The Ballad of Hooty Croy : 'True Believer' Attorney Tony Serra Fights His Own Version of the Indian Wars--in a Courtroom

THIS IS THE prosecution's story: Shortly before midnight on July 16, 1978, a band of young Indians, riding high from a weekend of weed, whiskey and late nights, looted the Sports and Spirits liquor store in Yreka, Calif., a lumber town near the Oregon border, jumped in their getaway car and sped north, chased by the screaming sirens of the Yreka police department. As the carload of Indians raced down Route 263 in their aging Pontiac sedan, one of them, Darrell Jones, leaned out of the window and took a shot at the pursuing lawmen. The driver of the Pontiac, Jones' 23-year-old cousin, Patrick "Hooty" Croy, then took a sharp left up a deeply rutted dirt road known as Rocky Gulch and headed for his grandmother's house, an old miner's cabin in the foothills of Badger Mountain. When they got there, three of them--Croy, his sister Norma Jean and Jones--jumped out of the car and ran up a chaparral-covered ridge; from that vantage point they rained bullets down on the growing posse of Yreka police officers, Siskyou County sheriffs and California Highway Patrol officers below. During a lull in this hail of metal, Hooty Croy stripped off his shirt and shoes and, like a half-naked Indian warrior of old, made his way stealthily around the moonlit ridge, his .22-caliber lever-action magnum rifle in hand, and crept to the rear of the cabin, where he knew he could find extra ammunition. There he ambushed 27-year-old Yreka lawman Jesse Joe "Bo" Hittson, shooting him fatally through the heart. Croy himself was then wounded twice, once in the back of his right arm and once in the right buttock, before he finally gave himself up to the men with badges.

It was a night of stoned-out violence, of whooping Indians on the warpath, according to the official version. Croy and his band had swilled and smoked that night, that entire weekend , until they had blood in the eye, said the prosecutors. And when the first light shimmered off Mount Shasta, the snow-capped peak that local Indians consider a shrine, one good, young, civic-minded cop was dead. The following year, a jury concurred with this version of events. Hooty Croy was convicted of first-degree murder and sentenced to death, and his four companions were found guilty of lesser degrees of homicide. Croy was sent to San Quentin's Death Row, where he assumed his position in the executioner's holding pattern, not far behind his neighbor and friend Robert Alton Harris.

FOR MORE THAN a decade, the official version of the shoot-out at Rocky Gulch remained the version, a story as solid and undisturbed as Bo Hittson's marble tombstone on the hillside of Yreka's Evergreen Cemetery. But on November 30, 1989, the legendary defense attorney J. Tony Serra, the longhaired courtroom orator who inspired the 1988 movie "True Believer," starring James Woods, rose to his feet in Department 28 of San Francisco Superior Court and in spellbinding fashion delivered a very different account of that bloody summer night.

The courtroom was stuffed with spectators that morning, including actor Gene Hackman, a medicine man wearing a ceremonial necklace and a pouch filled with feathers, and young, horn-rimmed attorneys literally kneeling in the aisles to watch the master of the opening argument at work. It was, in short, a typically charged courtroom premiere for the ever-dramatic Tony Serra. The stage had been set for this compelling sequel to the Hooty Croy case on Rose Bird's final day in office, when the state Supreme Court overturned Croy's 1979 murder conviction and opened the way for a new trial. This time, the Karuk-Shasta Indian would not be represented by a small-town lawyer, a former prosecutor Croy could not bring himself to trust, but by a silver-tongued crusader.

The law, as practiced by Tony Serra, is not a cold and technical forensic procedure but a passion play surging with grand sentiments and principles. "They want to cry in the jury box," he says. "They want to be outraged."

This is how Serra takes the jury back to Rocky Gulch; this is the ballad of Hooty Croy as sung by his operatic attorney: The story begins not in the Sports and Spirits store in the summer of 1978, but back in the Gold Rush days, when thousands of frenzied miners swept into the valleys of northwest California, killing and enslaving the Indians who stood in the way of their claims. It is a horrible story he recounts, one still not widely known in the state--a story of vigilante groups marching out from Yreka and other mining towns, flying banners that clearly announced their purpose: exterminate ; of local governments paying 50-cent bounties for Indian scalps and heads; of Indian boys and girls being kidnapped and sold to miners as sexual slaves and beasts of burden; of Indian babies whose brains were dashed out against tree trunks. "The Indian was an impediment to the white man's Manifest Destiny," Serra tells the jury. "Get rid of him, like the coyote."

