Attorney Thomas Mesereau ’79 is no stranger to the limelight, having defended such famous—and infamous—stars as Michael Jackson, Robert Blake, and Suge Knight. But it’s his work with far lesser known clients that cements his reputation as the last line of defense for the “despised and unpopular.”
What Thomas Mesereau ’79 really wants to talk about is the pro bono stuff. Sure, he’ll discuss successfully defending Michael Jackson in 2005 from 14 charges—including 10 felonies—related to child molestation allegations. Or any of the other controversial celebrities he has agreed to defend, such as Robert Blake, Mike Tyson, and Suge Knight. In fact, he relishes recounting tales about the wide swath of society he’s represented, from highly successful real estate agents charged with federal mortgage fraud to alleged gangbangers in grisly murder cases.
But what truly animates the UC Hastings law school graduate—what he keeps returning to in conversation —are his pro bono activities, from the free legal clinic he founded in South L.A. bearing his name to his volunteer work in Southern states for the past 18 years, representing defendants in capital murder cases.
In fact, he has just returned from Birmingham, Ala., where he defended Patrick Johnson pro bono in the retrial for the shooting death of off-duty police officer Keary Hollis. Security footage showed Hollis accidentally backed into Johnson’s parked motorcycle, and when Hollis started to drive away, Johnson went after the car and, out of camera range, fatally shot him. The first trial (in which Mesereau also represented Johnson) resulted in a hung jury. This time, Johnson was convicted of felony murder but acquitted of the greater charge of capital murder.
His commitment to providing a defense to all has earned Mesereau success, fame, and recognition, which is made clear by one look at his office wall studded with awards and commemorations, such as the Criminal Defense Lawyer of the Year, given by the Los Angeles Criminal Courts Bar Association, and the Humanitarian Award given by the National Association of Blacks in Criminal Justice. The Litigation Counsel of America’s annual award, which honors the country’s top criminal defense lawyer, is called the Mesereau Cup. He was also recently named the 2016 Criminal Defense Trial Lawyer of the Year at the annual Trial Lawyers Summit in Miami.
But Mesereau has also received plenty of flak from some corners of the legal community that take aim at his willingness to defend the seemingly indefensible. As in his court cases, he has a quick response to such criticisms. “I was raised to believe that the highest calling of a lawyer is to represent the despised and the unpopular,” he said, “and I still believe that.”
He also admits he likes uphill battles. “I’ve always told young lawyers that if you want to develop your skills, try impossible cases,” he added. “Don’t just try cases you think you can win. Try cases nobody thinks you can win.”
BEGINNINGS IN CRIMINAL LAW
At 6 foot 2 with a broad-shouldered frame draped in custom-made suits and bright Versace ties, Mesereau cuts an imposing figure, but undoubtedly what most people first notice is his hair. Mesereau, 65, sports a free-flowing shoulder-length white mane, one more commonly associated with professional wrestlers, musicians, or gladiators than with an attorney tussling with prosecutors.
“I think many lawyers look so boring, trying to look the same,” he said with a shrug. “And I like long hair.”
Mesereau was born at the U.S. Military Academy at West Point. His father served in World War II as a parachute battalion commander and appears in a famous photo of Gen. Douglas MacArthur on the Battleship Missouri, accepting the Japanese surrender. “My parents were compassionate people,” Mesereau said. “They taught me not to look down on anybody.”
He attended Harvard, got a master’s degree from the London School of Economics, enrolled at UC Hastings—and almost immediately took a leave of absence to explore the possibility of becoming a foreign correspondent.
He returned to UC Hastings a year later and enjoyed what he calls its “real world” environment. “There was a practical feeling at UC Hastings,” he said. “Lecturers came from various state agencies and courts in the vicinity.” He dropped in on trials to watch attorneys at work but “was usually disappointed,” he admitted.
One of his fondest remembrances is the 65 Club. “UC Hastings would bring retired deans and professors from major law schools to teach,” he recalled. “There were about 22 former deans on campus. It was rare that you went to class and the professor hadn’t written the case book that you used.”
Additionally, he loved San Francisco and Berkeley, spending hours rummaging in used bookstores for tomes by and about famous trials and storied lawyers past and present. “I had a better time than most law students,” he said. “I went to North Beach every day and sat in inexpensive Italian cafes, drinking wine and eating good food. It was a great three years.” All of that “for $450 a semester,” he added with a laugh.
After graduation, he took a job with a large civil law firm before joining the Orange County District Attorney’s Office, where he was assigned to the juvenile division. On his initial tour of the facility, Mesereau saw a girl of about 14 sitting in a “suicide watch” room. She had a history of being physically and sexually abused, and after her arrest she tried to get high by huffing WiteOut. Mesereau was horrified to learn that his first case was to prosecute her for petty theft. “The first thing I thought was, ‘Why would I want to prosecute her for anything?’ ” When he returned to the DA’s office after the girl’s “slam dunk” conviction, “everyone wanted to give me a high five, and I was disgusted,” he said.
“And things never got better.” He left after a year, but not before experiencing firsthand “the ways well-educated young people devalue poor people consciously or unconsciously when they get into positions of power,” he said.
Mesereau’s next job was as a lawyer for Getty Oil, flying around the country and advising the company’s attorneys on various matters. Eventually sensing that the position’s future was limited, he left to join a small civil law firm. It was there that he gravitated toward criminal law and began his involvement in pro bono work, primarily volunteering at legal clinics held in black community churches.
