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The State

Geragos Steps Onto International Stage

As attorney for Michael Jackson and Scott Peterson, the lawyer will find himself juggling two high-profile -- and high-stakes -- cases.

November 21, 2003|Jean Guccione and Michael Krikorian | Times Staff Writers

If he is not one already, Mark Geragos, singer Michael Jackson's chosen defender, is on his way to becoming one of those rare lawyers recognizable everywhere, like Johnnie L. Cochran during the O.J. Simpson trial.

Fans of cable news programs such as "Larry King Live" probably already recognize the Los Angeles lawyer whose clients include Winona Ryder and Scott Peterson. But he has stepped onto a much bigger, international stage as Jackson's chief legal defender.

He also will be among the few attorneys who have grabbed the spotlight in two high-profile criminal cases that generate intense media interest at the same time, according to experts.

Though all lawyers juggle cases, the idea of simultaneously defending Jackson and Peterson -- the Modesto man charged with killing his pregnant wife, Laci, and the son she was carrying last year -- is turning heads because the stakes in high-publicity cases are huge.

"With the Peterson jury, you'd have to be careful they wouldn't identify you with the Michael Jackson case," said criminal defense attorney Harland W. Braun, who has represented actor Robert Blake and other high-profile criminal defendants. "And with the Jackson jury, you'd have to be careful that they wouldn't identify you with the Scott Peterson case"

Geragos will have to delve into those attitudes during jury selection to make sure "an association of one client won't affect another client's representation," said Gordon Greenberg, a criminal defense lawyer.

Potential jurors, he said, could be asked broad questions that might reveal their true feelings, such as, Do you know the lawyers? Do you have strong feelings based on the lawyer's other clients?

Geragos' involvement in the Jackson case might cause concern -- even a rivalry -- with his other clients, particularly those paying for Peterson's defense.

"I'm sure the Peterson family is not happy. They must worry that his energies might be deflected toward this even higher-profile client," said law professor Stephen Gillers of New York University. They also might be asking, "Is his heart going to follow his pocketbook?" Gillers added.

Geragos scoffed at the notion that the Peterson family was upset because he also was handling Jackson.

"Jackie Peterson [Scott's mother] said, and this is a quote, 'I'm so happy for Michael Jackson that he gets to have Mark defend him also,' " Geragos said.

Traveling, preparing for cases, dealing with the media and having a personal life can be tiring, though.

Those who know Geragos are confident.

"He knows how to put forth a positive public face even when initially these cases might be very difficult -- both when it comes to client management issues and legal work -- to try to win the case," said Dana M. Cole, a criminal defense lawyer who represented Blake's former co-defendant, Earle S. Caldwell.

"Mark has a staff of attorneys. He delegates responsibility. As long as the trials don't occur at the same time, it can be done," Cole said.

Besides the obvious, he suggested that a key to Geragos' success might include hiring a good travel agent to shuttle him among his office in Los Angeles, the Peterson trial in Modesto, and Santa Barbara, where the Jackson case is pending.

Greenberg said dealing with dozens of cases in various stages of investigation and trial is so much a part of a lawyer's job that one year his firm gave sets of inscribed juggling balls to their clients as a reminder of how they must operate.

Jackson's choice of such a well-known lawyer could work to his advantage, experts said, because some potential jurors might be awed by Geragos' celebrity.

"Most people assume that the reason he gets these cases is because he's at the top of his field," said Lara M. Giese, a senior trial consultant with TrialGraphix. "Michael Jackson can hire anyone he wants, and he has chosen Mark Geragos."

Gerry Spence, a noted Wyoming trial lawyer, said jurors might have an opinion of an attorney when they walk in the courtroom, but "those things usually vanish" during trial.

Regardless of celebrity, "you have to prove yourself to a jury," Spence said.

Paul Geragos, who founded the 11-member law firm in 1967, said his 45-year-old son and law partner lives for the challenges. "He thrives on having a problem to solve," the father said.

"Ever since the Susan McDougal case, which first brought national attention to his talents, he's been piling on one success after the other," the elder Geragos said, referring to the woman accused of theft and obstruction of justice after becoming a target of the Whitewater investigation during the Bill Clinton presidency.

Most lawyers are used to representing unpopular clients. They know the public sometimes associates them with their clients, or worse, their clients' alleged crimes.

In this case, a pop star is accused of sexually molesting a boy.

Donald H. Steier, a criminal defense lawyer who represents a number of Roman Catholic priests accused of molesting children, predicted that Geragos' image will precede him in this case.

"Is this case going to hurt his reputation?" Steier asked. "Ultimately, if he prevails, he will become a superstar. Ultimately, if he wins, it will only enhance his national reputation."

Geragos said Thursday that he will have no problem defending Jackson and Peterson simultaneously.

"It is not much different than what I normally do except there is more dealing with the media," Geragos said.

Jackson and Peterson are not his only current cases. Today, he said, he will be in court downtown for jury selection in an unheralded Los Angeles murder case.

"There's a reason I get up in the morning and run three to six miles every day and lift weights at night," Geragos said.

"If you're a trial lawyer, it doesn't get much better than this."

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