The bad blood still flows between whites and Indians in Yreka, Serra says. And it flowed that night in Rocky Gulch. There was no robbery at the Sports and Spirits store, Serra argues, only an altercation with a white clerk who had it in for Hooty Croy, maybe for all Indians. Croy and the others had stopped by to pick up a couple of six packs of beer before going night-hunting for deer, a common practice among local Indians. But minutes later, they were being chased by white lawmen. And after Darrell Jones took his one wild shot out the back window, says Serra, the cry of these lawmen was the same as the Gold Rush vigilantes'-- exterminate.

"The radio alert goes out to this effect: 'Drunk Indians are shooting at us! Come on, boys, let's get them! This is our opportunity. Kill them, kill them !' "

Serra is humming with the full power of history. He's acting out all the parts, his arms go flying, his voice soars and plummets like a siren. His energy threatens to burst the seams of his trademark thrift-store suit that is, like all of his courtroom outfits, one full size too small for him. The snug-fitting suits make him look bigger than he is, and he is a big man, a former Stanford wide receiver. He flirts with clownishness with his floodwater pants, his flowing gray hair and his too-big gestures. But there is character in his Mediterranean face--the high brow, the dark, flashing eyes, the Roman nose--and a sense of theatrical majesty about him. All eyes in the courtroom are riveted on him.

Now Serra is back inside the Indians' minds that night. Hooty guns the Pontiac toward his grandmother's cabin. "Because in a certain animal panic, that's where you run," Serra explains to the jury, his voice rising once more. " To grandmother's house. " This is where Croy had spent much of his childhood, working in his grandmother's garden, packing water from the well, hunting rabbits and deer. His grandmother would tell Hooty about the tragedies that befell the Shastas and the Karuks, about the Humbug massacres that happened not far from her cabin, when the rivers and creeks ran red with blood. Hooty would sleep during the day and wander these hills at night like an owl, which is how he got his nickname.

And it is into these same hills that he and his sister Norma Jean and cousin Darrell now run to escape the posse.

Serra wants the jury to feel the cold-sweat panic of their flight. "They're running up the hill, out jump the officers-- bam, bam, bam . . . . There is complete chaos in the quarters of the police, no chain of command, just unbridled, random destruction--a mob scene. All of them shooting, shooting at anything that moved. AR-15s, handguns, shotguns, M-16s, semiautomatic weapons." Norma Jean is shot in the back. Darrell is shot in the groin. "They were like animals under fire!" Serra shouts. "In their minds they knew they were going to die. Because what was in their minds was the history of relations with the white settlers, the genocide, 95% of the Indians wiped out in that area."

Hooty thinks his sister is dead, he thinks there is no surrendering that night. He thinks that the posse in its blazing fury is shooting up the cabin with his beloved grandmother and elderly aunt inside it. He retrieves the hunting rifle that Darrell has thrown away--the only weapon in the Indians' possession. He strips off his T-shirt and shoes. He will become an Indian brave, he will rescue his elders from the cabin and take them to safety.

Hooty makes his way around the ridge, crouching low and sprinting from one clump of brush to the next to avoid the police spotlights. He reaches the rear of the cabin and is preparing to crawl through the window when Bo Hittson, called to duty after an idyllic Sunday of water-skiing, barbecuing and beer drinking, surprises him from behind. Hittson fires his .357 magnum twice, and the wounded Indian spins around and fires the one deadly shot that has brought everyone to this San Francisco courtroom today.

Here is how Serra wants the jury to understand this fatal exchange: "A white police officer shot an Indian; a white police officer shot an Indian twice; a white police officer shot an Indian twice in the back." With each repetition, Serra's voice swells to a higher decibel level. " A white police officer shot an Indian twice in the back during a de facto cease-fire while he was under the influence of alcohol. "

Yes, Hooty Croy returned the fire, but Serra urges the jury to consider this point of law. "Citizens, ordinary citizens, can defend themselves against police officers if the police officers use unreasonable or excessive force."

