Extended Q&A; with Mark Geragos on his fight for Armenian Genocide victims

Zain Shauk

A set of news articles hangs on the walls of attorney Mark Geragos' office, a record of the high-profile cases he has argued.

A New York Times story, enlarged and affixed to a shelf display, bears the headline, "For Lawyer, It's Michael Jackson on Line 1, Scott Peterson on Line 2."

Other articles touch on his defense of Greg Anderson, a personal trainer caught up in a performance-enhancing drug investigation related to Barry Bonds and the Bay Area Laboratory Cooperative, and actress Winona Ryder, who was arrested on shoplifting charges in 2001.

The La Cañada resident recently defended singer Chris Brown, in a domestic violence case involving singer Rihanna, and is representing actress Nicole Richie in her suit involving a paparazzo who rear-ended her.

But for all of his headline-grabbing appearances alongside celebrities, Geragos says his passion has been fighting on behalf of Armenian Genocide victims.

He has fought more than 15 cases related to the genocide. Two recent cases sought payment from life insurance companies to descendants of genocide victims who held policies. Geragos and his team were able to negotiate settlements earning a combined total of $37 million, from AXA and New York Life Insurance Co.

A third case against German insurers Victoria Versicherung and Ergo Versicherungsgruppe, as well as parent company Munchener Ruckversicherungs-Gesellschaft AG, hit a major setback Aug. 20, when the U.S. 9th Circuit Court of Appeals ruled the descendants of the genocide victims could not seek payments on the policies.

Two of the three judges on the appellate panel argued the claims would interfere with U.S. foreign policy, since the federal government has not officially recognized the Armenian Genocide.

Zain Shauk: Your career has been defined largely by your work defending high-profile clients, but where does this Armenian Genocide-related case rank for you?

Mark Geragos: I could give you a laundry list of the people I've represented, but the cases I'm most proud of are the genocide litigation cases. All four of my grandparents are survivors and fled the genocide.

Q: Why have you been so invested in this cause?

A: My feeling is that this is a real way to make a difference in being a lawyer with something I feel passionately about as a human being. I could take any number of cases, and fortunately I can pick and choose what kinds of cases I want to take now, but a lot of them revolve around these Armenian insurance cases, Armenian bank cases and defending what they call the hai tahd, the Armenian cause.

Q: How do you hope to make a difference from these cases?

A: Well, I think there's been a fight, rightly or wrongly, for years over the genocide. Ronald Reagan called it a genocide. Congress passed two genocide resolutions. It's only recent generations of politicians that have kind of gone backward on this and that's because of the Turkish lobby and so I feel like that's really an affront. It's an affront to my grandparents' memory. It's an affront to what it is to be an Armenian and if I can do something in a legal forum I'm going to do it.

Q: You mentioned presidents and their stances on the genocide. President Obama, as you know on his campaign to be elected, he was very pro-genocide recognition —

A: And he said if he was elected he would make sure it passed. He said on April 24 he would call it a genocide. He came close. He used the Armenian words, Meds Yeghern, but he did not say that it was a genocide. He did, however, say that his opinion has not changed.

Q: What was your reaction when you didn't hear the word genocide?

A: My reaction was a fairly impassioned speech at Times Square to probably about 15,000 people that were there about "Shame on him."

Q: How do you feel about President Obama winning the Nobel Peace Prize, in light of his decision to not recognize the Armenian Genocide?

A: I think that it is shameful and I called it shameful that he didn't call it for what it is. It's a historical fact that it is a genocide. America loses its moral standing when we don't embrace that and we start to talk about shades of gray.

Q: You've had more than 5,000 claims made in the AXA case and about 10,000 claims are being evaluated by authorities, how much will each earn?

A: It varies depending on what their policy was. So if you had a policy that was 500 francs, that would get valued differently than if you had one that was 1,000 francs or if you had one that was 2,000 francs. Some people would make up to $20,000.

Q: Twenty thousand dollars per claim, or in total?

A: It depended. It could be as low as $500. It could be as high as $20,000. For a family it could be as much as $50,000 if a number of family members had claims.

Q: That seems low for a life insurance claim. What has been your motivation in pursuing these relatively small payments?

A: The policies remember back then, those were small amounts of policies for people who weren't making that much on a yearly basis. I mean, if they had a 500-franc policy, these were people who might have been making 500 francs in two years. Back then it would have been a monumental amount of money. Twenty-thousand dollars before 1920, as my father used to say, was real money. Back then, in the 1920s, and leading up to the Depression, you were considered practically a millionaire if you made $10,000 in a year. So those were huge numbers back then when you look at it.

