Charles English, Respected ‘Attorney to the Stars,’ Dies
Charles R. English, a skilled and engaging practitioner of that peculiar L.A. law specialty--”attorney to the stars”--died Saturday at UCLA Medical Center.
The cause of death was complications resulting from a brain tumor. He was 61.
“Charlie was everything a lawyer should be. He cared about his clients, his profession, his community and his family,” said Gerald L. Chaleff, a Los Angeles police commissioner and former County Bar Assn. president, who was English’s partner for more than 20 years. “Charlie never believed there was any conflict between honesty and integrity and vigorous advocacy.”
Though he defended hundreds of clients during a legal career that spanned 33 years, English was best known for appearing alongside a roster of celebrity clients long enough to fill a good-sized supermarket tabloid. Among them were actors Jack Nicholson, Alec Baldwin, James Woods and Robert Downey Jr., rock musician Tommy Lee and Los Angeles City Councilman Mike Hernandez.
Despite his frequent appearances as a celebrity’s lawyer, English avoided the role of celebrity attorney, preferring to prowl discreetly from one courtroom to another, leaving good-humored quips and good results in his wake.
“In a business where people seldom like one another, nobody didn’t like Charlie,” said Superior Court Judge Larry P. Fidler, supervising judge of the county’s criminal courts. “I don’t know a single judge who had a bad word to say about Charlie, and I don’t know another lawyer of whom that can be said.”
Popular With Judges and Prosecutors
The famously advantageous deals English so often managed to strike on his clients’ behalf were, in part, the result of an extraordinarily quick-witted affability that made him popular with judges and prosecutors. But those arrangements also were a consequence of prosecutors’ anxiety that jurors might find the tall, bespectacled defense attorney as charming as they did.
In fact, juries often did. In Baldwin’s case, for example, English won the film star’s acquittal on battery charges, even though the actor admitted pushing and kicking a photographer attempting to videotape the homecoming of Baldwin’s wife, actress Kim Basinger, and their newborn baby. English portrayed the photographer, who concealed himself in a truck across the street from the couple’s home, as a “stalkerazzi.” Baldwin, the jury found, acted in self-defense.
In 1994, English persuaded a Municipal Court judge to drop vandalism and assault charges against Nicholson over the objections of the Los Angeles city attorney’s office. The judge agreed to do so after the victim said he had been compensated and had no wish to press the case against the Academy Award-winning actor for repeatedly striking his car with a golf club in the course of a traffic dispute.
At the time, English acknowledged that his client had “gone a step too far,” but emphatically denied that Nicholson’s wealth and celebrity had won him special treatment. “It only reached this level because Mr. Nicholson is Mr. Nicholson. . . . He’s been treated more severely than an ordinary citizen,” English said after the dismissal.
In a courtroom era in which relations between prosecutors and defense attorneys usually fall somewhere between bitter rancor and mutual contempt, Los Angeles County Dist. Atty. Gil Garcetti said that English, his law school classmate at UCLA, was regarded as “the most enjoyable person to work with by prosecutors. He was respected as an honest, straight-shooting advocate.
“Charlie earned his reputation as a master deal-maker because he was completely reasonable, invariably truthful and always ethical. You also knew that if you didn’t work things out, he would go to trial, and juries loved him,” Garcetti said. “He was big in physical stature, big in personality and big in brains. Charlie was a formidable advocate.”
Superior Court Judge Michael Tynan, a longtime friend, said, “Charlie’s skill as an attorney who could clean up a client’s case after a lesser lawyer got the client convicted was as unique as it was legendary. Because of the trust judges had in Charlie’s integrity and his judgment and the skill that he had in presenting the best his client could offer to the court, many of Charlie’s clients were able to obtain reasonable probation rather than have their lives ruined by unduly harsh punishment--and he did it all with his great smile,” Tynan said.
Hernandez, who retained English to represent him after he was charged with possessing cocaine, said, “I come from the bail bond industry, so I know something about defense attorneys, and Charlie was a good man.
“I didn’t know him before I had my problem, but I always had the impression that he wanted the best for me and gave me advice that was in my best interest as a human being,” Hernandez said.
In fact, said defense attorney Leslie Abramson, another longtime friend, “Charlie was absolutely determined to spare his clients every ounce of pain he could. Charlie was much smarter than he ever let on, and that bit of calculation on his part put prosecutors and judges so much at ease that when he left the courtroom, they didn’t notice their wallets were missing. He was utterly dedicated to his clients, and nobody could make a deal like he could; Charlie could charm the bark off a tree--and the bigger and meaner the tree, the faster the chips flew.”
Advocate for Due Process
Though popular with judges and prosecutors, English was a firm advocate of due process guarantees. As chairman of the American Bar Assn.’s national standards committee, for example, he pointedly criticized new court efficiencies that he felt infringed on the rights of the accused. “One of the concerns the defense bar has about the system today is that the objective is to do cases and not do justice,” English said in a recent interview. “We could have a very inexpensive fire department, if we let a lot of buildings burn down. But we do not do that. And we cannot allow our criminal justice system to burn down by being concerned only with dollars and with speed.”
A native of Santa Monica, English graduated from that city’s high school and community college before going on to UCLA and UCLA Law School, from which he graduated in 1966. A year later, he joined the L.A. County public defender’s office, where he remained until 1977, when he entered private practice.
In 1998, he was named Outstanding Defense Attorney by the Los Angeles County Bar Assn., of whose foundation he was a past president.
English is survived by his wife, Marylyn; two sons, Mitchell and Charles James; and a daughter, Julia, all of Tarzana. Funeral services will be held Wednesday at 10 a.m. at Trinity Baptist Church in Santa Monica. The family has requested that donations be made either to Dr. Timothy Cloughesy Brain Cancer Research in Westwood or the Taft High School cross-country team.
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