It's a captivating performance. "He's really something, isn't he?" says Gene Hackman afterward. Like James Woods before him, Hackman has come to the courtroom seeking inspiration for his role as a socially committed attorney in the upcoming film "Class Action" and because he feels "some sympathy with this case. You know," he adds, "Jimmy's a great actor, but actors always suffer in comparison to the real thing. They're never quite as dramatic."

SERRA HAS CONJURED the night at Rocky Gulch in this courtroom many years and many miles away by crawling inside the lawmen's and Indians' skins and acting out their roles, complete with sound effects-- bam, bam, bam ! He also has elevated the shoot-out to epic proportions by invoking those tragic days of blood and gold from Northern California's past. The courtroom becomes a grander stage when Tony Serra struts its boards, spacious enough to accommodate history, poetry and the dramatic arts.

"I believe in the romance of law," Serra says. "There has always been an impassioned verbal tradition that has flowed through the judiciary in this country. It came into full flower during the '60s. But now, once again lawyers are mainly agents of business, pragmatists who assess damages and injuries. If you speak out boldly, if you emote, if you call upon jurors to apply morality and ethics, if you call upon jurors to listen to the words of great poets and prophets--if you do all that instead of limiting yourself to the dry, technical linguistics of the law, then suddenly you're a throwback or some kind of eccentric.

"But that is the true calling of the lawyer, to argue passionately in defense of our freedoms. That's basically their metaphysical appointment within our culture. Not to make more money for wealthy people. I mean, get rid of lawyers if that's all they're going to do."

This impassioned style of law works best, of course, when a defense attorney has a hero, a noble underdog, around whom to wrap the courtroom drama. "If Tony can inject a cause into a case, he's among the very best," says Tom Orloff, the chief assistant district attorney for Alameda County, who found this out in 1979, when Serra thwarted his effort to convict Black Panther leader Huey Newton of murdering a prostitute.

When the Hooty Croy case was brought to Serra's attention by a paralegal who had worked with him on the Chol Soo Lee trial in 1982, the murder case dramatized in "True Believer," Serra felt he had been handed the greatest cause of his career. "It's a case that every defense lawyer waits a lifetime to get. Because very seldom do you get a case, let alone a death-penalty case, with such socially significant issues, and where your client, from any perspective, is innocent. So you feel honored, you feel graced, you feel like your karma is good--that you got chosen for such a case. What a wonderful thing!"

Serra would invest himself totally in the mammoth Croy trial, as it stretched from the summer of 1989 to this spring. There was no money in it for him, says Serra--he waived his fee. To hear him tell it, the Croy case, with its power to illuminate more than a century of Anglo-Saxon violence toward the Indian population of Northern California, was its own reward.

The problem for the true believers of today's legal profession is that there seem to be fewer and fewer heroic defendants in whom to believe. "In the '60s, there were lots of cause cases, and I tried to identify with as many as I could," Serra says. "The Croy case is reminiscent of that era, but it stands kind of lonely and isolated in a frigid panorama."

Some would say that there were not that many genuine heroes even back then. The three cases from those turbulent times that Serra points to with the most pride are those of Newton, "the Supreme Servant of the People," who had already begun his descent into drugs and thuggery ("A true leader of his people," Serra still insists on calling him, "wise and charismatic"); Russell Little, a soldier in the Symbionese Liberation Army, one of the wackiest shock troops of the period, who stood accused of assassinating Oakland school superintendent Marcus Foster, and Jacques Rogiers, the eccentric pamphleteer for a secret cell of mad bombers that called itself the New World Liberation Front ("a rare and beautiful person," according to Serra).

Despite Serra's lofty claims on their behalf, it is hard to put these political defendants in the same moral league as, say, Martin Luther King Jr., the Berrigan brothers or Dave Dellinger. In some lawyers, this faith in long-discredited clients would seem like pure cynicism. In Serra, it seems like pure romanticism. He is an exasperating and charming man.

If it was difficult to locate epic heroes in the 1960s and '70s, it seems nigh impossible today. So, for the most part, Serra employs his brilliant oratorical skills, his bright palette of emotions, on behalf of run-of-the-mill drug dealers and murderers. But even there, he tries to select only cases where he can dig out some larger principle--a violation of constitutional rights, a saber-twist of prosecutorial villainy--to justify his knightly style of lawyering. "I try to find a platform where I can make a stand, allege corruption or perjury or some kind of foul play that the government has participated in," Serra says.

