Attorney J. Tony Serra is perhaps the greatest hippie holdout in San Francisco. He took a (probably LSD-inspired) vow of poverty long ago, lives in a tiny rent controlled apartment, drives $500 cars, and wears used suits with splits in them to court. On principle, he refuses to pay taxes, which has landed him in prison twice.
He is also considered by some to be one of the greatest criminal defense attorneys in American history.
"I'm the best pro-bono, hippie lawyer still around," Serra says over the phone. "Still espousing peace and love, still doing psychedelics, still going to the Dead shows, still working for a more egalitarian society."
Serra (brother of Richard, the renowned sculptor) is a captivating and accomplished attorney, one who has stuck to a very particular set of principles for five decades. He's been a go-to lawyer for what he calls "anti-government entities," including the Black Panthers, the Hells Angels, and the Symbionese Liberation Army. He prefers any sort of unsavory client over traditional law enforcement, and resides outside what those of his generation might call "the establishment," preferring the company of his marginalized clients.
And at nearly 81, Serra shows no signs of slowing down.
"Litigation is what they call a young person's sport," he says. "But I'm still addicted, I'm still fervent, I'm still outspoken... Two years ago, during a murder case, I did have a heart attack, but it doesn't seem to have slowed me down much. [Laughs] Although you never know."
Serra is famous for his dramatic courtroom style, which a fellow lawyer once described as "exhausting...like having sex for hours." While he may prefer to look backwards, to the 60s, he has been consistently ahead of his time, especially on issues like police brutality and the War on Drugs (a 1980s news report in which he rambled at length about its future consequences was prescient to the point of being a bit eerie).
Serra's hooked on trying to win impossible cases. Some say that it's an act, or that he's overly theatrical—as one prosecutor put it to the LA Times in 1989, "Every trial is like a mini-movie for Tony." There was even a successful film, True Believer , made about Serra (which irked him with its negative portrayal of the protagonist's marijuana-smoking ways). He's like a hippie Atticus Finch, or a Clarence Darrow for Deadheads.
Born in 1934, Serra comes from humble beginnings. His father was an immigrant from Majorca, Spain, who worked in a jelly bean factory. Tony and his artist brother (who reportedly have barely spoken since their mother's suicide in the 1970s) were raised in San Francisco, next door to a family that would produce another world-famous sculptor, Mark di Suvero. He was educated at Stanford, where he started out as a jock, and transformed into an intellectual, majoring in epistemology. After graduation, Serra migrated to Tangiers in Morocco, looking to pull a Hemingway and join the writers and poets of its expatriate community. But at that point, he had never even smoked a cigarette, and was reportedly scared away by the copious amounts of heroin that permeated the scene.
Serra eventually applied to law school, and ended up at UC Berkeley during the height of the free speech movement. The rest is history—a bizarre history one can get a sense of simply by glancing at Serra's trademark hairstyle: a single, long braid. We spoke to the cult-favorite lawyer about San Francisco's Haight-Ashbury, Huey P. Newton of the Black Panthers, and his own cynicism about the present state of the American legal system.
VICE: What inspired your vow of poverty in the 60s?
Tony Serra: There was a revolution, and the Haight-Ashbury was bursting at that point. In the Haight you had the music, the drugs, and the people coming from all over the world to dance in the street. All these communes were popping up, and you had preachers who were preaching, in a sense, Eastern theology. It was a very fecund period sociologically, epistemologically, spiritually. Those movements, those spiritual outcries, permeated my being. So I became a hippie on one side, dropping LSD, dancing till 2 in the morning, like a dance freak at all of the concerts. The Dead was starting, Jefferson Airplane was starting, Santana was starting. The major groups were here, in the vortex of the Haight-Ashbury, and there was all of the political maneuvering over at Berkeley and SF State. So out of all of that, probably during an acid trip, I decided to take an informal vow of poverty.
See, I'm not materialistic by birth, by propensity, by DNA, so it's not like I ever gave up anything. So it was easy. I owned nothing.
Why did you stop paying taxes?
I did not believe in taxation because it exploits the working class—it started when you were defeated by an army. When you were defeated by the Roman Army, they would impose a tax on you. It's always been economically or militarily oppressed people who pay taxes, so I refused to pay taxes. As you know, I've gone to prison. I've suffered three separate convictions. Every decade they bring me in, and twice I've gone to prison. But not for long though; it doesn't affect my practice of the law. The California Bar is very empathetic [Laughs].
"It's always been economically or militarily oppressed people who pay taxes, so I refuse to pay them."
Could you tell me about some of your famous cases? Maybe what it was like to work with Huey Newton and the Black Panthers?
Huey had been charged with the murder of a prostitute. It was an absurd proposition to begin with and, you know, someone had driven up in the car that he was chauffeured around with, not him. So there were a number of prostitutes on the street. One was called over, and shot, I think, by someone in the back seat of that car. And, as a number of prostitutes variously described, it was like a joke. "Oh, he had a hat on." "Oh, he didn't have a hat on." "His hair was ballooned out." "No, his head was shaven." There were so many different images. But the main [witness] identified him without hesitation. And so predicated on that real thin type of evidence, they went to trial. So it turned out the main witness against him, she had actually been in jail. At the time of the homicide she wasn't on the streets. So we triumphed.
And how I met Huey was sleeping in the Panther houses. They had been expecting a raid by the police. Back then you could still have rifles, only concealed weapons were prohibited. So the Panthers became armed, and there were sand bags. When I went, they would strip you naked, make sure you weren't an agent, or recording them. But I wasn't, of course, and they saw that I was idealistic. Huey himself was very charismatic, he's one of the most charismatic human beings that I've had the privilege of being close [to] at one point. This was before he became kind of an addict and was ultimately assassinated by some drug dealer—there's still controversy over really what happened. But I had him in the prime of his youth and his mind was good.
[During the trial] the courthouse was packed, the streets around the courthouse were packed. He was all buffed up, he'd take off his shirt, he'd go out there and looked like a Greek god. He was a great speaker. I learned an awful lot from him. His presence was extraordinary. I'm not, whatever you want to call it, an ESP freak. But when he would come in—let's just say you were on the fifth floor of the Hall of Justice, and he would come in downstairs—you could really feel him. You could feel his presence. Everything would stop, and people would look at the door, and about four minutes later he'd come through it. So he had a flow of energy, an energy field. He had an aura; he projected wide. He was very influential to me for the rest of my career. Remember what the Panthers used to say? Selfless service. They were supposed to be the people's servants. It was inspiring to me.
Could you talk about the gang-related case in California's Central Valley that you worked on, which resulted in a hung jury this January? It seemed to touch on a lot of key criminal justice issues.
I can't really get into specifics, but every time we have a case that involves a gang person, they'll add gang enhancements to dirty them up, because society rejects them. The dominant society that is symbolized in a jury rejects them. All you have to do is say "gang," and there's no credibility attached to the defense or the witnesses that come forward who are gang members. So you're not in court. If you've got a gang case, sometimes you think you're in trial and you're not in trial because of the societal rejection of the whole phenomenon. If police point a finger—as they say, you can convict a ham sandwich under those circumstances. As far as my trial, we did good. We hung it, solid hang. 6-6. I won't go into particulars, but in my opinion my client should have been acquitted, my client didn't do anything.
Could you elaborate on how you think trying cases has changed since what you would call the "Golden Age of Law"? Why do you think jurors are more inclined to side with the prosecution these days?
Ever since 9/11, jurors are prosecution/law enforcement-aligned. Fear dominates their lives. They are afraid of domestic terrorists, gangs, serial killers, psychopaths, and felons. They believe that law enforcement protects them from the chaos and the dissidents. They are willing to give up all constitutional rights so as to be safe from perceived harm. A lawyer in a trial cannot attack police officers and their credibility as we did previously; we cannot derogate the snitch; we cannot claim police entrapment or police brutality. The jurors are not listening to us in those areas. As a consequence, we lose cases that we would have won before 9/11.
What do you make of the recent high-profile instances of police brutality across the country?
Obviously, it's in all of our consciousness: What's been happening for generations, for decades, is that police are violent to people. They even sometimes plant a throwaway gun. For the most part, over the years, they got away with it, because we couldn't catch them, so to speak, en flagrante delicto. But now because everyone has these phones, these cameras in their phones, we're catching them. We're catching them, you know, even on a gun case with a body that's been shot from the back. And the brutality of four or five or six standing around and kicking someone, or beating them to death, or throwing them in paddy wagons driving them over whatever bumps and turns so that they get banged around in the back. Law enforcement, not at all levels and not all people, attracts sadists. Because as a law enforcement officer, you can inflict pain, especially as a jailer, and it's considered OK.
Our office created a book that outlined—before the epiphany through the cameras occurred—that outlined all of the cases in the country that focused on police brutality and police murders. It was just a self-published account, but it was quite thick. Of course, I'm hip to police injustice, and there are more dimensions to it than just brutality and murder, like the use of informants. It's false and precarious, and giving them great benefits and sending them back into society is another huge reform that's required. The use of the grand jury system—we shouldn't use grand juries at all. So there's so many areas to reform, and I'm kind of activistic in all of them.
Law enforcement often attracts sadists. Because as a law enforcement officer, you can inflict pain, especially as a jailer, and it's considered OK.
What is your thought process like in court?
Delineated and focused. I must throw my "semantic spears" fast and accurately. I'm like an eagle concentrating only on the kill. One cannot really be good as a trial attorney unless he or she has somewhat of a photographic memory: no notes, no reading, always standing, passionate and assertive. I'm one of the last of a dying breed. Most defense lawyers are negotiators nowadays. They are ultimately compromisers. I'm not!
What do you make of the recent surge in large protests against the police?
It's so important. I applaud it, I rejoice it. Demonstrations are something that we still have. We still have the free speech and the constitutional principle that allows people to protest. So peaceful protests, demonstrations, it has always been the American way to reform injustice. It's the people, it's democracy, it is the people surging up and demanding a change, and exposing, ultimately, the hypocrisy of government, and the lack of integrity on many occasions with regard to government and law enforcement.
We're drifting, do you understand, we're drifting toward totalitarianism. Through our law, through law enforcement and through all of the money, through lobbyists that are behind some of the laws that law enforcement utilizes against us. So if there is no protest, there is no real avenue to the heartbeat of a democracy. So I encourage protest. I encourage people getting together and exposing the—whatever you want to call it—the conduct of law enforcement, the conduct of politicians, the conduct of military, the conduct of [the] CIA. It is a welcome thing in democracy, and I hope that it increases.
This interview has been edited and condensed for clarity.
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