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


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.

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