Accused Cops Find a Friend in O.C. Lawyer


A cop is accused of crossing the line--and attorney John D. Barnett is in the maelstrom once again.

The bookish defense lawyer has been up since 2 a.m. to appear on a network morning show in defense of his latest high-profile client, one of the two Riverside County officers whose videotaped beating of undocumented immigrants set off an international furor.

By noon, a parade of television crews has trooped through Barnett’s Orange suite. The telephone chirps endlessly with calls from everyone from “60 Minutes” and CNN to local Spanish-language TV stations. Barnett flips through a stack of message slips as a CBS News crew packs up its gear.

“It hasn’t died down,” Barnett says, settling in for one more interview.


If he feels a strong sense of deja vu, there is good reason.

Barnett, 48, known as one of the winningest criminal-defense lawyers in Orange County, represented Los Angeles Police Officer Theodore J. Briseno in the 1992 state trial over the police beating of Rodney G. King. The verdict forms--not guilty, twice--now hang framed on the law office wall.

Barnett since has made a name for himself defending a string of more than a dozen police officers accused of crimes ranging from brutality to theft, rape and even murder. He has not lost a cop case.

So after watching television reports on the April 1 police chase and beating incident involving Deputies Kurt Franklin and Tracy Watson, Barnett was not surprised when he got the call from the Riverside Sheriff’s Assn. to represent Franklin. Amid instant comparisons to the King beating case, Barnett launched an aggressive defense of his client’s conduct, portraying the speeding truckload of Mexican immigrants as menacing lawbreakers and accusing critics of convicting the officers before trial.


“We’ve been down this road before, and we know how disastrous it is for these premature pronouncements and predictions,” Barnett said in an interview. “If these guys are found not guilty that could be a problem, based on people finding them guilty now.”

If criminal charges are filed against his client, prosecutors can expect to face off against a tenacious trial whiz admired by colleagues for his meticulous preparation and a deceptively low-key courtroom style that can reduce hostile witnesses to shreds.

“He’s not the kind of guy who needs to scream and yell to make a point,” said Orange County Deputy Dist. Atty. Clyde Von Der Ahe, who did battle with Barnett in a felony assault case against a former Long Beach officer. The charges were dismissed after two juries deadlocked.

“His style is the plodding along, to know the case inside out. He’s not the kind to beat you with a home run,” Von Der Ahe said, “but he gets a lot of baserunners and base hits.”

Barnett added to his winning reputation with the stunning acquittal last year of former Marine Cpl. Thomas R. Merrill, who had been convicted in a 1989 double murder and sentenced to life in prison before Barnett and co-counsel William J. Genego took the case and won a new trial. The Merrill case, which went to a third trial before the acquittal, was one of five high-profile murder trials that Barnett handled in Orange and Los Angeles counties over the past two years. Each ended in acquittal or hung jury, with charges eventually dropped.

Barnett is one of two lawyers defending Orange County Supervisor William G. Steiner against official misconduct charges stemming from the collapse of the county investment pool. On Monday, he begins trial in an excessive-force case involving two police officers in San Bernardino County.

“He’s as well-prepared as any lawyer you’d ever go up against,” said Superior Court Judge Richard F. Toohey, a former murder prosecutor who tried several cases against Barnett. “He’s not a lawyer, if you’re going up against him, that you want to take long naps during the trial.”

In the Merrill case, Barnett and Genego were able to persuade jurors that another Marine already convicted in the robbery murder at a Newport Beach coin shop was the sole killer. That meant countering witness accounts of a second gunman. By zeroing in on the color of a man’s shirt, the defense team showed that witnesses may have mistaken the shop’s co-owner for a second attacker.


Barnett is still remembered for winning a 1990 mistrial for Dr. Thomas Gionis after the defense lawyer, during cross-examination of a district attorney’s investigator, produced a tape recording that contradicted the testimony and left holdout jurors convinced the investigator was not telling the truth. Gionis, who was charged with plotting an attack on ex-wife Aissa Wayne, the daughter of John Wayne, later switched defense lawyers and was convicted in 1992.

“A major factor [for the jury deadlock] was a loss of confidence the jury had in the people’s case,” said attorney William Kopeny, a longtime Barnett friend who was co-counsel in the Gionis case. “John makes it look like anyone could have done it. That’s the marvelous preparation he’s done, showing.”

And Barnett’s defense of an elementary school teacher accused of molestation in 1989 was so persuasive that after the jury’s acquittal, the judge took the extraordinary step of scolding the prosecutor and police and declaring the defendant factually innocent.

Barnett, who lives in Orange Park Acres with his wife, Patty, and two teenage children, is unflappable under the strain of a big case and wins praise from defense colleagues, prosecutors and judges for his clean play and a work ethic that would make John Calvin proud.

“He’s an example of the old adage that genius is 90% perspiration and 10% inspiration,” said defense lawyer Jennifer L. Keller, president of the Orange County Bar Assn. “He’s very single-minded. When he focuses on a case . . . he’s a human laser beam.”

Barnett, whose fighter-pilot father was also a Marine lawyer, aimed since childhood to practice law. As an undergraduate at UC Irvine, he pored over ancient Roman legal cases, translating them from Latin. After graduating from law school at the University of San Francisco in 1973, he fast distinguished himself as a budding star in the Orange County public defender’s office. He took the defense job after the district attorney turned him down for a position.

