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Saturday, Nov 02 2013 10:00 PM

More than a celebrity lawyer, Mark Geragos takes Bakersfield case

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    By Alberto Rodriguez/Pool

    R&B singer Chris Brown, left, and his attorney, Mark Geragos, appear during a court hearing at Los Angeles Superior Court in Los Angeles July 15, 2013. Geragos has represented many celebrity clients. The family of Jorge Ramirez of Bakersfield, a police informant recently killed in an officer-involved shooting, has retained Geragos for a possible wrongful death suit.

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    By Jeff Chiu/AP

    Greg Anderson, center, walks with attorney Mark Geragos, right, to the federal courthouse in San Francisco Aug. 28, 2006. Anderson, who is Barry Bonds' trainer, was held in contempt of court and jailed for refusing to testify before a grand jury investigating Bonds for perjury and other charges.

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    By Al Golub/AP

    Scott Peterson, left, and attorney Mark Geragos listen during prosecution rebuttal to the defense closing arguments in Redwood City, Calif., in this Nov. 3, 2004, file photo.

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    By Lee Celano/AP

    Actress Winona Ryder, left, sits with her defense attorney Mark Geragos as the verdict is read in her shoplifting trial Nov. 6, 2002, at the courthouse in Beverly Hills. The jury found Ryder guilty of felony grand theft and vandalism but cleared her of burglary charges.

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BY STEVEN MAYER Californian staff writer smayer@bakersfield.com

Celebrity attorney Mark Geragos has represented the likes of Michael Jackson, Chris Brown and Winona Ryder.

So why is he coming to Bakersfield to represent the family of the late Jorge Ramirez?

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GERAGOS TIMELINE

1983 -- Is admitted to the State Bar of California and joins his father's law firm, Geragos & Geragos.

1997-1998 -- One of his first high-profile cases is when Geragos represents Susan McDougal in an embezzlement case. McDougal was earlier convicted of fraud in the Whitewater case that involved President Bill Clinton. She is acquitted of the embezzlement charges.

2001 -- Represents President Bill Clinton's brother, Roger Clinton, who was arrested on drunken driving charges. Clinton pleads guilty to a misdemeanor charge of reckless driving.

2001 -- Represents rapper Nate Dogg, who pleads no contest to a misdemeanor charge of carrying an unmarked firearm. A felony charge is dropped in exchange for the plea.

2001-2002 -- Represents then-Democratic Congressman Gary Condit of Modesto as law enforcement investigate the death of Chandra Levy.

2002 -- Represents Winona Ryder, who is charged with felony grand theft and vandalism for shoplifting from Saks Fifth Avenue. Ryder is sentenced to three years of probation and counseling.

May 2003 -- Announces he will represent Scott Peterson, charged with murdering his pregnant wife, Laci. Peterson is found guilty.

2003-2004 -- Represents Michael Jackson when he is charged with child molestation. Jackson replaces Geragos, saying he wants a lawyer who will devote his full time to the case.

2008 -- Geragos and partner Pat Harris win a lawsuit against Jeffrey Borer and his charter jet company XtraJet for secretly recording Geragos, Harris and client Michael Jackson on a flight.

2009 -- Represents Chris Brown when he is charged with assaulting his then-girlfriend, Rihanna. Brown is sentenced to five years probation and ordered to complete a domestic violence program.

Brown was arrested again last weekend in Washington, D.C. Geragos postpones planned interview with The Californian Sunday.

2013 -- Geragos' book, written with Pat Harris, "Mistrial: An Inside Look at How the Criminal Justice System Works...and Sometimes Doesn't" is released.

Source: CNN

"We have, probably, one of the most vigorous police practices around, meaning we take cases when we think there is some kind of police misconduct," Geragos told The Californian this past week.

He talked about his long career as a high-profile civil and criminal attorney, his willingness to go to trial and the local case -- involving a police informant who was shot and killed by officers he may have been trying to assist.

"This case cried out for (scrutiny). Something about it just didn't quite make sense," Geragos said. "Once we got into the investigation, it looks like that initial suspicion has so far been confirmed. That's what attracted me to it."

The well-known Los Angeles lawyer who regularly appears as a legal analyst on CNN, the "Today" show, "Good Morning America," "Dateline NBC" and elsewhere was retained last month by the family of Ramirez, a 34-year-old man who was working with the Bakersfield Police Department when he was shot multiple times by officers Sept. 16 outside the Four Points Sheraton Hotel. Ramirez was unarmed.

The fugitive Ramirez was with, Justin Bryan Harger, 32, was also killed after officers confronted them.

According to police, Harger first began firing at officers, with one bullet grazing the head of Officer Daniel Brewer, who was hospitalized but released a few hours later.

Initially, the BPD said nothing about Ramirez's relationship with police. But when Ramirez's father later told reporters his son had been working with law enforcement, Bakersfield Police Chief Greg Williamson acknowledged that Ramirez had indeed been acting as an informant.

The way the chief characterized Ramirez's relationship with police did not sit well with Geragos, who felt the police informant was being blamed for his own death.

Ramirez, Williamson said, was an "untested" informant who provided too few details to police as he led officers to Harger. He failed to correctly describe Harger's vehicle, and neglected to tell officers Harger was armed and was wearing a wig. However, it was not clear that Ramirez could freely communicate with police as he rode beside Harger that day.

