,” the attorney swore under oath. McDonald said that, in his opinion, Clifton was “either drunk, crazy or doped-up. . . .one of the three.”

The narcs’ celebration didn’t end at Waco city jail, however. Later that same night a San Antonio dentist, Dr. Harry Wilson, was returning with his wife to their Waco motel when Agent Clifton threw a beer can at their car. Mrs. Wilson testified that “He (Clifton) threatened my husband. . . .and insinuated I was a woman of ill repute.” When the Waco police arrived at the scene of this disturbance, Waco Sgt. Carlton Fisher told the Wilsons to forget it. . . .that Clifton and the others were police and “that’s all we need to know and all you need to know.” Baylor law student Doyle Neighbours, who was riding in the patrol car, heard Fisher tell another Waco cop later: “If those guys (the narcs) keep that stuff up, we’re gonna have a hard time covering for them.”

The same grand jury that returned the 92 drug indictments also indicted McDonald for assaulting Agent Clifton with his rib cage. McDonald was acquitted after a brief but highly revealing trial in which Agent Adams admitted on cross-examination that sometime after the beating he, two other agents and their district supervisor conspired a plot to frame McDonaId and his law partner, Tom Ragland. They approached a girl who had been involved with a drunk charge and asked her to lure the two attorneys to a motel room which would be bugged for sound and pictures. The girl refused and advised the two attorneys of the plot.

In July, 1972, Agents Clifton and Adams were indicted for violations of Sec. 242 of the Civil Rights Act. The DPS paraded its entire command into court, including several Texas Rangers, who had no interest at all in the case. “At one time during the trial,” says Tom Ragland, “I counted 28 narcs in the courtroom.” Not surprisingly, the agents were acquitted.

Following the civil rights trial, Houston attorney C. Anthony Friloux, Sr., chairman of the Texas Criminal Defense Lawyers Association, wrote to members: “The atmosphere in Waco is unbelievable. The state narcotics agents had convinced the Grand Jury that criminal defense lawyers are responsible in large part for the narcotics problem and the ineffectiveness of the state in dealing with this problem.”

In 1971 the Texas Defense Lawyers Association was established by a small group of attorneys scattered across the state.

For McDonald, a past TCDLA president and board member, the concept for the TCDLA’s formation literally hit him over the head — and in the ribs, stomach and face — in a potentially deadly run-in with rogue state narcotics agents who took offense to the way McDonald was doing his job.

Retired State District Judge George Allen, who was county court-at-law judge at the time, remembers getting a call at home from someone familiar with McDonald’s condition, and he went to the jail to check on him.

Hospital stay

McDonald spent the next five days in the hospital and learned later that the same officers were trying to convince a woman to plant drugs on him so they could bust him again, he said.

“They had been drinking and took him outside the bar and beat him pretty badly,” Allen said. “The Texas Rangers were called, and ultimately they got involved. There were a lot of things going on at that time that shouldn’t have been, and this incident involving Charles was instrumental in getting the entire DPS narcotics division reorganized.”

McDonald said he stood trial for assaulting the officers and was acquitted.

Later, the officers were arrested on federal charges for beating him and also were acquitted. But they lost their jobs, Allen said.

“It was this perfect storm that brought a ragtag group of dedicated volunteer defenders from across Texas to his aid,”

The Waco Tribune-Herald wrote this a few years about Criminal Defense Attorney Charles McDonald.

Back in the day, most charged with breaking the law in McLennan County, Central Texas and beyond knew to seek out Charles M. McDonald to come to their defense.

McDonald represented thousands of clients and participated in at least 100 jury trials across the country in the 54 years he has practiced law.

He has helped defendants escape the death penalty and has walked away from the courthouse with his clients after more acquittals than most attorneys can boast.

He was inducted into the TCDLA hall of fame in 2012.

McDonald becomes the 56th lawyer to enter the association’s hall of fame since he helped establish the TCDLA in 1971.

With thousands of members statewide, the association is dedicated to continuing legal education and training for criminal defense lawyers.

“Charles McDonald’s contributions to justice have never faltered,” TCDLA Executive Director Joseph Martinez said. “He is godlike to lawyers who have known him for years. But for us, he has been an example for lawyers throughout the state.”

“To get into the Hall of Fame isn’t about just one event. It is about a lifetime of dedication to justice and protecting the rights of the accused individual, and I can’t think of any other individual more deserving.”
Several of those who spoke at McDonald’s hall of fame induction ceremony mentioned the harrowing incident, and it was noted in the induction program that it prompted lawyers from around the state to rally around McDonald and helped define the need for the TCDLA.

Statewide reputation

Longtime McLennan County prosecutor Crawford Long said he learned of McDonald’s statewide reputation when he started in the district attorney’s office in 1978.

“He was very knowledgeable in the law and thorough in the way he prepared and tried his cases,” Long said. “He wasn’t the kind of attorney who hollered and yelled, and he was very effective. Any of us going into court against him knew we had our hands full, and over the years he did an excellent job of representing his clients and got more than his share of not-guilty verdicts.”

Felipe Reyna, former district attorney and retired appeals court justice, said McDonald is “an honorable man whose word is his bond.”

“During the 10 years I was a prosecutor, I learned a lot from Chuck, and I hate to admit it, but I lost many cases to Chuck.”

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