Luke McKissack dies at 72; L.A. criminal and civil rights lawyer


Luke McKissack, a prominent Los Angeles criminal defense and civil rights attorney whose clients included Sirhan B. Sirhan after his conviction for the assassination of Sen. Robert Kennedy and an Army private charged with the hand-grenade killing of two officers in Vietnam, has died. He was 72.

McKissack, who also was a TV legal analyst during the O.J. Simpson criminal trial, died Sunday of complications from brain cancer at his home in Los Angeles, said his son-in-law, Brian Chisholm.

During his more than 30-year career, McKissack served as the Black Panther Party’s chief counsel in Southern California and was chief counsel for the American Indian Movement, defending Native Americans against charges stemming from the occupation of Wounded Knee, S.D., in 1973.

McKissack joined the American Civil Liberties Union as a volunteer trial attorney in 1964.

McKissack also was one of two attorneys whom Charles Manson unsuccessfully sought to have act as co-counsel with him in late 1969 after a judge reluctantly granted Manson permission to represent himself at his trial on multiple murder charges. Manson’s motion to represent himself later was denied.

In his unpublished autobiography, McKissack said that in accepting Manson’s request to represent him, he saw the case as a great opportunity to put the death penalty on trial. He said he later resigned from working with Manson because of conflicts with his work with the Black Panthers and other clients.

Earlier in 1969, McKissack was one of three new lawyers retained by Sirhan to handle his request for a new trial and appeals to higher courts. McKissack became Sirhan’s chief defense attorney and continued to represent him in his attempts to gain parole for more than 20 years.

In 1972, McKissack headed the defense for Billy Dean Smith, a 24-year-old black private from Watts, who was charged with murdering two white lieutenants in their quarters at Bien Hoa, South Vietnam, in 1971 with a hand grenade. The blast also wounded another officer.

The Army, according to trial coverage in The Times, charged that Smith killed the two officers in an attempt to murder his artillery battery commander and first sergeant, who were mistakenly believed to be sleeping in the room. Smith also was charged with three counts of assault.

A general court-martial jury at Ft. Ord, Calif., acquitted Smith of all charges of murder or attempted murder and convicted him on a single charge of assaulting a military police officer who arrested him 90 minutes after the two officers were killed.

“He was a very fine defense lawyer,” attorney Vincent Bugliosi, chief prosecutor in the Manson murder case, said of McKissack. “He was a very bright guy and had a reputation for being very articulate.”

Gilbert Caton, a defense attorney who worked on various cases with McKissack, said he “was the brightest guy I ever met.”

He recalled that McKissack, an amateur magician, once used a “magic trick or two” during his closing argument in a trial.

“He was really quite extraordinary,” Caton said.

Indeed, when McKissack was trying a case, he was known to draw numerous lawyers and even judges into the courtroom to watch him argue a point of law or spellbind the jury.

McKissack was practicing law only part time when he began serving as chief legal analyst for KTTV-TV Channel 11 during the Simpson case in 1994.

Howard Rosenberg, The Times’ television critic, wrote that McKissack “is a natural, one of those rare finds for TV, someone who is effortlessly informative, lucid, incisive and even witty.”

McKissack was born Oct. 16, 1937, in Thomasville, Ga. He received a bachelor’s degree in political science and philosophy from the University of Florida in 1959. After graduating from UCLA School of Law in 1962, he began his career working briefly as a prosecutor.

He is survived by his third wife, Mariko; his daughters, Natsko McKissack, Mitsko Chisholm and Lana McKissack; and a grandson.