"When I saw the police chief's initial comments, that really made my blood boil," Geragos said Thursday. "Based on our investigation, either he's woefully misinformed or has deliberately set out to cover up what really happened."

 

BIG-CITY LAWYER, SMALLER-TOWN CASE

Those surprised to learn Geragos has taken on a local case shouldn't be. He's litigated in Bakersfield courtrooms before, he said, although it's been so many years he couldn't remember the details.

One thing is sure. He's not afraid to try cases in different locales.

"Over 30 years, I've actually gone to trial in probably 15 different states across the country," said Geragos, who is 56 and whose mom was born in Fresno.

Laurie Levenson, professor of law and the director of the Center for Legal Advocacy at Loyola Law School in Los Angeles, says Geragos seems to find his comfort zone wherever he goes.

"It doesn't strike me as odd at all that Mark Geragos is going to Bakersfield," Levenson said. "He does these cases in L.A. all the time. He's a guy who can play all venues."

But that doesn't mean he won't have to do his homework.

"There are plusses and minuses to being the big-city lawyer coming to a smaller town," Levenson said. "Each venue has its own traditions. Each venue has its own culture."

Attorneys say it can be a disadvantage to be viewed as the city-slicker, the outsider. It may be best to leave the $150 neckties at home. Be deferential to local judges, observers say. And consult with a local attorney about the local culture.

"Going to trial on a big case in another city is like going on vacation in a country where you don't speak the language," said Bakersfield criminal defense attorney Fred Gagliardini. "You'd better have a guide with you who can help you navigate."

Sometimes attorneys will go to great lengths to make that navigation easier.

In 2005, after Michael Jackson hired attorney Thomas Mesereau to defend him against child molestation accusations, Mesereau immersed himself in the culture of Santa Maria, the Central Coast town where the trial would be held.

"He sat in different bars every night," Levenson said. "To see how people talk, to see how people think."

But Geragos won't have to go to those lengths, she said.

"He just has to be a really good lawyer," Levenson said. "And it just so happens that he is a really good lawyer."

Geragos already has broad experience in cities of all sizes and cultures. He's still immersed in a case in West Valley, Utah, a suburb of Salt Lake City, where police shot and killed a young woman they said was aggressively backing her car toward them.

"There was something about it that didn't look like it was proper," Geragos said of the Utah incident. "And sure enough, now in that case, not only has the police chief of West Valley retired, they've disbanded the narcotics (unit), the DA's now got a criminal investigation of the officers who did the shooting -- and we feel like we made a difference there.

"It looks to me that it's the kind of road map we've got in Bakersfield."

 

TRIAL VS. SETTLEMENT

Geragos brings something important to the table beyond his obvious resources and experience, said Daniel Rodriguez, a civil attorney in Bakersfield. The L.A. attorney boasts a resume, Rodriguez said, that shows he's not afraid to take cases to trial. And that's a great advantage to his clients.

"Most lawyers rarely take cases to trial," Rodriguez said. "It's expensive and it's a pressure cooker."

Some law firms build their business plan around never going to trial. Attorneys refer to these firms, off the record, as "settlement mills."

Insurance companies know which attorneys will go to the wall for their clients and which will almost always settle.

"It drives the value of the case," Rodriguez said.

"The insurance companies know, sooner or later, he's going to pop and take the money," Rodriguez said of so-called settlement mill attorneys.

Geragos agrees.

"Trials are difficult for the parties and obviously time-consuming -- and it takes a little bit of your soul every time you try a case," he said.

"To my mind trials are about getting the community to understand and hold (people) accountable. They are a public service."

Asked how many trials he's litigated, Geragos laughed.

"I stopped counting after 300 trials. I hit 300, I said, 'OK, that's it.' I used to keep a ledger and I don't do that anymore.

"I will tell you that in 2012, for instance, I tried five jury trials. Three of those were civil and two were criminal, and we won all five trials.

"The three civil, all of them produced seven- or eight-figure verdicts. And the two criminal trials, obviously the clients were found not guilty."

And 2012 was a slow year.

"You see? I'm getting old," he said, laughing.

 

WHO'S AT FAULT?

Former Los Angeles County District Attorney Steve Cooley, who served as L.A.'s top prosecutor from 2000 to 2012, has gone up against Geragos on many occasions.

"Steve and I have a very checkered relationship," Geragos said, chuckling.

"Mark Geragos has a lot of style," Cooley said. "He's tried a lot of high-profile cases in Los Angeles County."

And he's lost some big ones, Cooley pointed out. Winona Ryder was sentenced in 2002 to three years probation and counseling after she was charged with felony grand theft and vandalism for shoplifting from Saks Fifth Avenue. And Scott Peterson, charged with murdering his pregnant wife, Laci, was found guilty and sentenced to death.

Cooley made it clear he doesn't know enough about the Ramirez case to make sweeping statements. But he said he believes, should the case go to trial, the outcome will be mostly driven by the facts and by the laws of the state of California.

"He may very well consult with a local attorney, or bring in a jury consultant," Cooley said of Geragos.

And then Cooley reached down to what may become a core argument of the defense, should the BPD and the city of Bakersfield face a wrongful death lawsuit.

He blames Harger.

"It's tragic and unfortunate that the police informant was killed," Cooley said. "But the blame ultimately goes back to the guy who initiated the gunfight."

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