George Shibley says he was "a sissy" when it came to defending Charles Manson. "I wouldn't represent Manson," said Shibley, 75. "The crime was too horrible."
Sirhan Sirhan was a different story. So were the 24 defendants in the Sleepy Lagoon case who were charged in a 1942 murder dramatized in the play and movie "Zoot Suit."
Shibley, who lives and works in Long Beach, states his case for working for such defendants simply: "I felt they were entitled to a fair trial, and I thought I could get it for them."
In 50 years of law practice, Shibley developed a reputation for defending the underdog--and winning. Over the years, Shibley has represented virtually every labor union in the harbor area except the Teamsters. Now 75, with no plans to retire, Shibley specializes in personal injury and wrongful death suits.
Not one of the 100 or so murder suspects he defended was sentenced to the gas chamber.
"I never had what I considered a defeat," Shibley said. "I generally followed the rule . . . in murder cases that unless I could find some legal or moral justification for what they were alleged to have done, I didn't take the case."
Despite his success record, many of Shibley's memories have the same punch line: "I never saw a dime."
Shibley's surroundings bear him out. He drives an ordinary white Chevrolet, and practices law with sons Jonathan and William in the same downtown building where he established his practice in 1935 after graduating from Stanford.
The offices are casual and cluttered. His son Jonathan wears blue jeans to work, and Shibley's dogs, Scorpio and Pepe, hop into the laps of waiting visitors.
Shibley, the son of Lebanese immigrants, has penetrating brown eyes, thick white hair, and a sharp memory. He recounts with relish tales of evidence he uncovered after police and prosecutors overlooked it--and in the telling, gives a glimpse into his skill.
It was Shibley's refusal to accept the prevailing notions about the Sleepy Lagoon defendants that caused him to mount a vigorous defense that cost him $10,000 of his own money and led to their eventual release.
Shibley, then 32, had just won a substantial back-pay settlement for striking workers of Ford Motor Co. in Long Beach.
Sleepy Lagoon was a swimming hole and a lovers' lane near where Atlantic Boulevard crosses the Los Angeles River.
On Aug. 2, 1942, a young Mexican national named Jose Diaz was found dead near Sleepy Lagoon. Twenty-four youths, all but one of them Chicanos, were indicted and 12 were convicted of first-degree murder. Shibley entered the case a week after the trial began and represented six defendants.
The arrests and convictions occurred against a backdrop of extreme racial prejudice, which was fanned by local newspapers. By today's standards, the trial was patently unfair; defendants were severely restricted from conferring with their attorneys and denied clean clothing and haircuts until late in the trial.
Shibley, one of seven defense lawyers, raised nearly all the objections. Although the defendants were convicted, the objections were the basis of the appeal that resulted in their release. The appellate court ruling established a defendant's right to participate in his own defense.
"Depending on how you look at it, the case made me famous or infamous," Shibley said. "It also made the forces of law and order hate me."
The trial later became the basis of the Luis Valdez play "Zoot Suit" and the Universal Studios movie of the same name, in which Charles Aidman played the part of Shibley.
He was once accused of being a communist in open court, but Shibley calls himself a "Christian socialist." In 1934, he campaigned for Upton Sinclair, the socialist author who ran for governor of California.
In 1968, Robert F. Kennedy was his man.
But in keeping with his philosophy of representing unpopular defendants, Shibley agreed when Mary Sirhan asked him to help her son after he was sentenced to the gas chamber for the 1968 assassination of Kennedy.
Shibley joined two other lawyers who appealed the case to the California Supreme Court. One of the grounds was that, in California, juries had too much discretion in imposing the death penalty. However, Sirhan's sentence was reduced to life in prison when, acting in another case in 1972, the state Supreme Court said the state Constitution prohibits the death penalty as cruel and unusual punishment.
Shibley found Sirhan "very smart, but traumatized."
Like some of those he has defended, Shibley has seen prison from the inside. In 1957, his vigorous defense of a Marine Corps sergeant led, by a circuitous route, to Shibley's conviction for conspiring to steal government documents. Shibley maintains that the charges were contrived. The California Supreme Court allowed him to continue to practice law, suspending him from the bar during part of the 18 months he was in prison, he said.