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California and the West

State Justices Rule Ex-Criminal Unfit to Practice Law

Rehabilitation: Killer who overcame addictions, put himself through law school, has yet to prove his turnaround, court says.


SAN FRANCISCO — The son of a prominent San Francisco family who dramatically turned his life around after killing his younger sister 25 years ago and stealing to fuel a desperate drug addiction still is not fit to practice law, the California Supreme Court decided Monday.

Two state bar courts had ruled that Eben Gossage, 45, should be admitted to the California bar because he had rehabilitated himself after overcoming drug and alcohol addictions.

But the Supreme Court, citing 17 criminal convictions of Gossage, overturned those decisions. Gossage, now a developer, must show a longer period of unblemished conduct, the court ruled.

"Only a compelling showing of reform will suffice here," the court said.

The court did not base its decision on Gossage's conviction for the 1975 killing of his 19-year-old sister, Amy. Instead, the court cited Gossage's failure to clear up several traffic violations in more recent years and his omission of some offenses from his bar application.

Gossage put himself through college and law school after leaving prison for the last time at the age of 29. He passed the bar examination on his first try, volunteered for various community organizations and applied in January 1994 to become a lawyer.

Several public officials had urged the bar to admit Gossage, whose family was well-known here. Gossage's mother was a liberal social activist. His father, a nationally acclaimed advertising executive, was once described as "the cultural captain" of San Francisco and hung with the city's literary set. Both died when Gossage was a teenager.

Dist. Atty. Terence Hallinan, senate Democratic leader John Burton, Public Defender Jeff Brown and San Francisco Supervisor Sue Bierman had testified on Gossage's behalf during a trial in the state bar court.

Rejecting their recommendations, the state high court said Gossage may be licensed to practice law "only if the evidence shows that he is no longer the same person who behaved so poorly in the past, and only if he has since behaved in exemplary fashion over a meaningful period of time."

"This heavy burden is commensurate with the gravity of his crimes," the court said in its unsigned decision.

Ephraim Margolin, Gossage's lawyer, said he had hoped Gossage's case would send a message that sincere rehabilitation will be rewarded. Instead, he said, the court decided to be "punitive."

"You have this incredibly rare event of a person who pulls himself up by the shoestrings over a period of almost 20 years and becomes a productive member of society," Margolin said.

Gossage was unavailable for comment. He may still reapply for a legal license, although he would have to take the bar examination again. Margolin said Gossage's real estate work had made him a "millionaire," and he wasn't certain whether Gossage will apply again to the bar.

Jerome Braun, a senior executive with state bar admissions, said Monday's decision gratified bar officials. They had argued that Gossage had not demonstrated his moral fitness for the law at the time of his application six years ago.

If Gossage reapplies, the question will be "is he rehabilitated as of today?" Braun said. "It doesn't mean that he will never be able to be licensed in California," Braun said.

Gossage was drinking heavily, using drugs and stealing by the age of 16. His father died shortly after his 14th birthday and his mother died several years later. He and his sister lived on trust funds.

He was 20 when he killed her during a violent argument over who had been responsible for their alcoholic mother's death. Gossage said his sister threatened him with a hammer and scissors and he "overreacted" in defending himself.

After wrestling the hammer and scissors from her, Gossage bashed in her head with the hammer and then stabbed her corpse nearly 50 times with the scissors.

He pleaded self-defense in his murder trial, but a jury found him guilty of voluntary manslaughter. He served three years in prison.

Gossage achieved sobriety in 1983, after another term in prison, and entered college. During the six months before he began law school, Gossage repeatedly violated traffic laws and received several misdemeanors for mishandling those violations in court.

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