From SF Gate
On Thursday morning, Tony Serra will put on his best $10 suit and loose secondhand shoes to begin what could be his last big courtroom battle – the defense of Raymond “Shrimp Boy” Chow, presumed leader of a Chinatown money laundering ring and a central figure in an indictment that has also targeted state Sen. Leland Yee.
The hearing, in federal court before U.S. District Judge Charles Breyer, will involve 29 defendants. Among their lawyers, Serra will be easy to spot – shaggy side hair, broken teeth, loud tie, but still at his fighting weight of 195 pounds and arguing for his client at every turn.
“I like to bring attention to myself,” he says. “I’m that kind of person. I’m an extrovert.”
Thursday’s hearing is a status conference in which lawyers report on the state of their cases. The proceedings should help organize the case – now broad and unwieldy – so the trials of the various defendants can move through the courts. The case, which began in March when Yee was arrested on corruption charges, now involves narcotics transactions, murder for hire, sale of guns – and racketeering charges may also be brought. It is expected Serra will file a motion to have Chow freed from Santa Rita Jail in Dublin, where he’s been since April.
The high-profile case seems the perfect setting for Serra’s courtroom dramatics. From Huey Newton to Hooty Croy to the Hells Angels, he has built a cinematic reputation for winning jury trials on the strength of the withering and enfilading fire of his cross-examination of informants and government witnesses.
“He’s smart and he captures a jury’s attention,” says former San Francisco District Attorney Terence Hallinan. “He has lots of movement and hand motions and expressions, and it is hard to ignore. He’s kind of an actor in addition to being an attorney.”
There is only one thing that Serra loves more than the fight to keep a client out of prison, and that is being sent to prison himself. He’s been there twice for failure to pay income taxes, once for four months and once for 10 months, and prefers it for the company.
“If you ask me ‘Tony, what’s the best times of your life?’ it’s the two times I went to Lompoc,” he says of the federal penitentiary in Southern California during an interview at his office on a bawdy strip of Broadway. “It was fantastic. If I’m lucky enough, I’ll go back again. It’s like locking a doctor who likes to practice medicine in a hospital.”
Works for free
The legal work is the same in or out of prison, and so is the pay. There is none. Even Chow, a notorious high roller, gets a free ride.
“I’m a name brand, and I’m the best pro bono lawyer,” he says. “I do free shit.”
His legal practice survives on paid criminal defense work, often out-of-state marijuana cases, tried with the aid of local co-counsel.
He buys nothing new and not much used, either. His overhead is so low that he doesn’t have a cell phone. For more than 50 years, Serra, 79, has lived alone on the western slope of Telegraph Hill, in a one-bedroom that is piled so high with junk that he hasn’t even let his girlfriend see it. Located in an alley named after Beat poet Bob Kaufman, the apartment will probably end up being the last standing rent-controlled unit in San Francisco. Who is going to attempt an Ellis Act eviction on Tony Serra?
“One reason is I’m a lawyer,” says Serra, who would welcome that fight. “Two, I have the law on my side.”
The rent is $420 and he pays it in cash because he has no bank account. His net worth is whatever he has in his pocket, $200 or $300.
“I don’t believe in private ownership of property, so I have nothing,” he says. “I took a vow of poverty in the ’60s, probably through an LSD experience.”
San Francisco upbringing
He’s always been comfortable among what he describes as “the upper lower class,” which is how he characterizes his upbringing in the Outer Sunset District. His father, Anthony, was an immigrant from Mallorca who never made it past third grade and found work as a union man making jelly beans at a factory. His mother, Gladys, was from Los Angeles and never made it past fourth grade.
The Serra home was at 43rd and Taraval, six blocks from Ocean Beach. Living two doors away were the di Suveros. Among five boys in two hardscrabble families, one went to Harvard, one to Yale, one to Stanford, and two to Berkeley. Two, Tony Serra and Henry di Suvero, became defense attorneys, and three became artists. Richard Serra, one year younger than Tony, is probably the foremost creators of large-scale sculpture in America, if not the world. Mark di Suvero is close behind. The youngest Serra brother, Rudolph, is also a sculptor, based in Manhattan.