“He’s quick. He’s good on his feet. He has what I would call good peripheral vision,” said Public Defender Ronald Y. Butler, who supervised Barnett. “We could tell he had all the moves for an outstanding lawyer early.”

Barnett, a family man who eschewed after-work drinking sessions, surprised some colleagues when he left the public defender’s office in 1980 to start a private practice with William W. Stewart. That the firm thrived was a bigger surprise to those who considered the pair an odd mix. Barnett was known as the trial workhorse, Stewart the wheeler-dealer with enough connections to win the lucrative courthouse contract to represent Orange County’s poor.


Stewart’s representation came under fire when some judges criticized his frequent absences for business dealings abroad. The firm kept the contract until the county’s 1994 bankruptcy forced officials to cancel private contracts for legal services. Barnett, who has his own practice now, refuses to discuss his relationship with Stewart.

Since the state trial involving the King beating, Barnett has increasingly gained notice for his defense of police officers. He is among a select group of attorneys consulted by the Police Protective League and a statewide grouping that pays for legal defense for officers. Barnett is something of an oddity among those lawyers because, unlike others, he is not a former cop. Some police distrusted Barnett at first because he was known for defending accused criminals.

“For 20 years I fought cops and tried to make them look like liars,” Barnett said.

His defense for Briseno laid blame for the King beating on the three other LAPD officers and placed Barnett at odds with the other defense lawyers. Hostilities were especially acute between Barnett and Michael P. Stone, the lawyer for officer Laurence M. Powell. In an ironic turn, Stone now represents deputy Tracy Watson, the second Riverside County deputy.

“Though there were some hard feelings, from my perspective John was doing his job,” said Paul R. DePasquale, who represented officer Timothy E. Wind. “He’s a straight-up, hardball advocate in the courtroom.”

Barnett said the months he spent in close quarters with the Los Angeles officers reversed his suspicion toward cops and he became convinced police had become a fashionable target for prosecutors.

“They are a very prized scalp--more than serial killers, more than dope dealers,” Barnett said. “The price on cops’ scalps went way through the roof.”

In the latest case, Barnett has been pointedly critical of Riverside Sheriff Larry Smith, who quickly labeled the incident a case of excessive use of force.

In interview after interview, Barnett has argued that Franklin acted properly when he wielded his baton on one of the suspects following the 80-mile, high-speed chase from a border checkpoint in Temecula. Occupants allegedly threw bottles and other debris at the pursuing officers and tried to ram other cars during the pursuit, which ended a freeway in El Monte.

“People who will use force against a police officer are the most dangerous kind,” Barnett said. “This was not a busload of nuns from St. Mary’s speeding to church.”

Observers said Barnett’s experience in cop cases makes him especially formidable.

“He seems to have a special understanding about the police,” said Orange County Superior Court Judge John M. Watson, who saw Barnett in action while presiding over the trial of former Long Beach police officer Alan B. Ice, accused of shooting a motorist during a traffic dispute.

What many say distinguishes Barnett is his exhaustive trial preparation. A meticulous approach is apparent during a visit to his office, dominated on one wall by a complex diagram, resembling an engineer’s schematic plan, that summarizes the evidence in a murder case.

He leaves little to chance, carefully logging in a computer file words or phrases that snare his fancy--and might come in handy someday in a closing argument. Barnett’s collection bulges with finds such as “gutter” and “barbarian,” or “sewer of perjury” and “the inevitable force of truth.” In the Merrill trial, Barnett thought hard to come up with a damning--and memorable--characterization of Eric Wick, the Marine he argued was the lone gunman. The jury would hear it over and over: “Eric the executioner.”

Fussing over such details means long hours--Barnett is in his office by 6 a.m. and works most weekends--but also explains his confidence in the face of a high-stakes murder trial.

“You spend 100 hours to argue for one hour. That’s why I’m not nervous,” he said. “People are afraid because they’re not prepared. They eat their guts out because they’re not prepared.”

Around him, too, are signs of a passion for the uphill battle that comes with defending the accused--a framed photograph of Clarence Darrow, a pen-and-ink drawing and a ceramic statue of Don Quixote.

“I like going to court every day. And the more risk, the more I like it,” Barnett said. “This is why I became a lawyer, to try serious cases with a lot of risks.”


John Drummond Barnett

Age: 48

Residence: Orange Park Acres

Family: Wife, Patty, two teenage children

School: Received law degree in 1973 from University of San Francisco; majored in Latin as undergraduate at UC Irvine.

Career highlights: Won acquittal for Los Angeles Police Officer Theodore J. Briseno in 1992 state trial of Rodney G. King beating case; defended Dr. Thomas Gionis, accused of masterminding the 1990 attack of John Wayne’s daughter, Aissa Wayne; represented Jose Luis Razo Jr., a former Harvard student convicted in 1989 of a series of armed robberies in Orange County during school breaks; co-counsel for Marine Cpl. Thomas Merrill, acquitted last year in double murder, after a second retrial.

Currently: Represents Riverside County Sheriff’s Deputy Kurt Franklin, one of two-baton wielding officers who beat Mexican immigrants after a pursuit; co-counsel for Orange County Supervisor William G. Steiner, who faces official misconduct charges stemming from the collapse of the county investment pool.

Source: John Barnett

Researched by KEN ELLINGWOOD / Los Angeles Times