Peterson Lawyer Is Used to a Challenge

Times Staff Writer

Over the course of his law career, criminal defense attorney Mark Geragos' choice of clients has sparked negative reactions from friends and strangers alike.

He endured scowls from women working out at his gym during the search for Chandra Levy, the Washington intern who had an affair with his client, former Rep. Gary A. Condit (D-Ceres).

Bystanders threw things at him on his way into court to defend Susan McDougal, who was acquitted on charges of theft and obstruction of justice after becoming a target of the Whitewater investigation.

Now there is Scott Peterson, a man accused of killing his pregnant wife Laci and the couple's unborn son, Conner, in the days before Christmas. The image of a smiling Laci Peterson, holding her growing belly, laughing in home videos, has been broadcast so often since her disappearance that the case has the feel of a celebrity murder.

Even Geragos, a fixture on CNN's "Larry King Live" and other talk shows, said it didn't look good for Peterson in the days after the bodies of his wife and son washed ashore in the San Francisco Bay last month.

Then Geragos met with Peterson and Peterson's parents and offered a self-indictment: Maybe as a media pundit he had been too quick to judge.

"I'm facing a case where I've been advised by everyone not to take it -- told it's career suicide, told I'm clinically insane," Geragos said Friday, the day he announced he had agreed to represent the 30-year-old fertilizer salesman facing the death penalty on charges of double homicide.

Why do it?

"I do take seriously the idea that you're not supposed to turn down a case just because of its notoriety," he said.

It is a principle he has practiced since graduating from Loyola Law School in 1982 and joining his father's L.A. law firm. He tried unsuccessfully to get actress Winona Ryder acquitted on felony shoplifting charges last year. He represented former President Clinton's brother Roger in a drunk-driving case and Robert Downey Jr. on drug charges. He engineered a plea bargain for former Los Angeles City Councilman Art Snyder that allowed an appeal, and later a dismissal, of corruption charges. He won a dismissal of charges of felony kidnapping, arson and criminal threats against hip-hop star Nathaniel Hale, better known as Nate Dogg.

Of late, Geragos has been one of the steady stream of post-O.J. lawyer-pundits willing to go on the tube and offer legal observations on a wide array of subjects. A case like Peterson's, which has captured extensive media attention, could set Geragos apart, propelling him to household-name status a la Alan Dershowitz or Johnny Cochran.

In a career sprinkled with uphill fights, the Peterson case may prove a key moment for the 45-year-old Geragos, who said he first dreamed of becoming a lawyer as a 5-year-old accompanying his father, Paul, to his job at Los Angeles' district attorney's office.

"He's obviously taking on massive public opinion. People hate Scott Peterson. They've already convicted him," said prominent criminal defense lawyer Harland Braun, a longtime friend of Geragos.

"This is the kind of case you have to have guts," Braun said. "The real concern is, somehow you get associated with the dislike the public has for your client."

Geragos said he takes on such cases, in part, because of the mantra of criminal defense attorneys that all accused people deserve a rigorous defense under the law. But for him it is often more than that.

"If I'm going to represent somebody I think at the very least they deserve someone who can find the good in them," Geragos said. "I don't think most people are evil. I think sometimes people are demonized unfairly." Whether in court or on the steps outside holding forth with the media, Geragos can be brash, funny, occasionally irreverent. After winning the McDougal case, he said of the prosecution: "They don't have the guts to retry it."

"I'd like to think I've had a smile sometimes when I say things like that," he said Friday.

Even opponents often find him charming, although not always. His client roster has brought scorn from some sectors. Local radio duo John Kobylt and Ken Chiampou, whose "The John and Ken Show" has shaped public opinion on a number of controversial issues, spent part of their AM 640 show last week ridiculing Geragos.

"If Mark Geragos represents you it means you're guilty," Kobylt said.

Geragos works long hours, six days a week, taking his preteen son and daughter to his office high in a downtown skyscraper on Saturdays, just as he went to the office with his own dad. A tight-knit Armenian family active in the local Armenian church and cultural groups, the Geragoses also work together. His brother, Matthew, joined the family law firm, Geragos & Geragos, practicing civil litigation.

A younger brother is an architect, a result, Geragos jokes, of being raised by a father who left the D.A.'s office to practice criminal law. "Defense attorneys are more creative than prosecutors," he said.

Geragos admits he takes losses hard. Usually, he has said, the hardest are "life-top cases," ones in which your client might never get out of prison. But Geragos also counts less serious charges among the hardest emotionally, when he believes his client has been treated unfairly.

He took on McDougal's case pro bono after his father said anyone who stood up to the Whitewater special prosecutor, Kenneth Starr, deserved to have someone stand up for her. Outraged to find that she was kept in shackles, while many violent felons were not, he lobbied for months to improve McDougal's conditions in prison.

During the Ryder trial, the actress occasionally arrived at the Santa Monica court in her lawyer's car. Geragos -- distinctive with his full mustache and combed back hair -- would usher Ryder into the building past a phalanx of media, placing his arm at the small of her back or wrapping it protectively around her shoulders.

When Ryder was convicted on felony shoplifting charges, which drew probation and a 480-hour community service sentence, Geragos said he blamed himself.

"I never second-guess juries," he said on "Larry King Live." "I second-guess myself all the time, but not juries."

Nancy Grace, former prosecutor for the Fulton County district attorney's office in Atlanta and a frequent Geragos sparring partner on "Larry King Live," called him "clever, slick and likable. He knows every trick in the book." Grace, who is a Court TV anchor, said Geragos is the type of lawyer she'd call if she were charged in a death penalty case.

Asked what persuaded him to change his mind in the Peterson case, Geragos cited the passion of Scott Peterson's parents, a meeting with Scott and finally a reading of a "parallel investigation" conducted by Peterson's previous defense attorney, Kirk McAllister. Geragos called its findings "eye-opening and mind-boggling."

Legal experts said Geragos already has launched his first order of business in the Peterson case, attempting to reshape public opinion of Scott Peterson. The defendant was so vilified in his hometown of Modesto that he was no longer staying at home, even before the discovery of the bodies of his wife and child.

For that reason, said the attorney's longtime friend Braun, the Petersons may have chosen wisely in hiring Geragos, who is adept at talking to the media and a veteran of opinion-setting talk shows. It will be an effort Braun likened to a "day-by-day political campaign."

A significant obstacle for Geragos may come in the form of a gag order issued by the judge, a possibility that Geragos said Friday is under consideration.

"If the judge imposes the gag order, you have a defendant that can't defend himself," Braun said. "The prosecution will still be able to make its case through police department leaks, but for the defense it's disaster."

Geragos said that, for now, he is concentrating on reading through thousands of documents compiled in the case. He said Friday he would be better able Monday to say whether he believed Peterson could get a fair trial in Modesto.

"If he has to try this case in Modesto, he's not going to be the hero," said Loyola law professor Laurie Levenson. "He's going to be the outsider ... the city slick lawyer who came in" to get Peterson off.

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Times staff writer Steve Berry contributed to this report.

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