“There must have been some kind of electricity out there,” Mark di Suvero said of the block.
Tony Serra’s first recognized talents were in athletics. A three-sport man atLincoln High School, he was all-city as a fullback-passer and was recruited by Stanford. In 1954, he left home, a straight-arrow driving a ’41 Mercury down the Great Highway. At Woodside, he turned left toward Stanford, and has been going left ever since.
“I came to Stanford like a robust atom,” he says. “I was going to be a chemical engineer and make a lot of money.”
He joined Phi Gamma Delta (Fiji), a jock fraternity, and was playing both football and baseball when he drifted from the sciences into classes in poetry and philosophy.
“I had never been exposed to broader political issues, and I had an epiphany,” he says. “I became an intellectual.”
Its first manifestation came when he painted his room at the Fiji house black, dipped his bare hands in white paint and printed the walls. He had two strong men haul a rock in as a centerpiece, and Serra slept in a sleeping bag on the floor. Then he traded in the Mercury for an old Studebaker, put a mattress on the roof and took to sleeping there.
He became agitated with authority and quit the football and baseball teams, though he earned his varsity letter in boxing, as a light heavyweight, at the expense of a broken nose and broken teeth. He moved out of the fraternity to a cabin by Lake Lagunita.
“I withdrew from the jock image,” he says. “I stood with the intellects in terms of disparaging the so-called jocks.”
Call of the counterculture
After graduating, he sampled the lifestyle of an expatriate writer in Tangiers, Morocco, but was scared off by the heroin culture and ended up going to Boalt Hall, the UC Berkeley school of law. His notion was to become a “Mafia lawyer” and follow his brothers to New York – and his first law job as an Alameda County prosecutor only confirmed his disdain for the government. He quit just in time to be waylaid by the counterculture.
“When the Haight Ashbury broke, I started going there, and then I wanted to be a radical lawyer,” says Serra, who had long hair even before the arrival of the Beatles and has stayed with that look. “I dropped my first acid in ’64 and became an acid head dancer.”
He was trying cases by day and following the Grateful Dead at night. Both of his brothers were back East, and nobody was paying enough attention to their mother, who went down to Ocean Beach one day in 1977 and never came back.
“She walked like Virginia Woolf straight into the waves and committed suicide,” recalls Serra. “It was depression that we didn’t recognize.”
The brothers blamed each other for ignoring their mother, though Serra acknowledges that he could have done more, given that he was living in the same town she was. “I was too busy being a hippie,” he says.
He didn’t do much better visiting his widowed father, and when he died of cancer about a year later, Serra did not attend his funeral.
“The accumulation of the pain brought me into a state of non-acceptance or rejection,” he says. “Maybe I just couldn’t confront it.”
Either way, that was the end between Tony and Richard. Once close, the brothers have not spoken in 35 years, and Tony no longer speaks to brother, Rudy, either.
Serra’s family values are loosely structured. He has had three long relationships, though he’s never been married. He usually travels on his own and eats dinner on his own at cheap Italian and Chinese joints.
“I’ve always lived alone,” he says, “but mind you, I have five kids.”
Their names are Shelter, Ivory, Chime Day, Wonder Fortune and Lilac Bright, three boys and two girls. Their mother, Mary Edna Dineen, raised them in Bolinas.
“I was trying cases all over the country, so I was an absentee father,” Serra says.
One chance to make amends came along with the feature film “True Believer,” based on his defense of Chol Soo Lee in a Chinatown gang murder. Serra’s deal with the screenwriter was for a fee of $100,000, which was to help put his kids through college. But the original screenplay got sold and re-set in New York. By the time “True Believer” was released in 1989, not a frame was believable, Serra says. Plus he never saw the $100,000, and his kids had to turn to their rich uncle, Richard, to put them through college. “What could I do? I had no money,” says Serra, whose one indulgence is the medicinal marijuana that he smokes when he gets back to the office from court late in the afternoon. He doesn’t drink so he figures it is an even trade.