It doesn't always work. In 1987, Serra went to battle in Oakland Superior Court on behalf of one Peter McFetridge, a Berkeley cafe philosopher who stood accused of murdering his girlfriend, Morey Cunningham. "I think what appealed to Tony about it was that there was no body," says Alameda County Deputy District Attorney Jon Goodfellow, who prosecuted the case. But midway through the trial, Serra's "no body, no crime" defense was dealt a fatal blow when his client blurted out on the witness stand that he had indeed killed Cunningham and buried her body under the porch of their house. Serra quickly shifted to a self-defense strategy, but that, too, proved full of holes when the murder victim's body was dug up and found to have been shot at least four times--once in the eye, once in the neck and twice in the head. McFetridge was convicted of second-degree murder and sentenced to 17 years to life.

"It just wasn't Tony's kind of case," says Goodfellow. "It wasn't about abuse of power or social injustice. It was a man, a woman and a gun, and he couldn't do much with that. He tried to go after me and the police, but it fell flat."

Serra, who has a high win rate, is much more effective in his defense of drug cases--and his heart is undoubtedly more in them as well. In "True Believer," he is portrayed as something of a burnout, cynically making money off drug clients until a young law-school graduate helps reinvigorate his '60s idealism. This is a decidedly false interpretation of Serra. In Serra's mind, there is no shame or hypocrisy attached to his drug practice; on the contrary, he is proud of it. Tony Serra is as much a true believer in drugs and their salutary powers as he is in minority rights.

He comes loping out of his office at the end of a long and taxing day to greet this reporter, trailing a rich and billowing cloud of bittersweet herb. The office of Serra, Perelson, Anton, Lichter and Daar, floating above a row of antique shops on San Francisco's Jackson Street, looks more like a Deadhead's dream house than what it is, the suite of a high-powered law firm. The rooms are cluttered with vintage furniture with sagging seats, a totem pole, a cage with a singing parakeet, hookahs, a cow skull, dried animal skins with Indian designs and other ceremonial wall hangings. Yes, Serra admits, he enjoys smoking a pipe full of hashish or marijuana in his off hours. And in his youthful past, he experimented with opium, cocaine and heroin.

"All drugs have their value," he contends. "Man has always pursued some higher form of self-knowledge or wisdom, and every one of those drugs gives you that in some way. What the hell, the history of art and literature--Western and Eastern--has been filled with opiated consciousness. So there's no way I'm going to say that drugs are self-destructive and annihilating. It's all a life force."

And what of the overdoses in trashed-out urban shooting galleries and the brain-jangled infants born to crack addicts? Where is the life force there? "Well, in any transition to another form of consciousness, there has to be the expendable," Serra replies. "And that's what drugs are--the collective unconscious reaching for another spiritual or aesthetic plateau. If, in that process, 5% die or self-destruct, that's small, that's small . The whole human race may become expendable if we don't continue exploring different realms of consciousness."

Serra believes that American society is now in the grip of a drug-control hysteria because an "executive class" of politicians, military brass and law enforcement officials is playing on the population's fears in order to expand its power.

So he flies all over the country, including the Bible Belt (where his long gray hair and his ragtag suits make people think he is a circuit preacher), and all over the world to help free drug dealers who have been caught in wily government snares. "That crazy California lawyer" has a reputation for winning unwinnable cases because "as someone coming out of the '60s, I can bring a certain vigor to entrapment cases. I can do entrapment defenses with self-righteous dignity, and jurors will buy it."

Still, it is hard to work up a great deal of outrage and sympathy on behalf of Serra's more prosperous drug clients. Among those he has sprung in recent years are Hells Angels gang leaders and a Lebanese drug lord from a wealthy Falangist family. Serra is eloquent in his disdain for lawyers who make a practice of fronting for Big Money, but the drug business is now Big Business, and Serra has become its hired gun. "In the past, you could get excited about defending a flower child against going to prison for a bag of marijuana," James Lassart, the former head of the federal government's Drug Enforcement Task Force, once told a reporter. Lassart has faced Serra many times in court. "Now it's the guy with triple gold chains, driving a BMW and moving drugs offshore."

