Defender Tony Serra: Surrender Date Extended

San Francisco criminal defense lawyer Tony Serra, a legend and the lawyer the movie "True Believer" was based on, got an extension of his jail surrender date last week so he can finish a murder trial. Tonywill be going to jail to serve a ten month sentence for tax evasion.

For any other lawyer, a jail term would mean financial ruin. For Tony Serra the 10-month sentence he starts this weekend for 20 years of tax evasion will be little more than a much-needed rest. With his long silver hair in a ponytail, his tie-dyed shirts and his admission that he smokes cannabis every day, Serra, 72, isn't like most lawyers, yet in a 40-year career he has built an unrivalled reputation of being able to win cases others dismiss as unwinnable.

What makes him remarkable is that, in a country where lawyers are among society's top earners, he has no credit cards, savings or bank account and owns no property. All his clothes are from charity shops or the Salvation Army. His net worth is whatever he happens to have in his pockets.

As to his trial skills:

In the words of one admirer, Serra 'uses his voice like a musical instrument'. He has juries hanging on his every word. His animated closing arguments often last several hours and regularly include poetry and even song.

As to his clients:

Tony Serra's client list over the past 40 years has included Hell's Angels, SLA members, Black Panther radicals and impoverished American Indians facing death penalty charges for killing cops in self defense. Even though the alleged crimes and the clients have been different, Serra has remained the same. He is an anachronism in the strictest sense of the word: A lawyer with true social consciousness, Serra doesn't care so much about his retainer agreements as he does the erosion of our personal and civic rights, fighting in the name of the collective spirit.

I hope I speak for all defense lawyers who either know him or who have heard him speak in wishing him well. Here's an ABC news video interview with Tony last week in which he talks about going to jail.

Tony was a prosecutor for one year. Here's what he had to say about the experience. Check out the imagery:

"Imagine spending a career, 30 or 40 years, putting your fellow human beings in cages," says Serra in his Sonora Inn hotel room. "It's not wholesome. It's not mentally healthy."

Therefore, almost all career prosecutors eventually contract some mental disorder, he says. "They become sadomasochistic. They become numb. They withdraw. And most of them eventually develop a physical manifestation of their illness. They get twitches, or their eyes start to cross. Career prosecutors are a mental disease category."

He sees himself as a healer. "I open cages. I heal. I give freedom, which is healing."

Nor does he have much good to say about lawyers in general:

To Serra, most attorneys aid and abet the power structure, leap amorally from one side of one case to the other side of another, to wherever the money is, to board rooms and probate hearings, rarely to criminal courts.

"But that's not the worst part," says Serra. "The worst part is that they are parasitical. They feed on society's mishaps and misdeeds -- on negligence, breach of contract, divorces, crime. They are carrion eaters, like buzzards.

"A hawk eats its own kill. An eagle eats its own kill. A buzzard eats what's already dead."

For Tony, the sixties are what it's all about:

"I am a creation of the Sixties," says Serra. "The greatest influence on me was the ideology of the Sixties: Anti-materialism, brotherhood, nonracism, love. Those are things I still believe in." He and his ex-wife gave their children Flower Child names: Shelter, Ivory, Chime, Wonder and Lilac.

Here's a sample of a closing argument by Tony, in the case of Judi Bari vs. the FBI, in which a $4.4 million judgment was obtained.

Here's a great speech by Tony in 2004 on the dangers of the Patriot Act. He begins:

What has become of our country? How has it come to pass that the land of George Washington and Thomas Jefferson has become the land of George Bush, Tom Ridge and John Ashcroft? How is it that our country has traveled from the majesty and idealism of Mt. Vernon and Monticello to the travesty and shame of Abu Ghraib and Guantanamo?

Our country's wealth has been squandered on endless war. The United States has become the bane of the civilized world. Now, in the name of fighting "evil," this government is trying to strip away our basic freedoms, one by one.

Later on,

Surreptitious investigations, warrantless searches, detention without bail or charges, racial and religious profiling, abandonment of jury trials, incarcerations without benefit of legal counsel and, yes, even torture. ...I understand the need for law enforcement, but this is completely out of control.

