The name sounded familiar, but I couldn't place Irving Kanarek. Even after several calls and letters, imploring me to air his gripe with the State Bar of California, the name still didn't register.
His grievance was too esoteric and I put him off--but his passion and persistence carried the day. I told him I'd take a closer look at the material he'd sent, and then checked our files to see why his name rang a bell.
Charles Manson's former lawyer.
Conditioned these days to celebrity lawyers, it's hard to believe that the man seated across from me in the fast-food restaurant defended one of America's most notorious criminals. Someone forgot to punch his ticket to fame and fortune.
The man at the table has lived the last year in a Garden Grove motel. Before that, it was four years in a Costa Mesa motel. Now 28 years since the Manson trial, Irving Kanarek is 78 years old and his curly white hair has receded, a la Henry Kissinger. He sports wisps of white whiskers and is missing some teeth. He walks with a limp he got from being hit by a car several years ago. He's had bouts with mental illness and cancer, but says he feels fine. He lives on Social Security and says he can't afford a car. He carries a briefcase that's hard to close and he can't see much without his glasses. When I ask him how he fills up his days, living in a motel without a car, he says that getting around by bus can chew up a lot of hours.
There are people, no doubt, who think that whatever setbacks have come to Kanarek are payback for defending Manson, convicted as the mastermind behind the seven Tate-LaBianca murders that jolted Los Angeles and the nation in August 1969.
In "Helter Skelter," the best-selling book about the Manson murders and trial, prosecutor/author Vincent Bugliosi wrote that Kanarek's reputation preceded him. He was the lawyer legendary for dragging out even the most mundane of cases. Bugliosi feared that a Kanarek-led defense would drag the Manson case out for years.
"I don't know if I was legendary," Kanarek says. "I get a kick out of practicing law. In the atmosphere of a courtroom, there is an adversary process. And where you have the adversary process, blood flows."
When Linda Kasabian, the former Manson "family" member who became the prosecution's star witness, was sworn in, Kanarek shouted, "Object, your honor, on the grounds this witness is not competent and she is insane!"
Later, when Kasabian testified she'd taken 50 LSD trips, Kanarek asked her to describe trip number 23. Bugliosi objected on the admittedly non-legal grounds that the question was "ridiculous."
Amid the carnival-like atmosphere of the Manson trial, Kanarek was much more than a bit player. Although Bugliosi referred to Kanarek in his summation as "the Toscanini of tedium" and chided his tactics throughout the book, he also gave him his due. "The press focused on his bombast and missed his effectiveness," Bugliosi wrote.
In the book, Bugliosi repeated an old story in which Kanarek objected as soon as a prosecution witness was asked to state his name. The man first heard his name from his mother, Kanarek claimed, which made it hearsay.
Kanarek shrugs at the anecdote, saying context is missing. "One man's obstructionist is another man's hero," he says.
"He is a lawyer devoted to the cause of his clients, and brutally honest," says George Denny, a longtime Kanarek friend and his former attorney. "He sometimes loses the forest for the trees, and he will take a point to extremes. That's what terrorizes judges. He's on the cutting edge in many cases."
All of this should be said in past tense, however, because Kanarek is not a lawyer anymore.
That is what galls him and what drives him as his life winds down in a seeming blizzard of medical assaults.
He hasn't practiced since November of 1989 when, in his own words, "I flipped out." Beset by personal problems, Kanarek was admitted to the Harbor-UCLA Medical Center for psychiatric treatment.
He's uncertain how long he stayed there and says he then spent another couple years after his release in a "rest home." But by the time he regained his mental faculties, he says, he had lost his law practice and the State Bar paid out three claims against him from former clients totaling $40,500.
Kanarek says all three claims are bogus but that he is powerless to fight the bar. He wants the state to create a new position, along the lines of an inspector general, to oversee attorneys who handle the bar's disciplinary actions.
"I want to practice law, and they've done a Salman Rushdie on me," Kanarek says, biting off the words. "They're forcing me to pay back money I never owed. . . . They gave away $40,500, which put a yoke around my neck."