While his clients grow richer and flashier, Serra maintains the same humble lifestyle he adopted during the Age of Aquarius. The tales of conspicuous underconsumption have become part of the Tony Serra legend. He lives in a cheap, sparsely furnished North Beach apartment with his lover, Vicky Ervin, who works as an accountant while she pursues a teaching degree at San Francisco State University. Over the years, he has rattled around town in a series of junkers (none of which has cost him more than $500), abandoning them on the street after they collect thousands of dollars in unpaid parking fines. He spent four months in federal prison in 1975 for failing to file income tax returns for 17 years running, and he was suspended from practicing law for 30 days in 1988 after pleading guilty to the misdemeanor charge of filing his 1978 return years late. One day during the Hooty Croy trial, a bill collector marched into the courtroom and tried to have Serra arrested for an old debt. "I said, 'Sorry man, I can't go anywhere, I'm in the middle of a murder trial here,' " he laughs.

Like Serra's courtroom attire, his leisure wardrobe is more Goodwill than GQ, T-shirts and jeans that have been baptized too often at the local Laundromat. Serra's only obvious bit of vanity is his refusal to reveal his age, which is 50-something.

His recreational tastes are equally simple. He enjoys walking on the beach or taking bicycle trips with his kids--17-year-old twin sons Shelter and Ivory, 15-year-old son Chime Day, daughters Wonder Fortune, 13, and Lilac Bright, 10--who live with their mother, Mary Edna Dineen, in Bolinas. And he likes to get high and go dancing at rock shows. "The Dead are still my favorite. I'm an old dance freak--I move in that kind of elongated, psychedelic way," says Serra, waving his hands in the air as if he has just picked up the opening chords of "Truckin' " on his frequency. "Now it's archaic; my kids make fun of me. They're into this hard-rhythm sound."

Acquisitiveness has never seemed to be part of Tony Serra's nature. He comes from a modest background: His father, who emigrated to San Francisco from Mallorca as a boy, worked in a jellybean factory. His Russian-Jewish mother taught Tony and his two brothers to value the aesthetic over the material. "From one perspective, she was crazy; from another, she was brilliant. She was a screamer; she was brooding. She was into poetry and art. On your birthday, she would give you a colorful piece of cloth." She killed herself in her 70s, walking straight into the waves off a city beach where she had taken her sons as boys, where she had screamed to them, "Come back, come back, you're out too far!"

Serra sees himself as a combination of his mother's eccentricity and his father's stability. In the courtroom, he has the soul of an artist, with his broad and vivid strokes, and the steely mental edge of a logician. It's a unique style that wins the hearts of juries and the respect of his colleagues, including prosecutors. "There is really no one like him," says district attorney Orloff. "He's a master of the dramatic--he uses his voice like a musical instrument. People like to hear him speak. People like him, period. He has a great deal of boyish charm, even as he gets older."

"It's not just theatrics," says Frank Fernandez, a San Francisco deputy public defender, who popped in as often as he could to watch Serra's performance in the Croy trial. "He's extremely well prepared and quick on his feet. He can catch a witness in a contradiction before the words are all out of the person's mouth. I come to just watch and learn."

Heroic clients may be few and far between for Tony Serra, but according to his colleagues, Serra himself is of heroic stature. Defense lawyers do not require righteous defendants; they fight on behalf of legal principles, not people. As Serra once remarked, "Whether or not our clients did it is irrelevant. During a trial, we are building an ideological castle based on precedent and symbolic justice." Still, it seems that Serra only soars to his grandest heights in a courtroom when he is championing a client worthy of such heroism. Serra was convinced that Patrick "Hooty" Croy was indeed that type of client.

WHAT MADE HOOTY Croy worthy in his attorney's mind was not so much his innocence as his symbolic value as an aggrieved Indian, a link in the human chain of suffering that stretched back to the last century. So the heart of Serra's case was what he called a "cultural defense," a parade of Indian scholars, activists and residents of Siskyou County who testified that pioneer brutality did not die out in Northern California with the last Indian campaign, the bloody Modoc war of the 1870s (which ended with the tribe's near-obliteration and the execution of its leaders, whose heads were then shipped to the Smithsonian for "scientific investigation"). Indian-hating was alive and well in the Yreka area, according to these witnesses, and Croy and his family had felt its full lash. It was in the local newspaper, which ran racist articles and cartoons, they charged; it was in the schools, where Croy was beaten by white students and teachers; and it was in the police and sheriff's departments, which regularly harassed the Indian population.

