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For the Defense : Massip Trial Bolsters Reputation of a Top Defense Attorney

September 09, 1989|ERIC LICHTBLAU | Times Staff Writer

Counseling a client awaiting trial for murder two years ago, Milton C. Grimes sat stunned as the young white defendant across from him in the jail holding cell suddenly became enraged, spat in his face and called him a racial epithet. For the Milt Grimes of 15 or 20 years ago--an intensely emotional Southern native who led black student demonstrations, proudly gave his son an African name and early in his career introduced virulent courtroom arguments about racial bias and the Constitution into even the most mundane proceeding--the response to such an incident would no doubt have been extreme.

"I would never have thought back then that I could let a white man spit on me and call me a nigger and not tear that guy apart," Grimes says now.

But on that day two years ago, the normally fiery Grimes quietly wiped his face off with a handkerchief and said in a soft voice to the defendant: "Now just calm down. Tell me why you did that."

And he went on with the business at hand.

Grimes, 44, chuckles as he tells the story of that still-pending murder case, even now seemingly amazed that he did not "take the guy out in the parking lot and let him have it."

For the grandson of a North Carolina sharecropper, the altercation marked "a true test of the maturing, the growth" of a man who once angrily saw the world in schemes of only black and white, he says now.

If high-profile cases and public recognition are any yardstick of that maturation process, Grimes seems to have passed the test.

Still proud and intensely conscious of his position as one of just a handful of prominent black lawyers in a county with a black population estimated at 2%, the Milt Grimes of today has become an integral part of a county community that he once saw as inherently hostile and inaccessible to minorities.

And in the process, defending people of varied ethnic and racial backgrounds, he has earned an expanding and profitable reputation as one of the top criminal defense attorneys in the county: He has worked his way into the inner circle of about a dozen defense lawyers who handle death-penalty cases.

It is a reputation that Grimes now focuses increasingly in the area of mental-illness defenses, fueled by the success and attention he gained in defending Sheryl Lynn Massip, the former Anaheim woman who ran over her son with a car, then said she had been suffering from postpartum psychosis.

And it is a reputation that he will again put to the test in coming months in another emotional case that promises intense local coverage: his defense of Richard Lucio DeHoyos, accused of abducting, sexually molesting, then killing 9-year-old Nadia Puente of Santa Ana in March.

As Grimes has continued his ascent in the legal ranks, becoming a popular speaker at conferences around the country as a result of the Massip case, he has also become a target for some in the legal community who privately criticize what they see as a tendency toward legal "theatrics"--a flare for emotional appeals, expensive clothes and courtroom showmanship.

But increasingly more common is the view held by such fixtures in the legal community as Myron S. Brown, presiding criminal judge in the Superior Court: "He's a charismatic personality and one of the attorneys for whom I have the greatest respect and one of the ones I like best."

If there is one key to his growing success, Grimes said, it has been his ability to come to terms with his race, a subject that he seems inevitably to introduce into conversations on myriad topics.

The pictures of Martin Luther King and African art that adorn his Santa Ana office and Costa Mesa home, the works of such black writers as Toni Morrison and James Baldwin that line his shelves, the attention to racial issues that he is still quick to introduce into his legal arguments, the mocking impressions of blacks whom he criticizes for "disguising" their roots--all speak to Grimes' continued sensitivity to matters of race.

But that focus, he says, is now diminished. "I am a black man, but I am also a professional black man, and I want to be a professional first," Grimes says. "I think I've only now gotten comfortable with getting by the race thing well enough that I don't have to dwell on it, which was never true before."

Indeed, it was a very different Grimes who 15 years ago graduated from law school and anxiously weighed an offer to join a private law firm in Orange County.

After all, Orange County presented a radically different life style from the North Carolina fields where he first helped pick crops at age 5; from northern Virginia, where he attended all-black schools, met his wife, Elouise, and went to college, and from San Francisco, where he led black student rallies, marches and office takeovers while at Hastings College of the Law.

Grimes had seen Orange County first hand for two years as a computer programmer at North American Rockwell, and so contrary was that memory to his own history and beliefs that he recalls thinking at the time:

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