....They still haven't captured Osama bin Laden. But they did manage to catch Cat Stevens. They haven't caught the guy who sent anthrax powder to the offices of leading Democrats. But they did manage to arrest 5,000 of our neighbors who were labeled "terrorist suspects," detained without probable cause, incarcerated without charges, and denied legal counsel. Notably, none of these arrests has resulted in a single conviction for terrorism. Meanwhile, the unresolved plight of these prisoners marks the annihilation of the very foundation of our judicial system.

Our Constitutional rights are the most precious gift that any society has ever bestowed on its citizens. But now we confront a threat from our very own leaders.

They want to conduct secret "sneak and peak" searches of our homes. They want to peer over our shoulders to monitor our reading, our writing, our time on the Internet. They want to turn Americans against one another, using the specter of "terrorism" to encourage citizens to fear their neighbors. This "spy culture" of "citizen informers" is stuff of totalitarianism.

There's more:

The Constitution burns as we lawyers sit on our hands in mute astonishment. We huddle like sheep before the slaughter. Is this what happened in 1939, when Hitler first ascended to power?

But our children -- on college campuses and on the streets of Washington, Paris, London and Madrid -- are loud and angry. They are protesting the loss of civil liberties, protesting the rape of our planet's resources, protesting the Pentagon's unconscionable military devastations.

He ends:

It is time to come to confront false patriotism and rally to the defense of true liberty. We must not let the American Dream of freedom die. We must demand the abolition of the PATRIOT Act! We must "rage against the dying of the light!" We must denounce repression! And we must redouble our efforts to defend liberty, justice and the Bill of Rights!

Tony Serra will be back, stronger than ever.

[Update: Post title and first paragraph corrected to reflect the extension date. The post had been up about 15 minutes when I got a phone call from my pal Larry who shares offices with Tony telling me Tony's in a murder trial and got the March 31 date extended.]

< Moussaoui: Bumbling Holy Warrior | Judges Testimony at Senate FISA Hearing: The Transcripts >
  • The Online Magazine with Liberal coverage of crime-related political and injustice news

  • Contribute To TalkLeft

  • Display: Sort:
    Re: Defender Tony Serra: Surrender Date Extended (none / 0) (#1)
    by ding7777 on Sun Apr 02, 2006 at 12:48:44 AM EST
    "Imagine spending a career, 30 or 40 years, putting your fellow human beings in cages," says Serra in his Sonora Inn hotel room. "It's not wholesome. It's not mentally healthy."
    What's his point? That only inexperienced lawyers should prosecute? That convicted criminals should not go to prison?

    Re: Defender Tony Serra: Surrender Date Extended (none / 0) (#2)
    by jondee on Sun Apr 02, 2006 at 02:00:00 AM EST
    I think his point is that we're an unevolved, less than enlightened species capable of much better. But, keep drinking your little drink, smoking your little smoke, go to Cancun (where girls go wild) and forget the whole thing.

    Re: Defender Tony Serra: Surrender Date Extended (none / 0) (#3)
    by Talkleft Visitor on Sun Apr 02, 2006 at 02:00:00 AM EST
    Utopia's awful hard to achieve in a society without financial help. --- You know, like paying taxes...

    Re: Defender Tony Serra: Surrender Date Extended (none / 0) (#4)
    by Che's Lounge on Sun Apr 02, 2006 at 08:34:31 AM EST
    It's also hard to achieve Utopia when your taxes go to incendiary bombs.

    Re: Defender Tony Serra: Surrender Date Extended (none / 0) (#5)
    by Talkleft Visitor on Sun Apr 02, 2006 at 08:45:37 AM EST
    Ding If you can't figure it out you probably never will. lespool The man hasn't really collected fees. He is probably being charged for taxes on services he didn't charge for. By the way tell the Mega Corporations that they should begin paying their fair sare of taxes before you criticize one lone lawyer.

    Re: Defender Tony Serra: Surrender Date Extended (none / 0) (#6)
    by HK on Sun Apr 02, 2006 at 03:32:07 PM EST
    This guy sounds like the embodiment of what I love about America. It's just the right wing have cashed in on the climate of fear and turned the country into something that it's not. Much as Brits criticise, the truth of the matter is that we are little more than Bush's lap dog. And that's not a lot to be proud of. The tax evasion thing is interesting. Famously, that is what they finally nailed Al Capone for. I wonder if it could it be that the establishment wishes they could get Serra for something bigger, but that was the best they could do...