Geragos for the Defense
In a new book, celebrity attorney Mark Geragos argues that defense lawyers get no respect in this country.
By Bettijane Levine 04/05/2013
Arroyoland is filled with fabulously successful individuals whose names are never publicized and who like it that way. Powerhouse attorney Mark Geragos is not one of them. TV watchers around the globe are familiar with Geragos’ name and face because he has appeared on the tube so many times — either as defense attorney in high-profile criminal cases or as talking head in those ubiquitous pop-up lawyer panels televised during sensational trials.
Geragos, a lifelong La Cañada Flintridge resident and pillar of the Armenian-American community, is internationally known as a celebrity lawyer who has represented Michael Jackson, Chris Brown, Winona Ryder, Mike Tyson, Sean “Diddy” Combs and Nicole Ritchie, among others. He has also defended such controversial clients as former congressman Gary Condit (who was questioned in the Chandra Levy murder scandal), and former unknowns such as salesman Scott Peterson, who became a household name for his conviction of murdering his pregnant wife.
Geragos, 55, first earned his national reputation in the late ‘90s by winning an acquittal on embezzlement charges for Susan McDougal, who had been convicted in the Whitewater scandal involving Bill and Hillary Clinton. He went on to win groundbreaking decisions in criminal cases the public rarely heard about: dismissals in two unrelated murder trials after he proved flawed eyewitness identification (and a $1.7 million settlement for one of those clients from the City of Glendale in a lawsuit for false arrest); dismissal of felony kidnapping and torture charges for the exiled leader of China’s shadow government, Hung Bao Zhong; dismissals of murder charges against a USC student accused of killing her fetus, and for a father accused of murdering his child by throwing her off a cliff; dismissal of murder charges against a Japanese national accused of murdering his wife in what the foreign press dubbed “the Japanese O.J. case,” to list just a few.
Geragos was also a lead lawyer in two groundbreaking federal class action lawsuits against New York Life Insurance and AXA Corporation for insurance policies issued in the early 20th century during the genocide of over 1.5 million Armenians by the Ottoman Turk regime, settling the cases for more than $37.5 million. He is the only lawyer besides Johnny Cochran ever named “Lawyer of the Year” in both criminal and civil arenas by his peers in bar associations.
Geragos smartly uses his celebrity to promote some of his own important causes, the most recent of which is a new book, out this month. Mistrial: An Inside Look at How the Criminal Justice System Works…and Sometimes Doesn’t (Gotham) is co-authored by Geragos and his longtime law partner, Pat Harris. It’s an eye-opening examination of the sometimes sleazy underbelly of our criminal justice system, which the authors contend has become politicized and now tilts perilously away from the defense and from basic ethics as well as time-honored concepts of justice for the accused.
They claim that defense attorneys, who used to be society’s heroes in the days of Perry Mason, have become demonized in today’s era of Nancy Grace. Defense attorneys are now considered bad guys who will do anything to get a client “off,” they write, although they claim it’s more commonly the prosecution’s side that cuts corners and fudges the rules. The authors offer examples of unnamed prosecutors who play dirty tricks, prevent defense witnesses from testifying and ignore evidence; judges who rule based on public opinion and a desire for reelection; police who plant evidence, force confessions and lie on the witness stand to help win a case — and mounting numbers of potential jurors who believe that anyone accused must be guilty or he wouldn’t be in court in the first place. America has been brainwashed that we’re a nation “soft on crime,” the authors assert. They say the exact opposite is true, citing a conviction rate that hovers around 90 percent.
The book is a casual fun read, neither academic nor literary, and it’s also somewhat disturbing. If the authors are even partially correct, our criminal justice system is in as much chaos as is our economy. The lurid Jody Arias trial fortuitously occurred during the book’s pre-launch publicity offensive, and Geragos appeared on a spate of TV panels where he offered his wit and wisdom while promoting his book.
Arroyo Monthly interviewed Geragos the morning after he’d been on a CNN panel with Jeffrey Toobin and, surprisingly, Nancy Grace.
Has Nancy Grace read your book?
My guess is she won’t want to appear with me after she’s read it.
That’s because on page 31 he likens Nancy Grace to a clown, and on page 33 he writes, “she broadcasts lies.” The authors also inform readers that when Grace was a Georgia prosecutor, the appellate courts found “she had committed prosecutorial misconduct three separate times in a nine-year career. To put that in perspective… most prosecutors in a 20- or 30-year career will not be admonished even once” for that offense.
In the authors’ eyes, Grace represents a rising tide of faux hysterics with millions of loyal fans who consider themselves “victims’ advocates” and who “rant and rave about how the court system is stacked against the victim and for the defense.” This attitude has seeped into the mindset of young prosecutors, the authors say, leading some to belittle and demean defense attorneys, the judicial process and sometimes the evidence itself.
Will Chris Dorner’s complaints against the police department get a fair re-examination?
There’s not a chance that will happen. It’s done and buried just like he is.
Do you believe your former client, Scott Peterson, is innocent of murdering his wife, Laci Peterson?
I thought that case was an outrage. I know most people think I’m delusional and I accept that. I don’t think they proved [Peterson] guilty and I don’t think he did it. I think there’s no question [the conviction] will be overturned on appeal.
Is there a backlash after you lose such a high-profile case, where the defendant is so vilified?
Absolutely. I was advised by virtually everybody not to take the case. But my father said, “This is what we [defense attorneys] do. How could you even think of not taking it?”
Geragos’ father, Paul, was a highly respected Los Angeles attorney who started the family law firm of Geragos & Geragos 50 years ago. Now 86 and retired, he and his wife settled long ago in La Cañada Flintridge; son Mark and his family later bought a home just around the corner from them. Geragos says he learned law at his father’s knee but tried a few other ventures between graduating from Loyola Law School and joining the family firm. Now Geragos’ two sons are also at Loyola, one of them starting law school.
Geragos says he “grew up in Saint Gregory’s Armenian church on Colorado in Pasadena.” Two years ago, to honor his parents, he donated funds for a church building named for them, The Paul and Betty Jane Geragos Hall. The book is partly a tribute to his beloved father, whom he calls “Pops.” In the introduction, Geragos writes that his father and their Armenian heritage dictated that he could become nothing other than a lawyer for the defense. And though the book may come across “as a diatribe about how the system is becoming unfairly weighted to the prosecution,” he hopes it also reflects the joy and fulfillment he finds in his work. “I love what I do, absolutely love it. It is not only my job; it is my only real hobby. Do I get frustrated? Absolutely. Would I want to do anything else? Absolutely not!”