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Passion in the Court Room: The Sentencing of Tony Serra

Last week I got a one-page flyer from the staff in lawyer Tony Serra's office. Tony was due to be sentenced for "misdemeanor willful failure to pay income tax," and his staff was asking people to attend the sentencing. "Stand Up for Him As He Has Stood Up For Us," it said, and listed the date, time, judge (Joseph C. Spero), and courtroom in San Francisco. Tony is a legendary defense lawyer, defender of civil rights, who often takes on impossible cases, often pro bono, and has had an extraordinary career in the San Francisco area and the rest of the nation. He lives a spartan life, drives junker cars. He is colorful, with a long grey pony tail, and wears suits he gets at the Salvation Army. About 10 years ago, 60 Minutes did a piece on him. The movie True Believer was about one of his cases, with James Wood playing Tony. A Google search turns up about 7000 references to him, and he's described as "radical," "flamboyant," and "renowned."

I've known Tony for over 50 years. We both grew up in San Francisco and then lived in the same fraternity house at Stanford. He graduated 6 months before I did and took off for a tour of Europe on a motorscooter with his first wife Judy. He wrote me letters from the trip, one of which I remember vividly, about staying up all night on a boat from Barcelona to Palma de Mallorca, and dolphins criss-crossing in front of the boat making phosphorescent patterns in the sea, with stars shining overhead. As soon as I graduated, my wife and I did the same thing, caught a ship from NY to France, hitchhiked to Milan, bought a new Lambretta scooter, and spent 3 months touring all of Europe, two California kids away from home for the first time — all because of Tony.

In the early '60s he went to work for the public defender's office in Oakland and I was working as an insurance broker in SF. In about 1963 we both smoked pot together for the first time, and by 1965 he had switched to private criminal defense practice and I had quit my job to work as a carpenter. We both were profoundly influenced by the cultural revolution of the times. In the early '70s he and his girlfriend Mary Edna rented a house from me in Bolinas and their first two (twins) of 5 children — Shelter and Ivory — were born there.

I got to the courtroom about 10 minutes late yesterday. It was packed — about 100 people — with about 30 people milling around outside. I decided to try my Shelter Publications press pass and darned if it didn't work: they let me in, the last seat. Tony's attorney, Randy Darr, was in the midst of an impassioned plea to the judge. This guy had a silver tongue and he went on at length. Tony admits his guilt, Tony has a "dysfunctional" relationship with money (true), there'd be no purpose in sending him to jail, Tony would pay $1500 a month to the IRS. Blah blah.

The IRS claimed Tony owed over $500,000 in taxes and had only paid $60,000, and wanted a one-year sentence. A probation officer was recommending a 5-month sentence.

Then about a dozen lawyers, mostly of the criminal defense variety, spoke to the judge. Tony had been a great influence in their lives and careers. He was their hero, he had defended the poor and downtrodden, he belonged in the courtroom and not in a jail cell. Blah blah, and I do mean blah blah. I haven't spent a lot of time in courtrooms, but I'm of the editorial persuasion and found these speeches long and tedious. You could have cut about 2/3 out of what each person said in the interest of clarity and succinctness, but I guess these guys are used to addressing juries and hammering home their points. Throw bombast at the wall and see what sticks. Plus they didn't really have a leg to stand on. Tony admitted his guilt. In retrospect this wasn't a display of reason, but rather of passion, of emotion, hallmarks of Tony's dramatic courtroom appearances. This was theater. At one point one of the lawyers asked Tony's five kids to stand up, which they did; they'd flown in from New York and LA to back their dad, and they looked wonderful.

Everyone gave it their all. It was a court appearance, but it was also a celebration of Tony's dedication to justice, and of how much he means to so many people.

It went on for about 3 hours and then Judge Spero said to take a 10 minute break and he'd impose the sentence. People chatted, Tony went around hugging his friends, until the judge returned. The judge acknowledged the good work Tony had done, representing the poor, influencing other lawyers, but said Tony wasn't above the law and sentenced him to 10 months (in Lompoc federal prison camp) and to paying the feds 100K at $1500 a month once he's out of prison.

Tony will do OK in prison. The other inmates will love him. He's a philosopher, a voracious reader. Once at Stanford he locked himself in a closet for 3 days with just bread and water so he could experience isolation. Maybe he'll take the time to write a book. He has to report to Lompoc in January 2006.