Counterculture’s Warrior Lawyer : J. Tony Serra’s Specialty Is Outlaws, and He’s Made His Reputation Defending Them

Times Staff Writer

Adorned with African masks, preserved rattlesnake hides, totem poles, gargoyles and wood-carved monkeys--not a framed certificate in sight--the law office of J. Tony Serra looks more like an occult curio shop.

Likewise, the man himself--with his gold-capped front tooth, steel-gray hair flowing past his shoulders and super-wide tie from a previous decade--has a distinctly unlawyerly presence, which is just fine with him.

“I don’t chum with lawyers. Most lawyers I don’t respect. Lawyers are mostly avaricious and compromise types,” Serra, 53, declared in an interview. After 20 years as a radical lawyer, he says he much prefers the company of his clients--drug dealers, revolutionaries and others operating well outside the American mainstream.

However, the legal community, as many a prosecutor can testify, considers Tony Serra, counterculture aura and all, to be one of the most effective defense attorneys in the nation.


‘Vital Human Force’

Serra is the model for unrepentant, pot-smoking hippie attorney Eddie Dodd, the lead character in the movie “True Believer,” starring James Woods and now playing nationwide.

The movie’s title comes from a concept of Serra’s own invention: “The most vital human force on the face of the Earth is the true believer. It’s naive. It’s simple. It’s non-intellectual. It’s a whole-hearted commitment to a cause. It’s what everyone’s afraid of. That’s what I bring into the courtroom,” Serra said.

The movie focuses on Serra’s 1982 defense of Chol Soo Lee, a Korean immigrant convicted in a case with racial overtones for the 1973 slaying of a Chinatown gang member on a crowded San Francisco street.


As with most events with Serra at the center, conflict arose in making the film. San Francisco police officials objected to the unflattering way law enforcement in the city was portrayed, so the producers shifted the setting to New York and gave the characters fictitious names.

Serra himself objected to that approach. He said the movie makers were distorting reality, in more ways than one. At the beginning of the film, Woods is cast as a burned-out attorney who defends drug dealers whom he despises but resurrects his idealism once he takes on the defense of a wrongly incarcerated man.

“I’m not a burnout. I’ve never been a burnout. That’s all b.s. imported from Hollywood,” Serra said. “I associate mostly with musicians and outlaws . . . many of whom are drug dealers. That’s what they do. I admire their courage, the risk taking, the bravado, their honesty, their integrity. These people are my friends.”

Serra maintains that drug dealers are victims of economic and political circumstances and that their crimes derive from desperation and class struggle.

“I respect (drug dealers) because the heart of what they’re trying to do is better their condition. They’re trying in their fashion the only way they have of getting out of the ghetto,” Serra said.

“But that don’t mean I believe in ‘crack’ and it don’t mean I chum with all drug dealers and believe in all drugs,” he added.

Serra’s most celebrated cases include successful defenses of Black Panther leader Huey Newton in 1979, and Symbionese Liberation Army leader Russell Little and members of the Hells Angels in 1981.

In the years since, Serra has won a number of cases steeped in controversy. His latest involves Patrick (Hooty) Croy, an American Indian sentenced to death for the murder of a policeman in a 1978 gun battle in Yreka, in Siskiyou County. The conviction was overturned by the state Supreme Court. Serra will represent Croy in a new trial after securing a change of venue to San Francisco from Placer County, where Croy’s first trial was held.


In 1982, American Lawyer magazine rated criminal defense attorneys nationwide and awarded Serra an “honorable mention” for his success in the Chol Soo Lee case, and in defending Faez Boukarum, a Lebanese merchant accused of drug smuggling.

Neither Case Famous

Neither case seemed destined to become famous, but then “True Believer” retold Lee’s turn of fortune.

In a 1982 retrial, Serra convinced the jury that Lee was the victim of mistaken identity. Lee was found innocent and released from prison.

His acquittal was due, in no small part, to Serra’s hallmark defense. Serra is passionate, roaring oratory to proclaim the innocence of his clients and the injustices he says have been done to them. He is totally committed to the defendant. Serra himself describes his job as going into battle.

