The name sounded familiar, but I couldn’t place Irving Kanarek. Even after several calls and letters, imploring me to air his gripe with the State Bar of California, the name still didn’t register.
His grievance was too esoteric and I put him off--but his passion and persistence carried the day. I told him I’d take a closer look at the material he’d sent, and then checked our files to see why his name rang a bell.
Charles Manson’s former lawyer.
Conditioned these days to celebrity lawyers, it’s hard to believe that the man seated across from me in the fast-food restaurant defended one of America’s most notorious criminals. Someone forgot to punch his ticket to fame and fortune.
The man at the table has lived the last year in a Garden Grove motel. Before that, it was four years in a Costa Mesa motel. Now 28 years since the Manson trial, Irving Kanarek is 78 years old and his curly white hair has receded, a la Henry Kissinger. He sports wisps of white whiskers and is missing some teeth. He walks with a limp he got from being hit by a car several years ago. He’s had bouts with mental illness and cancer, but says he feels fine. He lives on Social Security and says he can’t afford a car. He carries a briefcase that’s hard to close and he can’t see much without his glasses. When I ask him how he fills up his days, living in a motel without a car, he says that getting around by bus can chew up a lot of hours.
There are people, no doubt, who think that whatever setbacks have come to Kanarek are payback for defending Manson, convicted as the mastermind behind the seven Tate-LaBianca murders that jolted Los Angeles and the nation in August 1969.
In “Helter Skelter,” the best-selling book about the Manson murders and trial, prosecutor/author Vincent Bugliosi wrote that Kanarek’s reputation preceded him. He was the lawyer legendary for dragging out even the most mundane of cases. Bugliosi feared that a Kanarek-led defense would drag the Manson case out for years.
“I don’t know if I was legendary,” Kanarek says. “I get a kick out of practicing law. In the atmosphere of a courtroom, there is an adversary process. And where you have the adversary process, blood flows.”
When Linda Kasabian, the former Manson “family” member who became the prosecution’s star witness, was sworn in, Kanarek shouted, “Object, your honor, on the grounds this witness is not competent and she is insane!”
Later, when Kasabian testified she’d taken 50 LSD trips, Kanarek asked her to describe trip number 23. Bugliosi objected on the admittedly non-legal grounds that the question was “ridiculous.”
Amid the carnival-like atmosphere of the Manson trial, Kanarek was much more than a bit player. Although Bugliosi referred to Kanarek in his summation as “the Toscanini of tedium” and chided his tactics throughout the book, he also gave him his due. “The press focused on his bombast and missed his effectiveness,” Bugliosi wrote.
In the book, Bugliosi repeated an old story in which Kanarek objected as soon as a prosecution witness was asked to state his name. The man first heard his name from his mother, Kanarek claimed, which made it hearsay.
Kanarek shrugs at the anecdote, saying context is missing. “One man’s obstructionist is another man’s hero,” he says.
“He is a lawyer devoted to the cause of his clients, and brutally honest,” says George Denny, a longtime Kanarek friend and his former attorney. “He sometimes loses the forest for the trees, and he will take a point to extremes. That’s what terrorizes judges. He’s on the cutting edge in many cases.”
All of this should be said in past tense, however, because Kanarek is not a lawyer anymore.
That is what galls him and what drives him as his life winds down in a seeming blizzard of medical assaults.
He hasn’t practiced since November of 1989 when, in his own words, “I flipped out.” Beset by personal problems, Kanarek was admitted to the Harbor-UCLA Medical Center for psychiatric treatment.
He’s uncertain how long he stayed there and says he then spent another couple years after his release in a “rest home.” But by the time he regained his mental faculties, he says, he had lost his law practice and the State Bar paid out three claims against him from former clients totaling $40,500.
Kanarek says all three claims are bogus but that he is powerless to fight the bar. He wants the state to create a new position, along the lines of an inspector general, to oversee attorneys who handle the bar’s disciplinary actions.
“I want to practice law, and they’ve done a Salman Rushdie on me,” Kanarek says, biting off the words. “They’re forcing me to pay back money I never owed. . . . They gave away $40,500, which put a yoke around my neck.”
Even Denny, who describes Kanarek as “extraordinarily courageous and scrupulously honest,” says that his old friend’s gripe with the bar association is complicated. The heart of Kanarek’s complaint is that the association punished him while he was mentally incapacitated and denied him due process by failing to notify him about the payments being made on the claims. The association has said it won’t reinstate Kanarek until he makes restitution on the $40,500 to the Client Security Fund.
Kanarek says he can’t begin to come up with that much money.
And so, his career, once decked out in such colorful regalia, now hangs limply around him. Fighting to the end, Kanarek once again is a decided underdog howling in the wind.
“I can understand why they would not want to reinstate him” because of the fight, says Denny. “He’s always been a controversial character, and I know a number of people are delighted that he is not practicing.”
Kanarek says only the press can save him. “The justice system is great, but it’s still run by people who are motivated by personal agendas,” he says, “and the motivation that has gotten me is the failure of the disciplinary system of the state bar to take on its own personnel.”
Despite his somewhat woeful physical presence, Kanarek’s mind seems back on track.
And he remains faithful to his most famous client: “Manson was a personable guy. He had nothing to do with those murders. The people who testified against him are all criminals.”
I can’t help but think that, once upon a time, Kanarek needed an agent or a ghostwriter. I ask why he never parlayed Manson into a book deal. “I liked practicing law, and I just continued to practice. A lot of people approached me, and I never had time for it. It really is one of those things I should have done.”
When we finish talking, he asks if I’ll drop him off in the Fedco parking lot. I do, we shake hands and I wish him luck and watch him shuffle off. It’s hard not to think that things could have been a lot different for him.
Later, while on the phone with George Denny, I ask him about this stage of his old friend’s life.
“I think it’s a tragedy that a guy who was renowned and did so well for his clients has been brought this low,” Denny says.
Is it his fault, I ask, or someone else’s?
“I think,” Denny says, “the fates.”
Dana Parsons’ column appears Wednesday, Friday and Sunday. Readers may reach Parsons by calling (714) 966-7821 or by writing to him at the Times Orange County Edition, 1375 Sunflower Ave., Costa Mesa, CA 92626, or by e-mail to email@example.com