Wednesday, November 10, 2010

LUST FOR JUSTICE: The Radical Life & Law of J. Tony Serra

by Cathy Scott

"His trials have garnered him acclaim as one of the greatest criminal-defense attorneys of the century. He's the white tornado in court, a semantic samyrai, a shaman, a bard, a hero to some, a trickster to others, and always a force to be reckoned with, respected by all."

Such is the description of Tony Serra, a renowned, pony-tailed, radical criminal defense attorney in the just-released nonfiction legal biography LUST FOR JUSTICE: The Radical Life & Law of J. Tony Serra.

Courtroom artist, and now author, Paulette Frankl spent 17 years following Serra--and tracking him down--from courtroom to courtroom. LUST FOR JUSTICE is a culmination of those years.

It was in one of those courtrooms, this one in Las Vegas, where I first met Paulette. It was 2000 and I was in Clark County District Court to cover the Ted Binion case--the first of two Binion trials--and Paulette was there to sketch and paint the goings-on for news outlets. We became fast friends. During a dinner downtown near the courthouse after a day in court, I vividly remember Paulette telling me about the book and her work-in-progress. I also remember her saying, "I'm not a writer." She undersold herself; Paulette is every bit a writer with a powerfully descriptive voice, as evidenced in the pages of LUST FOR JUSTICE.

During the Binion prelim hearing for the retrial of defendants Sandra Murphy and Richard Tabish, who were accused of murdering casino heir Binion, I met Tony Serra. He had taken Tabish on as a client after Harvard Law Professor Alan Dershowitz successfully argued before the Nevada Supreme Court for a retrial. Earlier, when a phone call came in to Serra's office asking Tony to consider defending Tabish, Paulette happened to be sitting in Tony's office.

"Take the case," Paulette told him. After all, she had first-hand knowledge after sitting through every moment of the first lengthy trial--the biggest trial, which ended in guilty verdicts, Las Vegas had seen in recent history. She believed the defendants needed a lawyer like Tony on their side. For the second trial, with Tony at the helm, the case ended in murder acquittals for Serra's client, Tabish, as well as co-defendant Murphy. Binion died from an overdose of prescription and street drugs, which Binion had himself purchased. The prosecution, however, charged Tabish and Murphy with forcing the drugs on Binion, despite no physical evidence against them.

In the midst of the retrial, with nightly prepping for the next day's proceedings, Serra took time out to attend an evening fundraiser where Paulette's art was featured. Attending the event with Serra was his Binion defense team, Shari Greenberger and Anna Ling.

Paulette Frankl's book, with a foreword by attorney Gerry Spence, had been hatched more than a decade earlier. And while she had interviewed Serra multiple times, the idea and content for the book morphed from her early interviews and Tony's soliloquies to the completed literary work we see today, which vividly covers Serra in action in the courtroom.

Yet, Paulette doesn't paint a 100-percent positive portrayal of Serra. She includes the flawed man as well. Despite his foibles, Serra has a following that reaches far and wide. He was the subject of the 1989 movie True Believer, starring James Woods and Robert Downey, Jr., about a Chinatown (San Francisco) murder case in which Serra won an acquittal for defendant Chol Soo Lee. He also successfully represented Huey Newton, leader of the Black Panther Party in a murder trial and represented individuals from groups as diverse and politically charged as the White Panthers, Hells Angels, Earth First! and New World Liberation Front, cases which included clients clients like Patrick "Hootie" Croy, who was wrongly convicted, as well as Ellie Nesler and Symbionese Liberation Army members Sara Jane Olson, Russell Little and Michael Bortin. Serra won the Trial Lawyer of the Year award in 2003 from Trial Lawyers for Public Justice for his successful litigation of Judi Bari against the FBI.

I am so proud of Paulette and her tireless, nearly two-decade effort in capturing lightning in a bottle and pulling together this beautifully written tome. And I'm proud to call her friend. LUST FOR JUSTICE is, as are Paulette's paintings, a brilliant work of art. She is, after all, an artist first, and the artist's brush is evident in her words alongside her illustrations of Tony, which are sprinkled throughout the text.

Tony, a self-described "street lawyer," is anti-establishment, taking a vow of poverty early on not to become a rich lawyer off of the backs of those who need a fair hand in the criminal justice system. He drives old cars, wears second-hand suits, and lives weekends with his longtime girlfriend in the sleepy beach town of Bolinas and weekdays in a modest North Beach apartment in San Francisco near his co-op law office. He owns nothing and only asks for payment to cover his basic expenses. Still, his vow of poverty landed him in hot water a couple of times with the IRS for not filing tax returns.

When Tony, celebrated by filmmakers and fellow lawyers as an advocate for the downtrodden, was sent to the Lompoc Federal Prison Camp for 10 months in 2006 for tax evasion, he assisted fellow inmates with their legal appeals. Also while incarcerated, he corresponded with Paulette. At one point, Paulette sent Tony a painting she titled "Desert Landscape." His letter in return was simple and revealed that at the age of around 70--he won't answer the age question--he was looking forward to returning to the courtroom.
Got your "Desert Landscape." Your art work adorns my gray barracks' cabinet wall. Gives me a lift sometimes when the mind drips dreary.

I'm four-tenths finished--it will be over soon. I'm leaner and stronger. I'm ready for my murder trial re-entry in March. I've had a sufficient "retreat"; I'm ripe to join the struggle again.
Indeed, upon Tony's release from prison, he filed, with three attorneys, a class-action lawsuit seeking minimum wages for himself and other inmates, citing slave wages as unconstitutional. Serra's fight for the underdog goes on, and Paulette artfully covered his unwavering quest for justice in this painstaking work.

The book launch for LUST FOR JUSTICE is Saturday, Nov. 20, at the Fort Mason Center in San Francisco, where Serra is speaking and signing books with Frankl. Order the book direct here.


DrGina said...

What a fascinating story. Can't wait to read it!

Cathy Scott said...

Thanks, Gina. It's a great read.