“All of my role models, all the great lawyers were alcoholic,” he says. “This is the way I alleviate stress, though I call it ‘sacrament.’ ”
It doesn’t appear to have eroded his memory. He can no longer instantly recall the names of all 20 characters in a case, but he can still catch a witness changing a detail in testimony from four days prior.
‘Mind is still good’
“People look at me like and say, ‘He’s all hippie. He’s full of drugs. He’s probably a dance freak. He’s dropped more acid than anyone else and his mind’s gone,’ ” he says. “Not at all. My mind is still good.”
The only band he follows is Furthur, the Dead descendant, for which he will dress in tie-die and dance free-form, on two artificial hips, often under benefit of magic mushrooms. But most nights he is in bed by 10 and up by 6, writing poetry in longhand. Grizzly Peak Press has published two of his collections.
He hosts poetry readings at Pier 5 Law Offices, an association of 18 independent sole practitioners, where Serra has his office. It moved from the Embarcadero to Broadway 12 years ago but never bothered to update the name. In decor, it is more like a free clinic or concert hall, and it was here, at one of his poetry parties, that he met Letty Litchfield, a 55-year-old personal-injury lawyer in the Central Valley.
“She made herself available,” he says, “so there is still passion and romance in my life.”
Litchfield says she actually met Serra 23 years ago at a lecture he gave and began following his career.
“On a professional level, we both abhor injustices, and I’m inspired by his pro bono work,” says Litchfield, who does pro bono work of her own for Native American tribes. “On a personal level, I adore him. He’s a sensitive man and just a joy.”
It’s a long-distance relationship. Because Serra won’t let Litchfield see his place, he goes to her place in the Sierra foothills. It’s a three-hour drive in his 1993 Ford pickup, longer when he stops to visit clients in jails along the way.
“He represents everything I see as being what a criminal lawyer should be,” saysSteve Teich, a San Francisco criminal defense lawyer who met Serra nearly 40 years ago, after tracking him to a flight of stairs behind a wooden sign that read “Honest Lawyer.” Teich was a student at Hastings College of the Law and after 10 minutes with Serra found the reason he was in law school: “He will represent a person who is seen as a nuisance or a pariah. He always takes cases to trial, and in court he is fearless.”
That “Honest Lawyer” sign still hangs at the entrance to his office, though Serra prefers to think of himself as a “Verbal Warrior.” He turns 80 on Dec. 30, but there is no slowing down. If anything, he is speeding up, with a load of 20 cases, mostly for murder. One jury trial runs into the next.
“A lot of times you beat the death penalty, but you still get murder one or murder two,” he says of his record. “There aren’t a lot of acquittals of death penalty cases, and I have three.”
Judge Fern Smith has been retired 10 years but she’ll never forget Serra, who appeared before her in both superior and federal court.
“It was always entertaining,” she says. “But more importantly, he believes passionately in his clients and in his view of the law. Even when he disagreed, he always respected my rulings.”
‘Shrimp Boy’ case
Serra inherited Raymond Chow as a client when one of the lawyers at Pier 5 flipped him the case. Serra had never heard of Chow but saw the defense possibilities in his nickname.
“What kind of an appellation is that for a Chinatown tough guy?” he says. “Shrimp Boy. It’s so soft and so gentle that it manifests his inner spirit.”
He doesn’t know how the Raymond Chow story will end, but he has an idea how the Tony Serra story will end.
“Probably I will die of a heart attack during a trial,” he says, “and the jury will give me ‘not guilty’ just because I died.”
To watch a short video of Tony Serra’s “Plato Cave” go to:http://www.sfgate.com/news/item/Tony-Serra-s-Plato-Cave-31354.php
Photo essay here