Judge Edward Stern, a white-bearded man with a serious, rabbinical air, would periodically admonish Serra that "this is not a classroom." Nonetheless, Stern allowed this remarkable, sweeping indictment of the pioneer mentality to stretch over three weeks, because, he told the jury, these tales of blood and tears were relevant if they had "seeped into the consciousness" of the defendant and affected his state of mind at Rocky Gulch that night.

The canvas Serra was permitted to work on was as vast and full of emotion as Picasso's "Guernica." After this grand line of defense, Croy himself proved to be something of an anticlimax when he finally took the stand. A short, powerfully built man with long, braided hair, a mustache and hard, wary eyes, he did give off "a vibration you can't escape," in Serra's words. But he was not the eloquent "secret resource" his attorney had predicted he would be. Much of Croy's testimony covered the same ground as earlier witnesses, and he sometimes responded during cross-examination as if he was reading a prepared statement. Prosecutor Gary Rossi forced him to recount at such length the impressive amount of liquor and marijuana he had consumed that fateful weekend that Croy seemed on the verge of being turned into the drunken Indian stereotype. Only when he described what it felt like to be in the bull's-eye of the posse did Croy's words have the same power as those of the cultural-defense witnesses. "I realized that all the things my grandmother and father had told us were coming true," he said in a quavering voice, "that they were going to kill us all."

Croy's performance was neither as commanding as Serra hoped it would be nor as damaging as the prosecution tried to make it. As the long trial drew to its close in April, it seemed that victory for Serra would depend less on his client's courtroom "vibrations" than on the attorney's ability to indict Yreka as a racist community. If the jury--a San Francisco rainbow of whites, Asians, Hispanics and blacks--bought his argument that Indians in Mount Shasta territory continue to be an endangered species, or at least had been during the period when the shooting occurred, then Serra had a good chance of freeing his client from Death Row.

Serra would have had a tough time selling his cultural defense to an all-white Yreka jury. "The prejudice charge is a bunch of b.s.," says Rollie Elsea, a Yreka snowmobile dealer who used to race stock cars with Bo Hittson. "The only hatred here is for those Indians who were involved in the shooting--and there is definitely hatred there." Edgar Foss, the former owner and editor of the Siskiyou Daily News and now a political columnist for the paper, agrees: "It's not true that the area is particularly redneck. Our county sheriff, Charlie Byrd, is the first elected black sheriff in California." Hittson's sister, Terry Villani, is particularly outraged by the racism charge. "This area is not a bloody battleground anymore--it's not the 1800s," she says. "My high school boyfriend was an Indian, and Bo supported that. He always got along with Indians. The incident that night didn't happen because of racial pressures building up in the community. Sure, I've seen problems, but I've also seen problems with Indians and alcohol--the whole evening stemmed from that."

Prosecutor Rossi considered putting Villani on the stand during the rebuttal phase of the trial to counter Serra's cultural defense. But the witness he suddenly produced was even more effective: Sheriff Charlie Byrd--big, ebony-skinned, with an impressive air of authority. No, Sheriff Byrd assured the jury, he had never been on the butt end of racial prejudice--and he had spent his entire life in Siskiyou County. He was born and reared in Weed, not far from Yreka, and had served as Weed's police chief before being elected sheriff.

For weeks, Serra had been digging beneath the idyllic surface of Yreka, this quiet, piney town whose motto is "The Old Days Were Never Better," to show the jury the darker currents that supposedly ran through the community. The picture he had drawn was as menacing as David Lynch's in "Twin Peaks." But now, this one last-inning witness for the prosecution seemed on the verge of undoing it all.

Then Serra began his cross-examination. His approach was firm but respectful. You don't use a hammer on a witness who has moral stature with the jury, he knows--you use a scalpel. Serra tried to get Byrd to agree that he had enjoyed a "unique" status in the predominantly white county, but the sheriff would not comply. So the attorney led Byrd exactly where he wanted him to go.

