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THE JACKSON VERDICTS

Attorney's Career Has Had Plenty of High Stakes and High Pressure

Besides representing celebrities, Mesereau has volunteered in Southern death-penalty trials.

June 14, 2005|Richard Fausset and Jean Guccione | Times Staff Writers

Fifteen years ago, Thomas A. Mesereau Jr. was plotting his escape from a frustrating career as a corporate litigator. One day, he shared his plan with an old law-school buddy.

"He said, 'I'm going to read every book by every famous criminal defense lawyer, and I'm going to become a famous criminal defense lawyer,' " recalled Dana Cole. "I just sort of rolled my eyes and said, 'Good luck.'

"But now, of course, he is the world's most famous criminal defense lawyer. It was a self-fulfilling prophecy."

No one knows whether Michael Jackson's waning career will be revived by Monday's acquittal, but it has certainly burnished the reputation of Mesereau, the pop singer's lead defense attorney.

The silver-haired litigator was a relative unknown even in the Los Angeles legal community until three years ago, when actor Robert Blake hired him. Now, a world audience has witnessed the attorney's decisive victory for an eccentric client whose fate at the hands of a Santa Maria jury was by no means a given.

"It's one of the biggest cases of the decade, and he won the case outright," said veteran criminal defense lawyer Harland W. Braun. "It looked like a difficult case, given Jackson's history and strange conduct and strange looks and everything ... [but Mesereau ] was able to handle the cards he was dealt very deftly."

In hiring the attorney, Jackson got a lawyer familiar with high pressure and high stakes. In addition to representing celebrities, he has volunteered his services representing defendants in death-penalty cases.

It is a unique background that may have helped the 55-year-old New York native win the respect of Jackson and his entourage, and in turn help keep them subdued and focused during the trial.

"He's got all of these different factions trying to pull [Jackson] in different directions," Braun said. "Given Tom's background and all the legal work he's done with the disadvantaged, and with the African American community, that gave him the gravitas to control the defense ship."

Long before Jackson was ever drawn into court, Mesereau, a former Harvard boxer, gained a reputation in Southern California's black community for representing prominent figures, including former heavyweight champion Mike Tyson, and offering free legal advice to the poor.

It took him years before he found his calling as a criminal defense lawyer. Mesereau came from a military family, and his grandfather was disappointed when he chose Harvard over West Point for undergraduate studies.

Mesereau studied international relations at the London School of Economics before earning his law degree from the University of California's Hastings College of the Law in San Francisco. He did a brief stint in Washington, D.C., both on Capitol Hill and at a law firm, then tried his hand as a prosecutor in Orange County.

As a defense attorney, he represented former Compton Councilwoman Patricia Moore in fighting extortion and income fraud charges. She was convicted but sentenced to 33 months -- 24 months less than federal prosecutors had sought -- in 1997.

Two years later, a judge dismissed the case against another Mesereau client, Larry Carroll, a former KCBS-TV Channel 2 newscaster who had been charged with investment fraud.

The attorney also persuaded San Bernardino County authorities in 2001 not to file rape charges against Tyson.

About the same time, Mesereau began volunteering to represent defendants accused of murder and facing possible execution in Alabama and other Southern states.

He persuaded one jury to convict a 24-year-old mother of the lesser crime of manslaughter in the beating death of her 22-month-old daughter. He convinced another jury to acquit a homeless black man in a racially charged case of a murdered 21-year-old white woman.

In another case, a mentally ill man who confessed to murder during a home-invasion robbery not only escaped execution but also was made eligible for parole after just seven years in prison.

Although he didn't represent Blake in court during the actor's murder trial, Mesereau won an early victory when he persuaded the judge to free the former "Baretta" star while awaiting trial. After the acquittal, Blake thanked the attorney for his help.

It was a twist of fate that brought Mesereau and Jackson together. The singer had wanted Mesereau to represent him, but the lawyer was busy with Blake's defense. Mesereau abruptly quit the Blake case in February 2004, citing irreconcilable differences, about the same time that Jackson dismissed attorney Mark Geragos.

Now that Mesereau has had a turn in the limelight, he has experienced some of the unpleasantness that goes with celebrity trials -- including his loss of privacy and the second-guessing from legal experts in the media who don't always know what they are talking about, said Jennifer Keller, another law-school classmate.

"I would say this experience has made him somewhat disdainful of the whole celebrity lawyer routine," she said. "He thinks lawyers should be lawyers and they should do things for the client, not for themselves."

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