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Always a Man of His Convictions

J. Tony Serra, a lawyer famous for fighting the government, is again sentenced to prison for tax evasion. It's a return he's taking in stride.

August 07, 2005|Lee Romney | Times Staff Writer

SAN FRANCISCO — He could have been sitting at his own funeral. J. Tony Serra -- the ponytailed, pot-smoking criminal defense attorney famous for fighting the government and celebrated in the 1989 film "True Believer" -- listened as a gallery of some of the Bay Area's most respected lawyers honored him.

He was praised as a humanist who practiced law out of love and saved the government "millions of dollars" with back-to-back pro bono cases, funded from his threadbare pocket. He was a "warrior" with a "touch of sainthood," "a national treasure" and a "hero."

The testimonials supplemented more than 100 pages of character letters submitted on Serra's behalf.

But ultimately it mattered little. U.S. Magistrate Judge Joseph Spero on July 29 sentenced Serra to 10 months in federal prison for willfully failing to pay taxes. It was Serra's third tax conviction in nearly three decades.

The showdown with the government in U.S.A. vs. Serra has offered a distilled look at an influential legal character who many agree is the last of a breed.

The 70-year-old Serra has represented -- with mixed results -- Black Panther leader Huey Newton, the Hells Angels, Symbionese Liberation Army soldier turned soccer mom Sara Jane Olson and hundreds of murderers and drug dealers driven to the fringes, he says, by sociopolitical forces.

He has won honors as one of the nation's best trial attorneys, earned the respect of adversaries and riled some judges with his hippie ways and overburdened schedule.

His tax offense, Serra said in an interview, is a point neither of pride nor shame, just the complex product of a man who, like everyone, is "compromised, flawed ... a bag of self-contradictions and reciprocating cancellations."

He is taking his sentence in stride. After all, he said, singing out, "I can do 10 months standing on my head.... The blacks love me, the whites love me, the Hispanics love me, the Asians love me. I talk law 24 hours a day. And I find the people in custody are far more interesting than the bourgeois people who populate society.

"I would rather get down with inmates," Serra rang out in the oratory style -- part poetry, pure conviction -- that helped make his mark in court. "They're interesting, they're dramatic, they've overstepped the bounds of society. Some of it is high principle; some of it is low principle. But these people are extraordinary. They're not ordinary. These are my people!"

If prison officials follow the court's recommendation, Serra will surrender in late January at Lompoc's Federal Correctional Institute, which he dismisses with typically pointed good humor as a "pleasure camp."

Serra knows. After failing to file tax returns in protest of the Vietnam War, he served four months there in 1976, meditating on a mantra that one of his brothers, famed sculptor Richard Serra, whispered in his ear during a prison visit. He also "read 26 novels, wrote lots of writs and practiced a lot of law."

In the years since, protest devolved into a mix of defiance and negligence. The eccentric praised for his intellect and passion never got around to paying.

A guilty plea for not filing returns prompted a second sentence -- in 1986 -- of one year in prison, suspended in favor of five years' probation. Serra has since filed returns but not paid.

The U.S. Justice Department's tax division handled the matter after the U.S. attorney's office in San Francisco -- where Serra's 6-foot, 2-inch frame and white mane are a common sight in federal and state courtrooms -- recused itself.

Though Serra owes nearly half a million dollars, he pleaded guilty in April to two misdemeanor counts of willfully failing to pay for 1998 and 1999. His plea agreement also calls for restitution of $100,000, which is his unpaid debt from 1997 through 2001. Serra has pledged to now pay his taxes -- along with restitution -- with help from friends.

In pressing for the harshest sentence -- a minimum 12 months in prison and a year of supervised release -- prosecutors pointed to Serra's "chronic and willful disregard for the tax laws," noting that he "has been candid about his desire to stick a figurative finger in the eye of the Internal Revenue Service."

Serra was savvy enough about money, they noted, to try to channel $74,500 from the "True Believer" film starring James Woods into a trust for his five children. The attempt was foiled when the IRS got to the money first.

Officials tried more recently to seize fees from a $4-million civil award to Earth First! activists who claimed persecution by police and federal agents. But Serra refused payment, instead allowing colleagues to accept what would have been his share, co-counsel Dennis Cunningham said.

A federal probation officer recommended five months' incarceration and five months of home detention.

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