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COVER STORY

Spoiling for a Fight

For almost 30 years, Stephen Yagman has butted heads with authority. In some circles, he's a pariah; others see him as the last hope against bullies with badges.

June 28, 1998|HECTOR TOBAR | Hector Tobar is a Times staff writer. His first novel, "The Tattooed Soldier," was published by Delphinium Books last week

"My job is not to be popular; it is to do justice," he says in the quiet of his Venice Beach law office, where the walls are covered with mementos of his legal battles, including stark photos of clients showing off police-inflicted cuts and bruises. "Often, popularity and justice are at loggerheads."

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A handful of stunning victories have made Stephen Yagman 53, a legal legend. Arriving in Los Angeles in 1976, he represented ACLU clients in several cases involving alleged police misconduct. Then he did an about face in 1982 and represented Signal Hill police officer Jerry Lee Brown, once a suspect in the jail-cell death of Cal State Long Beach football star Ron Settles. There Yagman butted heads with a young Johnnie L. Cochran Jr., who was representing the Settles family and also rising in controversial prominence in Los Angeles. Yagman said he took that case "because I basically represent people who are underdogs."

From that point on, though, Yagman's reputation was tied to his skill at suing law officers accused of abusing their authority and similar misconduct. An erudite pit bull of the federal bar, Yagman developed a flair for the dramatic courtroom moment. Halfway through his 1990 lawsuit against five San Bernardino County sheriff's deputies, for example, he surprised the defense with a four-minute video, among the first instances of police brutality caught on tape. The videotape showed the deputies in all their baton- and fist-wielding splendor, beating a group of Mexican nationals who came to be known as the "Victorville Five." Yagman won a $1-million judgment and added a notch to his growing notoriety.

In 1992, he won a suit against the LAPD's secretive Special Investigations Section after officers shot and killed three men who had just held up a McDonald's in Sunland. Recently, he made himself the center of controversy again. Who but Yagman would find a worthy cause in Emil Matasareanu, the North Hollywood bank robber who bled to death after putting on body armor and peppering an entire neighborhood with gunfire on Feb. 28, 1997? Even Yagman's ex-wife and law partner, Marion, asked not to be a part of the case in which Yagman is suing the LAPD on behalf of Matasareanu's two young sons. As one lawyer put it in a letter to The Times: ". . . how can anyone possibly think this psychopath was a victim?"

"The potential penalty for the crimes that were committed wasn't death," Yagman says. "Therefore, the police had no right to decree the death sentence for the man they let bleed to death . . . . I dare say, there isn't another attorney in L.A. who would advocate [this] cause. I can't think of a better reason to take the case."

In filing that suit, Yagman named former Police Chief Daryl Gates as a defendant, even though Gates had retired almost five years before the shootout. Yagman now says that naming Gates in that case was a "mistake." But for Gates, it was emblematic of the "harassment" Yagman has inflicted on a legion of LAPD officers. "He purports to be a guy on a crusade who is holding the police to a very high standard," Gates says. "In my opinion, he is trying to make a buck. I don't think he gives a damn about his clients."

There are respected attorneys and judges, however, who call Yagman a hero, a guardian of the 14th Amendment, which protects us from the abuses of our own government. "This city can be divided, as far as civil rights, into two distinct divisions: pre-Yagman and post-Yagman," says retired federal magistrate Joseph Reichmann. "Before he came along, civil-rights lawyers in this city were fighting a real uphill battle."

Whether one views Yagman's fights as righteous or wrongheaded, however, there's no disputing his knack for attracting criticism. He is currently appealing a State Bar panel's recommendation that he be suspended from practice for one year because of the way he handled fees in the Sunland shootout lawsuit. In 1989, the State Bar handed him a six-month suspension for being "aggressive, hostile and forceful" with his clients. The same three adjectives could be used to describe his conduct during two widely publicized disputes with federal judges. In 1984, after Judge Manuel Real slapped him with a $250,000 fine for his courtroom behavior, Yagman told The Times that the judge suffered from "mental disorders" and compared him to the head of the Spanish Inquisition. (The fine, widely considered excessive, was overturned by an appeals court in 1986).

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