Trial Is High-Profile Finale for Dean of Public Defenders

TIMES STAFF WRITER

In an era marked by attorneys known for screaming, swearing, muttering and bullying in court, Charlie Gessler is a throwback to a time when dignity and decency carried the day.

For 30 years Gessler served as a deputy public defender. After all those years, not one of his clients is on death row.

The latest of Gessler's 13 capital cases ended last week with a jury's recommendation that Lyle Menendez deserved life in prison, not the death penalty, for the 1989 shotgun murders of his parents.

The Menendez case was the 62-year-old Gessler's last--he retired March 31, while the case was going on. Widely regarded as the dean of local defense lawyers, his colleagues say he is proof that honesty, integrity and civility can still be a winning mix.

"He has the admiration and respect of everyone who has tried cases, either with him or against him," said Jill Lansing, Lyle Menendez's lawyer at the first of the brothers' trials.

"That is a remarkable accomplishment in a rather combative business," she said.

Prosecutors are similarly complimentary. "He's the best in the business," said Deputy Dist. Atty. Marsh Goldstein. "An honest, honorable man who is always thoroughly prepared."

There's praise, too, from the bench. "He really is the epitome of the defense attorney," said Superior Court Judge Robert Mallano, who has known Gessler since the 1960s. "He goes all-out for his clients and does a wonderful job, but always conducts himself with the highest ethical principles."

Asked to explain Gessler's success, Lansing said he brings to the courtroom "all the qualities you would hope for in a lawyer."

"He's very smart. He's very hard-working--he not only keeps up on the law, he prepares his cases extremely well. He has very sound judgment. And I think he brings with him into the courtroom an aura of integrity. I think jurors know they can trust what he says.

"That is a terrifically powerful ally to have in a courtroom, your credibility."

Gessler said he is flattered by such accolades--and a tad embarrassed by it all.

"It's nice to be thought of as being a good lawyer," he said. "That's fine. That's plenty."

For Gessler, money has never been a big draw. He made about $100,000 annually in his final years at the public defender's office, certainly a fair sum but nowhere near the big dollars that he could have made as an experienced lawyer in private practice.

Fame holds little appeal, either. Referring to the Menendez retrial, he said with weariness, "The case has already gotten so much publicity."

Gessler is simply one of those people who found the thing he wanted to do, be a criminal defense lawyer--and at a place that suited him, the public defender's office.

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Gessler joined the office in 1965. He had graduated from USC law school in 1961, then spent two years as a deputy district attorney and two years in practice with friends from law school.

"I don't think life out there in private practice is that easy or that lucrative," he said. And while being a prosecutor was OK, "I wanted to be a defense counsel. There's a lot more freedom there."

Two weeks after Gessler started work as a deputy public defender, the Watts riots erupted.

After that trial by fire, Gessler settled in for the long haul. He worked at branch offices in Torrance and Compton, then moved downtown in 1984.

His style in court, he said, is merely an extension of his personality: "I guess I'm old-fashioned in that I believe you can do a very good job for your client--maybe a better job--with civility and graciousness and still be a competitor.

"You must be willing to cross-examine, to confront, to get the whole truth instead of the half-truth, and yet you don't have to be obnoxious. You can go about it with some subtlety and still stand up for your client's rights. There's no reason to be rude to others."

His clients, he said, even those accused of horrific crimes, "I see them as people. I treat them all as human beings to the best of my ability."

His clients have included the infamous and the notorious.

Among the infamous is G. Gordon Liddy, charged in the 1972 break-in of Daniel Ellsberg's psychiatrist's office. The case eventually was transferred to federal court, and Gessler had to leave it.

The notorious include Vaughn C. Greenwood, the so-called "Skid Row Slasher" who killed nine, and Sam Nam Chinh, charged in a highly publicized 1984 Chinatown murder-robbery case. Gessler kept both off death row.

Gessler--who is active in his Episcopal church in the South Bay and once considered becoming a minister--maintains that the death penalty is morally wrong.

"And it just really doesn't accomplish anything," he said. "I don't think life is any better in Texas, where they execute people regularly, than it is in California, where it's really the exception."

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For the past several years, Gessler served as the deputy who assigned capital cases to other public defenders--and then, when asked, provided advice and strategy.

"He always, always took the time to give advice," said Leslie Abramson, who was a deputy public defender before going into private practice.

After the Menendez brothers' first trial ended in 1994 with hung juries and Lansing decided that she wanted to spend more time with her family, older brother Lyle's case was handed to the public defender's office.

Though he was even then considering retirement, Gessler ended up taking on the case along with another deputy, Terri Towery. Abramson stayed on as younger brother Erik's lawyer, working for public defender wages; she also recruited lawyer Barry Levin, who also worked for a county salary.

"When Leslie called to ask me to work this case, one of the--if not the--major decision to take the case was to work along with Charlie Gessler," Levin said. "He is the most fabulous trial lawyer and the most decent human being I've ever met."

When the jury returned its verdict of life without parole, Gessler's chest heaved and his chin quivered. "I feel very relieved, certainly," he said afterward.

"I'm so glad for him he didn't go out a loser," Abramson said.

Gessler said he will miss the parry and thrust of courtroom action. But, he said, "I don't have to give up my weekends and evenings anymore."

"I am going to keep my hand in a couple days a week" by advising younger lawyers, he said. But, he said, the time has come to see more Dodger games, read more novels about the Old West and take more walks on the beach with his wife of 33 years, Donna.

And find a new way to be of service to others. "That's what life is about," Gessler said.

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