Unconventionally Good J. TONY SERRA, HIPPIE LAWYER, TRUE BELIEVER but just not in the American Court System.
Record shows Tabish's attorney, who still thinks himself a hippie, one of the best
By GLENN PUIT REVIEW-JOURNAL
JAMES WOODS PLAYED HIM in 'TRUE BELIEVER' that lawyer with the peruque. Despite his quirky mannerisms and his use of cannabis to relax, he is recognized as one of America's best criminal defense attorneys.
At first glance, it would be easy to write off defense attorney J. Tony Serra as a kooky San Francisco hippie with dingy hair, a gold tooth, a bad suit and an even worse haircut. Don't be fooled. Serra, now in his late 60s, is widely recognized as one of the best attorneys in the nation. And anyone who watches him recognizes he is a master at getting jurors to focus on facts -- not his ponytail hair or his cheap, ill-fitting suits.
"I've always been able to transcend the material level, and I think that juries give me a fair break once they hear me," Serra said. "Their first view of me is cynical or very curious. But I normally overcome it. I've transcended the hair and, fortunately, I'm going bald, so it's not going to be there much longer."
Serra, the defense attorney for Rick Tabish in the Ted Binion murder case, has a courtroom track record that is unquestioned. Time after time over the past three decades, he has won acquittals in high-profile criminal cases in which public sentiment was against him and his clients.
He successfully defended Black Panther Huey Newton, who was cleared in the slaying of a Bay Area prostitute. Serra won the acquittal of Russell Little, a member of the radical Symbionese Liberation Army who was charged with murder.
And, Serra defended Bear Lincoln. Lincoln was acquitted of murder charges, then later cleared of manslaughter charges in the April 14, 1995, shooting deaths of a sheriff's deputy and a friend of Lincoln in Mendocino County, Calif.
"My record is good," Serra said.
Serra will need to draw on all of his skills over the next two months in the courtroom of District Judge Joseph Bonaventure.
There, Serra's client and co-defendant Sandy Murphy face murder charges in the death of Las Vegas gaming heir Binion. And Serra faces two of Clark County's best prosecutors, Robert Daskas and Christopher Lalli.
Opening statements are expected to start at 8:30 this morning.
Serra said he took Tabish's case after talking to the slaying suspect's parents, Frank and Lani Tabish. They convinced him that their son "is really innocent."
That decision will be up to a jury, which will hear how Tabish was caught digging up Binion's silver two days after Binion's demise.
"It's a circumstantial-evidence case that can be won," Serra said. "That excites me."
Serra's dad, a native of San Francisco, was a jelly bean maker, and his mother was a housewife.
Serra said his parents instilled in him that materialism was not an admirable quality.
"By instinct, they were nonmaterialistic people," Serra said. "Other kids got big presents at Christmas. My mother would give me a piece of purple cloth. How beautiful.
"(With one of my) sons, we did kind of the same thing," Serra said. "Everyone else got bicycles (for Christmas). My son got an apple. ... He was so proud of his apple."
Serra has been an outspoken advocate for the decriminalization of marijuana, and he readily acknowledges he still clings to many of the philosophies of the Flower Power era.
"I'm kind of an aged, San Francisco hippie," Serra said. "I went through the '60s, and I was kind of hippie-fied."
He has been a vocal critic of the legal profession, which he said is mostly motivated by money. More attorneys, he has said, should do pro bono work and avoid being driven by money.
"I've been an anti-lawyer lawyer all my life," Serra said. "I'm old now, and in retrospect, I'm kind of an aberration."
Serra said he lives his anti-materialism mantra.
He rents a small home in San Francisco for $405 a month. The suit he wore in court Wednesday was way too tight. It had to be stitched together in the back because of wear and tear, he said.
"This suit ... I was in the middle of a jury trial in San Francisco in federal court, and a client thought I looked so shabby that she went out and bought me a suit," Serra said. "That was more than 10 years ago."
One of his shoes also has a big hole.
"If it rains here right now, my socks are going to be wet," Serra said.
"I drive old cars. I call them the green one, the brown one, whatever. I don't have bank accounts. I don't have credit cards. I don't own anything in real property. I have no investments. I don't have anything.
"I generate money that other persons would consider meaningful, but it all goes to my cases," he said. "The money goes to my office or my bills. I'm an old-fashioned lefty who only wants enough money to pay my bills or my office."
Serra said the criminal justice system in the United States needs dramatic reform. Public defenders need more resources to ensure the poor receive the same level of representation as the rich, he said.
"It's obvious that if you can afford a criminalist, if you can afford an investigator, expert witnesses ... a team of lawyers ... motion writers, appellate lawyers, you are going to get better justice," Serra said. "Wealthy people will obtain more justice than poor people, and that is very sad."
He said the country needs to reconsider its harsh approach to punishment in the criminal justice system.
"The jurors are rightfully very concerned about their own security and safety," Serra said. "So, they are less in tune with basic freedoms and liberties that the '60s were so concerned with. It has turned upside down since I started.
"It starts with the federal system, where there is the mandatory sentencing, which has emasculated the courts' discretion," Serra said. "That spills over into various states, like, in California, the three strikes.
"It has become far, far more severe, (and) the sentencing is draconian. It's not predicated on deterrence or rehabilitation. We are in a time, an era, where punishment is really the only criteria."
Poster's Note: New York City's TOUGHEST Cop admits in hearing to arresting people for 'quotas'. See: