By Paul Liberatore
TONY SERRA, the iconoclastic defense attorney cum countercultural
icon, refused to see "True Believer," the 1989 movie starring James
Woods that was reportedly about him and one of his famed murder
cases. And he insists that he isn't going to read the new book about
him, "Lust for Justice: The Radical Life & Law of J. Tony Serra,"
even though it was written by his friend and former Bolinas neighbor,
artist Paulette Frankl. It would be very un-Zenlike if he did.
"I try my best to live in the moment, not to be nostalgic about the
past, not to revisit the past, not to sit around and talk about the
past, not to visit with past friends," he explained. "So I won't read
the book because a book that covers anyone's career should be
posthumous. It signals that you're over the hill, you're dead, you're
deceased. It celebrates your past life, and therefore that kind of insults me."
Serra is quick to add the lawyerly qualification "on the other hand,"
allowing that he's not all that serious about being put out by a book
being written about him, since he cooperated with Frankl while she
was writing it.
"But I wish she had waited until I died," he lamented. "Then I
wouldn't have to confront the fact that I'm still alive, then I
wouldn't have to prove that I'm a viable, active, winning lawyer. It
means I've got to work harder than I work now. It's an imposition."
The seed of the book was planted some two decades ago when Frankl
became Serra's self-appointed courtroom artist during the circus
trial of Ellie Nesler, a mother charged with killing her son's
molester in a makeshift backwoods courtroom.
Frankl was overwhelmed by the incredible media attention the case
attracted, and was blown away by Serra's dramatic performance in
A child of the 1960s, which Frankl considers his "golden age," the
76-year-old Serra cuts an anti-establishment figure in the courtroom,
wearing his long white hair pulled back in a ponytail. In the book's
foreword, the noted lawyer Gerry Spence writes that Serra "comes into
court looking like a lost tramp in a dirty, unpressed suit and tennis
shoes." For an artist like Frankl, that makes for an irresistibly
"I loved drawing him," she said from her home in Santa Fe. "He's such
a kinetic character. He has so much expression."
At one point early on, she and Serra scribbled an agreement for a
book on the hood of her car while they were standing in a parking
lot. Originally, it was going to be his words and her drawings.
"Then one day he came to my cabin in Bolinas with arm loads of legal
boxes filled with the shrapnel of his entire life -- newspaper
articles, clippings, tape recordings," she recalled. "He said, 'Here,
it's your baby. I don't have time.' I felt like I'd been slammed
under an avalanche."
It took her 17 years to dig herself out.
"He let me into his life," she said. "He introduced me to his (five)
kids. We never had a romance, despite what some other people think.
We never even touched. But if there was a case he thought would be of
interest, he would tell me about it and I would show up, no matter
where the damn case was."
In his long career, Serra has handled high-profile civil rights cases
and notorious drug cases. He's defended Black Panthers, Hells Angels,
members of the Symbionese Liberation Army and radicals of various
stripes. And always with flair.
"He's such a fantastic lawyer." Frankl said. "He's one of a kind. His
lawyering is creative. It's improvisational. It's scary as hell to
watch him because he's up there without notes. He's way more than
cerebral, and that's what touches the jurors. He hits them in their
humanity, not in their rationale. And there is usually some sort of
social justice issue involved to make the world a little more compassionate."
Her book (289 pages, Lightning Rod Publications, $19.95) includes
anecdotes, chapters on his cases, what others say about him, a
discussion of the informant system, her own reporting and
interviewing and other material chosen to give readers a sense of who
this controversial man is. Unlike most other books about the law,
there's a section devoted to Nesler's courtroom sketches of Serra in
a style she calls "perceptualism," a depiction of both the
intellectual and the visceral.
"I don't think there's ever been a courtroom artist who has focused
almost exclusively on just one lawyer," she said. "I did other
trials, but I would always go back to Serra. There wasn't enough
caffeine in the world to stay awake with other lawyers."
Serra, brother of the artist Richard Serra, may put on a show in the
courtroom, but he bristles at being labeled a performer, an actor, a
lawyer just playing a part.
"I'm not performing," he insists. "What I'm doing is emoting. It
comes from the outrage I feel, from the pain and suffering I feel
about the inequity of the case. It's the passion of whatever issue
I'm arguing, the presenting of the aura, the spirit. That's me. And
that's real emotion."
Frankl ended up self-publishing "Lust for Justice" after growing
weary of being rejected by publishers, primarily on the East Coast,
who were unfamiliar with Serra, who's legendary in the Bay Area but
little known outside it.
"My world is so small," he said, adding that he prefers Frankl's
drawings in the book to the sections devoted to "the feeble language
I bring to bear," as he puts it.
While he won't be reading "Lust for Justice," he's evidently sought
the opinions of those who have.
"People who have read it who are more literate than I am say it's
quite good," he said. "And that pleases me."
Contact Paul Liberatore via e-mail at firstname.lastname@example.org