It’s something he continues to do. For the past dozen years or so, he’s marched with the Women of Watts against gang violence. His annual pilgrimages to Alabama (and one to Mississippi) began almost two decades ago when he volunteered to defend a homeless black man charged with murdering a white woman from a prominent family. Death threats ensued, but the defendant was found not guilty. Mesereau is immensely proud that not one of the capital murder cases he has worked on has resulted in the death penalty being meted out. His efforts in these matters, along with his legal clinic, are spotlighted in a recent documentary, When Justice Isn’t Just..
He started his own firm in 1992 and began defending members of the Crips and Bloods, rushing to crime scenes at 3 a.m., and hiring gang members he had previously defended as “security” and to reenact events.
“These young people were being devalued in our justice system,” he said. While not minimizing the violence of the era—indeed, he calls gang violence a “scourge” and the wave of drive-by shootings in the 1990s a “bloodbath”—he added, “But you don’t just throw civil liberties out the window and rope people into a gang just because they have a tattoo or a particular moniker.” Nevertheless, when lecturing at schools in minority neighborhoods, he warns students that “their tattoos and monikers will be used against them” in the criminal justice system. “I’ve defended Little Hit Man and Mad Moe,” he said. “Such names do not help with juries.”
He assiduously rejects charges that he’s anti-police or pro-criminal. “There’s no one I respect more than a courageous, honorable, selfless police officer or prosecutor,” he said. “They do our system proud. But unfortunately, they’re not all like that.”
Mesereau attained prominence on a regional level, most notably by successfully defending longtime Los Angeles TV anchorman Larry Carroll from charges of securities fraud, and by representing Compton City Councilwoman Patricia Moore on charges stemming from an FBI sting operation to which she’d previously pled guilty. Moore withdrew her plea, and Mesereau exposed questionable FBI behavior, including setting up an agent to be her boyfriend/campaign manager. Caught on tape, Moore was convicted on several counts, but Mesereau says the trial succeeded in exposing prosecutorial abuse of power.
“If prosecutors overcharge or engage in conduct illegal or unethical, defense attorneys are the only ones who are going to expose it,” Mesereau declared. In fact, if he has one axe to grind, it’s fighting what he deems prosecutorial misconduct. “The power to bring a single charge is the power to destroy somebody’s reputation and life, even if he or she survives the case,” he said. “Prosecutors shouldn’t bring a single flimsy count, and when they do, they should be exposed.”
THE BIG SPECTACLES
In 2001, Mesereau prepared an investigative report on behalf of former heavyweight champ Mike Tyson after a San Bernardino woman accused him of rape. Prosecutors ultimately chose not to file any charges. But it was the nationally televised preliminary hearing for actor Robert Blake in 2004 that truly thrust Mesereau onto the national stage. Mesereau had met a former attorney for Blake while volunteering at a Los Angeles church and agreed to defend the actor against charges that he had murdered his wife. The attorney was able to get Blake released on bail—the first (and only) time bail had been granted in a case of murder with special circumstances in California over the prosecution’s objection.
During jury selection, a “severe disagreement” with Blake caused Mesereau to withdraw from the case, but Mesereau’s initial work was widely credited with helping to attain Blake’s ultimate acquittal.
His reputation secured, Mesereau became a sought-after celebrity defense attorney. Right after dropping out of the Blake case, Mesereau was approached on the recommendation of Johnnie Cochran (former attorney for O.J. Simpson) by Michael Jackson’s advisers.
The Jackson spectacle, Mesereau says, was a whole new level of crazy, attracting more worldwide media than the O.J. Simpson and Scott Peterson cases combined. The attorney felt besieged from three sides: the aggressive prosecution team that he claims threatened his team with obstruction of justice charges, livid lawyers previously affiliated with Jackson who felt snubbed, and rabid members of the media who resented that Mesereau hunkered down in a condo during the five-month trial and wouldn’t feed them the red meat they craved.
After Jackson’s acquittal, “For a few minutes I was the best-known lawyer on the planet,” Mesereau said. Barbara Walters named him to her 10 Most Fascinating People of the Year list and he appeared on The Jay Leno Show. UC Hastings named him Alumni Lawyer of the Year, and an article in USA Today declared Mesereau the new “go-to” lawyer for celebrities.
“I decided to use my celebrity to open my own free legal clinic instead of volunteering at numerous others,” he said. Thus was born the Mesereau Free Legal Clinic, in Inglewood, where lawyers, students, activists, and judges donate time two Saturdays a month. According to its mission statement, the clinic is committed to “creating and supporting programs to meet the legal needs of the traditionally underserved individual and build a stronger and better-informed community.”
This past year has been life-changing. In March 2015, Mesereau won his third jury trial in a row in federal court. One month later, he founded Mesereau Law Group, Los Angeles. Then in September, he married Alice Wang ’03, a UC Hastings alumna with whom he has a 2-year-old daughter, Elaina Liu.
Domestic bliss aside, he shows no signs of mellowing. Mesereau recently defended the rap mogul Suge Knight in robbery and murder cases, the latter in which Knight was seen on video driving over the alleged victim with his truck.
Besides, Mesereau is still enjoying himself. “When I lecture law students, I tell them, ‘If you’re a loner, a misfit, and a rebel, you’ll fit right into criminal defense.’ ” And which of these characterizations describes him? He smiles. “All of them.”