Question: How many black families lived in Yreka before 1978?

Answer: One family.

Question: How many blacks were there on the Weed police force when you first joined up?

Answer: None.

Question: When you became chief of police, how many blacks were on the force?

Answer: None.

Then Serra completed the circle:

Question: And you don't regard yourself as unique?

Answer: No.

But the climax came when Serra confronted the witness, this man who had never experienced racial prejudice in Siskiyou County, with an unpleasant incident from his past. He reminded Byrd of that day years ago when the 19-year-old black man had himself fallen afoul of the white man's law. Byrd had been arrested for resisting arrest by a white cop in Weed.

Question: But you didn't resist arrest, did you?

Answer: No.

Question: And you went to court and won, you were found not guilty, isn't that right?

Answer: Yes.

It was a skillful piece of surgery, and when Serra was finished, the questions that he had raised about race relations in Siskiyou County throughout the long trial still hovered in front of the jury.

Before the 12 jurors were released at long last to reach their verdict, they were treated to one final aria from the full-throated attorney. In his closing argument, Serra flung his arm like a spear in the direction of opposing counsel and accused Rossi, a death-penalty specialist who had been hired by Siskiyou County to try the case, of being a cold-blooded mercenary. "And no one," shouted Serra like a man possessed, "has ever looked into the mouth of a mercenary for the truth!" Later, Serra produced a long-stemmed white flower to symbolize the pristine harmony of nature and Indian civilization in Northern California before the Gold Rush; then he plucked it bare, one petal at a time, to show how the white man had ruined it all. Finally, he implored the jurors to make history, and yes, fulfill their spiritual mission, by setting Hooty Croy free. America's native peoples have been waiting 150 years for justice, he told them. Set Hooty Croy free and "like a smoke signal, the word will spread to Indians all over the country that the courts can be trusted, that they will be treated with dignity, that the white man has not continued to break his word, that justice will be done." And then the jury was gone.

They deliberated one full week, then a second. Croy's spirits began to sink, as did Serra's. The defense team, which included co-counsels Jasper Monti and Diana Samuelson, had felt certain that the jury was touched with the power and meaning of the case, that they would come rushing back with a clean victory in two days. But it began to look as if their sweeping cultural defense had not washed over all the walls of skepticism. "The jurors had a chance to make history, but they were quibbling over legal details," thought Serra. "It hurt my feelings." Reporters who had covered the trial began to wonder aloud whether Serra's impassioned law was too out of style, whether any lawyer in this conservative era could successfully defend a man charged with gunning down a cop.

Until the very end, the 12 men and women of the jury did not reveal whether or not Serra's emotional appeal had worked, whether or not they had been swept up in his cause. They would not look into his or Croy's eyes when they finally filed back into the courtroom on May Day. Then the verdict was read aloud: Not guilty on all counts. Co-counsel Samuelson broke down in tears. Croy began to give a statement to the microphones and cameras that suddenly surrounded him, but he too could not choke back the surge of emotion. Serra ran after the jurors as they left the room. "You did the right thing, and we love you!" he shouted to them. One juror later told Serra that the jury members had decided early on that there were two "outstanding" figures in the courtroom: Serra and Judge Stern. Some jurors had been put off by Serra's more theatrical gestures--one mentioned the plucked flower in particular--but in the end, they had decided to place their trust in this attorney whose soulful oratory seemed less a device than a heartfelt expression of belief in his client.

Croy was not yet a free man because the 1985 Supreme Court decision had not reversed a conspiracy conviction against him. But he would be by the end of the month, when he was freed on his own recognizance to await his resentencing hearing on the conspiracy charge. Meanwhile, after a weekend of catching up on lost sleep, Serra was due back in court on another case. "I'm a warrior, so I go right back into the next battle, that's what I do," he said the day after the Croy verdict. There was no time to relish his dazzling win, this climactic moment of his legal career. Next week, his routine caseload called. "I've got a court date in Orange County on Monday. It's a drug thing. Speed." This week, though, Serra had reversed American history; this time the Indians had ridden to victory.

Copyright © 2019, Los Angeles Times
EDITION: California | U.S. & World
51°