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Mesereau's Fame Doesn't Alter Focus

The attorney who won Michael Jackson's acquittal sees himself as an advocate for the mistreated, especially in the black community.

November 23, 2005|Carla Hall | Times Staff Writer

It's hard to miss a 6-foot-2 white man in a black church -- especially a man with a shoulder-length mane of white hair. But on a Sunday at West Angeles Church of God in Christ, Thomas A. Mesereau Jr. was doing more than just getting noticed. The criminal defense attorney was causing a bit of a stir.

"Let me shake this hand!" said churchgoer Wayne Boylan, reaching out to him.

"Thank you for helping Michael!" gushed Valata Williams as she approached.

During the five months that Michael Jackson was on trial on child molestation charges, Mesereau was a fixture of daily TV footage, shown walking into and out of the courthouse. He rarely spoke or waved, his big, broad-shouldered frame encased in double-breasted suits, his layered hair flowing in the breeze.

Jackson's acquittal in June catapulted Mesereau from familiar face to legal star, the country's newest celebrity lawyer. It is a designation he detests.

"I have no desire to be Mr. Hollywood," he says.

Barely 10 years ago, Mesereau was in the process of retooling from mostly civil law to a criminal defense practice, even buying the videotape of Johnnie Cochran's closing statement in the O.J. Simpson criminal case to study a master at work.

Now, he stands to inherit Cochran's mantle as the defender of choice for people in big trouble. He continues to act as a kind of general counsel for Jackson, who is embroiled in civil litigation. And he won't say no to taking on another star.

But if Mesereau is going to be a celebrity -- inadvertent or otherwise -- he has decided the image he wants to project is as a defender of the mistreated, particularly blacks.

"My mother always told me, from a very early age, that black people are closer to God than we are," said Mesereau, who has taken Jackson as well as former client Robert Blake to church.

The 'we' refers to white people. "To survive the horrors of slavery and all the efforts to degrade and dehumanize black people, she always told me that black people developed a closer connection with God."

That may sound patronizing coming from an affluent white person, but over the last two decades, Mesereau, 55, has linked his identity to the black community, which in many ways is the place he calls home.

So he found himself sitting in another black church on a September night with the man who may be his next client: Tony Muhammad, a Nation of Islam community activist. Muhammad could face misdemeanor charges from the Los Angeles city attorney for his role in an altercation with Los Angeles police during a street prayer vigil in August that left him injured. Muhammad may also sue the city over the incident.

"I really wasn't looking for another case to take, but I'm outraged," said Mesereau, who offered his services to Muhammad pro bono. "I'm very offended that the LAPD would beat up one of the main peacemakers in the community."

Mesereau is a lot of firepower for a misdemeanor case. But it's more a cause than a case.

"I know what people don't know in other neighborhoods. And they know nothing about how you work with all these other races and religions," he said to Muhammad, as a cluster of activists stood around them before the start of an evening meeting at Bethel African Methodist Episcopal Church. "This is a city which is extremely segregated. People don't travel into other neighborhoods."

"That's real," Muhammad said.

"People need to know what you really do, particularly in this day and age, with Muslim-phobia, whatever you want to call it."

Muhammad laughed.

"They need to know you go to all these different churches and work with everybody," Mesereau said. "They don't know that."

"He's accepted as a lawyer without color," said Brian Dunn, a black attorney with the Cochran firm, which is also representing Muhammad for a possible civil suit.

Dunn marveled at Mesereau's ease as the only white person at a dinner of six that included Muhammad and Nation of Islam leader Louis Farrakhan. "These are two of the blackest black people -- and it's not like he's feeling self-conscious," said Dunn, who attended the dinner. "He was being himself. He wasn't trying to sound like a black man. He sounded like a white man."

Much of Mesereau's life since the Jackson verdict has been predictable: a lot of speeches to law groups and students, an appearance on "The Tonight Show With Jay Leno."

He will be featured on the Nov. 29 ABC special "Barbara Walters Presents: The 10 Most Fascinating People of 2005." And a high-powered agent is circulating his book proposal.

But he's also taken on the role of mediator. In the last few weeks, he has mounted a campaign to restore an outreach program between black churches and the Jewish community, calling pastors at various churches and a rabbi at the Reform synagogue, Temple Isaiah.

"I see myself as a facilitator," said Mesereau, who is neither Jewish (he was raised Catholic) nor, of course, black. "In my opinion, both communities need to understand each other and work with each other more."

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