Voice thundering and hands knifing the air for emphasis, Serra proclaimed in an interview: “I’m archetype warrior. Trial lawyers are of the warrior class. And when you’re a warrior, it’s a life-or-death situation if you win or lose. Our face-to-face combat today is done with words.”

In the courtroom, his impassioned eloquence often draws an audience of admiring lawyers. One female defense attorney watching Serra at one of his recent trials described his ability to persuade as overpowering. The attorney, who asked not to be identified, recalled that, “after the first time I saw Tony make a closing argument, I was exhausted. It was like I had sex for hours.”

Outside the courtroom, however, not all are admirers. Serra’s outspoken support for those commonly viewed as outlaws has gotten him in some hot water. In February, the Recorder, a San Francisco legal newspaper, quoted Serra as saying: “My sustenance is drugs and murder. I’ll try any political case that comes along. If you kill a cop, I’ll pay to take the case.”


Police File Complaint

The San Francisco Police Officers’ Assn. filed a complaint with the California State Bar charging Serra with soliciting business from cop killers, a violation of the state Bar’s code of ethics. The Bar is deliberating the charge.

Serra says his remarks were taken out of context and that he was referring to the past, when lawyers in the 1960s were taking cases of police brutality for free. Until taking on the Croy case, Serra said he has never defended someone accused of killing a police officer.

“I don’t endorse violence and I don’t participate in violence,” Serra said.

Assistant U.S. Atty. Matthew B. Pavone of San Francisco called Serra “one of the tougher adversaries we go up against. He’s bright and he also brings a certain passion to cases. He really believes in the cause of his clients.”

But some prosecutors say Serra’s courtroom style is based merely on formulaic strategies combined with good acting. “He is like an actor who’s made a hundred movies. Every trial is a mini-movie for Tony. So he gets a lot of practice,” said Palmer Kelly of the U.S. attorney’s office in Austin, Tex. “And it’s always the same stuff from the 1960s.”

Serra denies that he is acting. His behavior reflects his convictions, nothing less, he says.

These convictions took root, Serra says, after law school at the University of California at Berkeley and a stint as a deputy district attorney, when he moved to San Francisco’s Haight-Ashbury district in the 1960s and immersed himself in the drug counterculture and radical philosophies of the time. He began a law practice in the city and ran for mayor in 1971 on the radical Platypus Party ticket.

Renounces Materialism

Shaped by his Haight-Ashbury experience, Serra continues to renounce material trappings. He is proud of his second-hand suits and out-of-date neckties. His vehicles, he says, have been a succession of used cars--all in the $500 range--each discarded when its parking tickets start mounting into the thousands of dollars. If he’s not at his girlfriend’s “pad,” Serra says he sleeps on the floor in a sleeping bag in his undistinguished $275-a-month apartment.

But nonconformity has had its price. Serra served four months in federal prison in 1975 for failing to file income tax returns for 17 years running. In 1986, he pleaded guilty to one count of filing his 1978 income tax returns years late. It was a misdemeanor, and he was given probation, the main term of which was that he pay his taxes. As a result of that conviction, the state Bar suspended him from practicing law for 30 days last year.

Serra says he refused to pay taxes to protest American involvement in the Vietnam War. Although unrepentant, he now pays the Internal Revenue Service $1,000 every 60 days. And because of his tax troubles, the IRS swallowed up the $75,000 he made from the movie rights.

“I don’t do anything that’s moral turpitude. I’m really a rather boring person. Not paying taxes isn’t moral turpitude. Smoking marijuana once in a while isn’t moral turpitude,” Serra said. “I didn’t cheat on my taxes. I just didn’t pay.”

On weekends, Serra drives north to Bolinas, a coastal retreat where his five children live with their mother, Mary Edna Dineen, in what he describes as a sprawling shack. His children, whom he helps to support, all bear the names of another era: 16-year-old twin sons Shelter and Ivory, son Chime Day, 14, and daughters Wonder Fortune, 12, and Lilac Bright, 9.

Trim and physically energetic, Serra continues to take cases back-to-back without pause. He says he will be a true believer until the end.

“You live to be old if you have something to be obsessed about,” he said. “I’m going to do this until I drop dead.”