Olson’s Latest Lawyer No Stranger to Fame
San Francisco’s virtuoso anti-establishment lawyer, J. Tony Serra--the mesmerizing defender of freaks, drug dealers, Black Panthers, Hells Angels and, yes, even a fire-eater--will stride into Los Angeles Superior Court today on behalf of a wholesome-looking Minnesota housewife accused of plotting years ago to blow up police cars in Los Angeles.
Serra will make quite an impression. He sports a gold tooth and long, steel-gray locks, wears shabby, secondhand suits and wide ties so outdated they might qualify as retro hip.
He’s the newest defense attorney for Sara Jane Olson (nee Kathleen Ann Soliah), formerly associated with the 1970s radical Symbionese Liberation Army.
His first order of business: to postpone Olson’s Aug. 14 trial date to Jan. 8, 2001. Serra states in court papers that it is impossible for him to read and analyze 15,000 pages of police and FBI reports, prepare for 150 potential prosecution witnesses and build a defense in less than six months.
Serra is entering the fray with uncharacteristic silence. He canceled a meet-the-press session at the last moment Wednesday to abide by a judge’s gag order.
But legal colleagues say this is Serra’s kind of case. They believe the eccentric, theatrical radical lawyer will provide a colorful foil to Superior Court Judge James M. Ideman, a conservative former military man who has until now kept Olson’s defense under his thumb.
Olson is accused of conspiring with SLA members to kill Los Angeles police officers by plotting to plant nail-packed pipe bombs under squad cars in August 1975. She was captured nearly a year ago, after 23 years on the lam from a 1976 grand jury indictment. She is free on $1-million bail.
So far, prosecutors have won most of the pretrial skirmishes, persuading Ideman to allow them to use SLA kidnap victim Patricia Hearst Shaw to present a history lesson on the SLA and 22 crimes, including bank robberies and murders, while limiting defense testimony about the political climate of the turbulent 1970s.
Prosecutors Eleanor Hunter and Michael Latin, who weren’t talking anyway, managed to obtain a gag order muzzling their chattier opponents. When the defense protested, Ideman tightened the gag even more.
Experienced trial lawyers predict that Serra, who is in his mid-60s, and Ideman, who is in his early 70s, will clash early and often.
“I think Ideman’s going to go crazy,” said one courtroom veteran who has appeared before the judge and who asked not to be identified. “He’s not used to Tony Serra. I think Tony Serra will butt heads with Ideman.”
Three defense attorneys--Stuart Hanlon, Henry J. Hall and Susan Jordan--have departed for various reasons since the case originally was scheduled for trial in January. Nearly a year after she was arrested outside her Minnesota home, Olson has a brand new defense team. Besides Serra, she is represented by Shawn Chapman, who has assisted on defense teams for O.J. Simpson and Elmer “Geronimo” Pratt.
Now, with Serra at the helm, Olson can expect a vigorous, operatic performance by a self-described courtroom warrior and radical true believer.
“Tony Serra is not going to back down from anybody, including the judge if he thinks the judge is wrong. Judge Ideman appears to always think he’s right, so I think there are going to be some tense times in court,” said Hanlon, who has known Serra for 20 years.
“He is the most unique and probably the best trial lawyer in the United States,” Hanlon said. “There’s nobody like him.”
Serra, were he free to speak, probably would agree.
“I got one small niche that I occupy all by myself. I emote. I’m the true believer. The true believer is the most dangerous man alive,” he told The Times in 1989, when he was the role model for pot-puffing hippie lawyer Eddie Dodd in the James Woods film “True Believer.”
Fire-Eater’s Unique Defense
The film dealt with Serra client Jimmy Chol Soo Lee, a Korean who was convicted in a Chinese gang killing. Serra won acquittal for his client at a retrial, based on a mistaken-identity defense, and Lee walked out of prison after eight years.
Serra also was among the first defense attorneys to invoke the now commonly used “cultural defense” during the 1989 retrial of Native American Patrick “Hooty” Croy, who was accused of killing a white deputy sheriff. He won acquittal for Croy, as well.
He gained freedom for former SLA leader Russell Little, who had been convicted during the 1970s in the slaying of Oakland school Supt. Marcus Foster. And he persuaded a jury to acquit a member of the New World Liberation Front of several post office bombings, invoking another unique defense: Since the man was in charge of issuing the radical group’s communiques, he actually was working as a reporter and protected by the 1st Amendment.
Perhaps Serra’s most creative defense came in the 1991 drunk driving trial of professional fire-eater Ted Maschal, who gave jurors a demonstration of his craft, blowing a fiery plume 12 feet into the air out on the courtroom steps.
Then Maschal returned to court and blew a 0.046% on a breath analyzer. Serra argued that the accelerant used by the fire-eater made him seem over the legal limit when he’d only had two beers the night he was stopped by police. Maschal was acquitted.
Over the years, much has been said and written about Tony Serra. A few tidbits about the man, the myth, the legend:
His father, an immigrant from Mallorca, an island of Spain, worked in a jellybean factory. As a teenager, Serra was an accomplished athlete. He made all-city football, and may have been the only varsity tight end at Stanford with a major in epistemological philosophy and a minor in 19th century English poetry. He earned his law degree from Berkeley’s Boalt Hall.
He worked as a prosecutor for nearly a year, but quit after discovering and embracing the Haight-Ashbury counterculture. He ran for mayor of San Francisco in 1971 on the radical Platypus Party ticket.
Immersed in drug culture, he became an expert on drug law.
He didn’t file income tax returns for 17 years to protest the Vietnam War, and was put on probation for five years for it. Most of the $100,000 he got for “True Believer” went to the federal government to pay off his tax bill.
He once had himself tied to a cactus in the Mexican desert so he could experience how Jesus felt on the cross. He appeared on the cover of a law journal smoking a hand-rolled cigarette--apparently the funny kind.
He was famous for buying cheap used cars and then abandoning them after running up thousands of dollars in parking tickets. He gave his five children, now nearly grown, trippy-hippie names: Shelter, Ivory, Chime Day, Wonder Fortune and Lilac Bright.
Serra’s law office lacks the usual lawyerly trappings. But he keeps the bones and cremated ashes of dearly departed clients in a cardboard box by his desk.
Known for his passionate, thundering courtroom oratory, Serra always packs the gallery with other lawyers who raptly take in every word.
One female lawyer told The Times a while back: “After the first time I saw Tony make a closing argument, I was exhausted. It was like I had sex for hours.”
Some judges, however, have a different reaction. At least two federal jurists--one in Montana, the other in San Jose--had Serra hauled before them in handcuffs when, occupied in other courtrooms, he failed to appear for trials.
His mouth got him in trouble a few years ago, when he pronounced during an interview with a legal journal: “If you kill a cop, I’ll pay to take the case.”
The San Francisco Police Officers Assn. complained about him to the state bar, claiming he was soliciting business from cop killers.
Serra says he hates violence and was quoted out of context.