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Legendary Defender Tony Serra Sentenced to 10 Months

San Francisco criminal defense lawyer Tony Serra was sentenced Friday to ten months in jail for failing to pay income taxes. Tony is one of the all-time greats. He is legendary in the criminal defense community for his trial skills and his passion for the underdog.

Tony never cared about money. He lived like a spartan. More than 100 defenders submitted letters on his behalf to the judge and several spoke at his sentencing. My favorite description in the article: "He was a warrior with a touch of sainthood."

If you are a criminal defense lawyer, aspiring to be one, or just want to read about one of the greats, this article is for you. Here are some snippets:

J. Tony Serra — the ponytailed, pot-smoking criminal defense attorney famous for fighting the government and celebrated in the 1989 film "True Believer" — listened as a gallery of some of the Bay Area's most respected lawyers honored him.

He was praised as a humanist who practiced law out of love and saved the government "millions of dollars" with back-to-back pro bono cases, funded from his threadbare pocket. He was a "warrior" with a "touch of sainthood," "a national treasure" and a "hero."

...The 70-year-old Serra has represented — with mixed results — Black Panther leader Huey Newton, the Hells Angels, Symbionese Liberation Army soldier turned soccer mom Sara Jane Olson and hundreds of murderers and drug dealers driven to the fringes, he says, by sociopolitical forces. He has won honors as one of the nation's best trial attorneys, earned the respect of adversaries and riled some judges with his hippie ways and overburdened schedule.

...dozens of the region's top lawyers weighed in, arguing that the aging Serra, who recently had both hips replaced, be spared prison and given a more creative sentence — working for free, for example, at the San Francisco public defender's office. Attorneys spanning several generations credited Serra for influencing their commitment to represent the downtrodden.

...As they compromised their ideals to make mortgage payments and bolster retirement plans, older colleagues noted, Serra lived the "informal vow of poverty" he took in the heyday of Haight-Ashbury, driving $500 cars, wearing Goodwill suits hemmed with staples or electrical tape, and making his home — for $411 a month — in the cramped North Beach apartment he has occupied for three decades. (He has no savings and no health insurance. As for the money he earns, he says, he plows it into the cases he takes for free.)

... San Francisco County Public Defender Jeff Adachi was a 20-year-old college student when he met Serra.... "To say that Tony uses theatrics in court would be inaccurate," said Adachi. "He is theater…. He scowls, he hoots, he mimics, he cries, he screams, he whispers, and … moves people to a place most would think wasn't possible."

That's a perfect description of Tony. As for Tony's reaction to the jail sentence, as could be expected, he's not adverse to it. He says he will do the 10 months "standing on his head" and enjoy being with the inmates, whom he finds more interesting than the rest of society.

"I would rather get down with inmates," Serra rang out in the oratory style — part poetry, pure conviction — that helped make his mark in court. "They're interesting, they're dramatic, they've overstepped the bounds of society. Some of it is high principle; some of it is low principle. But these people are extraordinary. They're not ordinary. These are my people!"

Tony will be going to the federal prison camp at Lompac, where he served four months in the 60's when he didn't pay his taxes in protest of the Vietnam War. He calls it "a pleasure camp." He intends to write two books while there.

Tony is the last of a breed, a true believer and a true original. He's a hero to most of us defenders - particularly those of us who defend the most unpopular and despised defendants. If you've never seen True Believer starring James Woods as Tony and Robert Downey, Jr. as a kid just out of law school, you should. In the film, Tony agrees to defend a young Korean-American man who has been in jail for murder for eight years.

One more description of Tony from the New York Times movie review of True Believer

A few years ago, Mr. Serra was profiled on ''60 Minutes'' as one of the nation's top defense attorneys, known for his flamboyant courtroom style and remarkable acquittal rate.

Descriptions of his way of life border on the tall tale. ''He delivered all five of his children,'' says Mr. Strick. ''In a chicken shack.'' ''Their names are Ivory and Chime and Wonder,'' says Mr. Woods. (Actually, the boys' names are Shelter, Ivory and Chime Day; the girls are named Wonder Fortune and Lilac Bright). ''There's no phone in his house,'' says Mr. Serra's secretary, bemusedly. ''His clothes,'' says Joseph Ruben, the director, ''they come from Goodwill, and they're too small or too tight.'' ''He's like a magician,'' says the writer, ''a genius or a fraud.'' ''Vaguely clownish,'' says the director. ''And then he goes to court and beats the hell out of you.''

...Everyone seems to agree that Mr. Serra is a true believer. The film's title was based on one of his maxims: ''In the courtroom I'm a true believer, and a true believer's the most dangerous man alive.''

''Tony will tell you that he has to achieve total empathy with a client before he can defend him,'' says Mr. Strick. ''He has to convince himself. He loses objectivity. He wills himself to. Tony won't ask a client what really happened. He'll just listen to his version of the events, and he'll help create a scenario, within ethical limits, that would stand up to cross-examination. He goes through a process, much like an actor will, until he becomes a man who believes in his client, or even becomes the client himself.''

Asked how he convinces juries of his clients' innocence, Mr. Serra, speaking from a ''freezing phone booth'' in San Francisco, says, ''The warrior goes to battle knowing he's going to die. I'm not some lawyer with my hands full of paper, man. I look that jury in the eye, two feet away, and I start SCREAMING!''

Here's a picture of Tony outside court after his sentencing.

Update: From the San Francisco Chronicle:

Asking Serra to change his ways would be “like asking Lenny Bruce not to use dirty words … like asking Martin Luther King not to sit in at a lunch counter,’’ said John Keker, former Iran-Contra special prosecutor, who testified for the defense.

[Judge]Spero said he has no doubt that Serra “has selflessly devoted himself to the cause of justice and representation of the underprivileged, and has done so with little economic benefit to himself.’’ But, he added, “We are a country of laws.’’

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  • Re: Legendary Defender Tony Serra Sentenced to 10 (none / 0) (#1)
    by roger on Sat Dec 17, 2005 at 01:02:03 PM EST
    Just like the old days in S. Africa, we lock up the best of us, while the truly evil roam free.

    Re: Legendary Defender Tony Serra Sentenced to 10 (none / 0) (#2)
    by Patrick on Sat Dec 17, 2005 at 01:02:05 PM EST
    Roger, Come on! It's tax evasion, not like he's being martyred or anything. It's 10 months, even he says he can do it on his head. I've been up against his firm before, don't like his politics, but I respect their tenacity. Omar? You out there readin' this?

    Patrick, I don't know about Omar, but Tony's partner Larry Lichter checks in sometimes.

    Re: Legendary Defender Tony Serra Sentenced to 10 (none / 0) (#4)
    by Patrick on Sat Dec 17, 2005 at 01:02:05 PM EST
    Haven't yet had the pleasure of meeting Larry. I imagine that could change...soon

    Tony...Hang in there dude...The feds can eat sh*t while you dine on Caviar...!