The other thing is that out of the almost $40 million we've recovered so far, probably $12 to $13 million of that has gone straight to charities. And the reason for that is, interestingly, 40 to 45% of the policies have no claims whatsoever against them, which means that the Turks had completely wiped out the entire lineage of that family. In fact, if you went and looked at the policy cards—I was a sociology and anthropology major in college and my father used to say it was useless, but the one thing it did teach me is I would look and I would notice the name of the person who was insured. It would have their occupation, you know butcher or baker, and it would have the wife and kids' names. And then it would show the village that they were from and the dates that their premiums were paid, and their premiums were usually paid in gold coins.

I actually at one point could track village-by-village when the payments stopped being made and you could see the progression of the genocide through the insurance policy cards and it was a stunning thing to see.

Q: When two of three federal appellate court judges ruled against you, they argued that your case shouldn't interfere with U.S. foreign policy. If the government hasn't taken a stance on the genocide can you successfully sue on the grounds that a genocide took place?

A: Absolutely. It's just kind of a beside the point argument. The dissent got it right. The dissent said what difference does it make what the American policy is toward Turkey? These are lawsuits against a German company and the German company should be held accountable.

Q: It doesn't matter whether a genocide occurred or not, you're saying.

A: I mean the fact is the genocide did happen, but to inject that into the lawsuit, in some ways, I think, is a red herring in order to try to defend on that basis. I mean it's like somebody saying, "Hey, you owe me money." And me bringing up some completely irrelevant fact and saying, "I'm not going to pay you because the Dodgers won last night." What does that have to do with anything?

Q: Are you hoping this case influences foreign policy?

A: Yes, I think it goes a long way toward galvanizing public opinion on foreign policy.

Q: You've represented a number of celebrities and a lot of them were being ridiculed in tabloids as the cases were underway. What was the most circus-like atmosphere that you've experienced?

A: That is a good question. Actually, each time one of these cases happens it gets more circus-like. And the most recent, obviously, was Chris Brown and that's obviously the most circus-like atmosphere I've ever seen.

Q: How so?

A: The criminal courts building for an appearance of him would be completely surrounded by thousands of people. The amount of security that we needed to get in and out of the courthouse was astronomical. The day that Rihanna was there it was the same thing. I mean, it was just an unbelievable melee, in terms of the amount of people that were there, that were watching, that were focused on it.

Q: Your career of high-profile cases began with the defense of Susan McDougal, related to the Whitewater scandal involving Bill Clinton. How did you get to that point and beyond?

A: The Susan McDougal case, it was someone from the Women Lawyers Assn. in Los Angeles called me up. I was actually representing four different women who were charged with murder in the 1990s. She was being held in a place called Civil Brand. I visited her one day and we hit it off. I just thought I could help her get it resolved. She just had a little case out here. That was when nobody knew who Susan McDougal was. The next thing you know, it became an international sensation with Whitewater and she got indicted on that. We won those cases, those back-to-back trials, got acquittals on both of them, and it just kind of snowballed from there.

Q: What is it like representing celebrities that vary so much in their backgrounds, from a personal trainer to the king of pop?

A: They're like everybody else, in the sense that they've got hopes, they've got fears and they want to be reassured. People really are not all that different. Everybody's got the same anxieties about what they're facing and that's part of our job is to try and reduce that anxiety, find some way to get them extricated out of a difficult situation.

Q: How do you deal with media criticism of your clients?

A: I'm very protective of my clients. I don't stand for it at all. It's one of the reasons that sometimes I become polarizing is because I will defend those clients until my last breath. Nobody messes with my clients.

Q: When would you say you were polarizing?

A: I would say the Scott Peterson case was a very polarizing case. People had strong emotions about that. They didn't like the fact that I defended him. People wanted him to fry. It was the greatest prejudgment of guilt that I've seen in any case in the last 30 years, but I don't have any apologies for that. I mean when I represent a client and I believe in my client, I'll do whatever it takes to defend them.

Q: You also defended a USC student who was accused of murdering her newborn child when she left it in a trash bin behind a restaurant.

A: Yes, Holly Ashcraft in a murder case, which we got dismissed five times. That was a very polarizing case as well and I have no apologies for that. I love Holly to death and her mother, her sister and I did everything ethically and legally possible to get those charges dismissed and we prevailed. Three straight times we got the murder charges thrown out.

Q: You think that was the right thing to do?

A: It was the absolute right thing to do.

Q: Do you sometimes hear criticisms from people who you wouldn't expect to be critical?

A: Yeah, all the time. But you know, a lot of that is jealousy and I understand that. A lot of that is ignorance and I understand that, but if you don't have thick skin, you can't do what I do.





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