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Legal team misled convicted rapist, witnesses testify

Andrew Luster, the great-grandson of cosmetics magnate Max Factor, is seeking a sentence reduction and a new trial at a hearing in Ventura County.

February 21, 2013|By Steve Chawkins, Los Angeles Times
  • One witness said a member of Andrew Luster's legal team advised his client to flee instead of face rape charges. Above, Luster is led out of the U.S. customs building at LAX in 2003 after being caught in Mexico.
One witness said a member of Andrew Luster's legal team advised his… (Gina Ferazzi / Los Angeles…)

Andrew Luster was misled by members of a legal team who urged him to flee the country rather than face rape charges, according to witnesses in a court hearing Wednesday.

Luster, the great-grandson of cosmetics magnate Max Factor, was convicted in absentia and is in court this week seeking a reduction in his 124-year sentence, as well as a new trial. The hearing, which is being held at the Ventura County Courthouse before retired Los Angeles County Superior Court Judge Kathryne Ann Stoltz, is expected to last into next week.

Luster fled in 2003, while out on bail on charges related to videotaped sexual encounters with unconscious women. Months later, bounty hunter Duane "Dog" Chapman apprehended him at a taco stand in Puerto Vallarta, Mexico. Chapman went on to star in a TV reality show, while Luster went to Mule Creek State Prison in Ione, Calif.

A state appeals court last spring agreed that Luster's unusually long sentence should be reconsidered in light of claims that he had been poorly represented "in a textbook case of grasping lawyers seeking fame and fortune."

In a blue jail jumpsuit and orange T-shirt, the 49-year-old former surfer smiled at his old friend Darryl Genis, one of several witnesses who appeared Wednesday. A Santa Barbara attorney who specializes in DUI cases, Genis recounted how the two met while surfing at Hollister Ranch, where they occasionally ate sandwiches together.

Offering Luster apologies for his candor, Genis testified that his old surfing buddy was "childlike" and failed to comprehend that he could be sentenced to more than 100 years.

Luster had been "able to live a life on vacation", Genis said, never rooting himself in such concerns as earning a living. Dealing realistically with the court system and accepting a possible 8- to 12-year plea deal were made more difficult by a member of Luster's defense team who misled Luster by "painting a picture that was pure fantasy," Genis said.

Attorney Joel Isaacson "was talking about the case as if it were in L.A.," Genis said. When asked to clarify, Genis said that Ventura County juries were "absolutely biased" against Los Angeles lawyers. He said Isaacson frightened Luster, telling his client he'd likely be killed in prison. Luster was uncertain whether he should agree with team members who urged him to consider a guilty plea or Isaacson, who urged him to fight, Genis said.

"In his own childlike way, he tried to do a cost-benefit analysis," Genis said of Luster.

Luster's financial advisor, Albert Gersh, had particularly harsh words for Richard G. Sherman, a Luster attorney who he said advised his client to head for the border. Sherman, who died in 2011, and one of his investigators "encouraged him to leave the country … they said he'd be murdered in prison," Gersh said.

The financial advisor said he told Luster that fleeing was "the stupidest idea I'd ever heard."

In court, deputy Dist. Atty. Michelle Contois expressed skepticism that Luster bolted only because Sherman and his investigator frightened him with repeated tales of death behind bars.

"Luster could have terminated their services if he didn't like the advice he was getting," she said.

steve.chawkins@latimes.com

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