Tony Serra’s amazing career throughout several decades includes fascinating tales of representing clients in several high-profile cases from Huey Newton and the Black Panthers, to White Panthers, Hells Angels and many more. The movie True Believer was loosely based on his successful acquittal of Chol Soo Lee for murder. Tony shares details about traveling throughout Morocco and South America when he was young, sleeping in the Black Panther houses in Oakland and San Francisco while being concerned about raids like the one that killed Fred Hampton, and taking part in the early beginnings of the Haight-Ashbury community in San Francisco as well as adopting the free-spirited hippie lifestyle associated with it. A pro bono lawyer who has taken a vow of poverty, he reveals how early on in his career he originally wanted to be a mafia lawyer. Tony also shares his views on the death penalty and the importance of the Black Lives Matter movement in the fight against racism, and explains his “chromatic interpretation” of his legal career used in the book he wrote while prison after being sentenced for not paying taxes in protest of the War in Iraq. Listen to the interview to learn from a piece of living legal history and hear intimate details of some of the most remarkable law cases in the history of California.
A transcript of this podcast is available at lovethylawyer.com.
Graduate Stanford University, Philosophy
Graduate Boalt Hall, UC Berkeley, Law Review
Has practiced criminal defense for over forty years, specializing in jury trials.
A little known fact is that Tony Serra started his career as a trial attorney as a Deputy District Attorney in Alameda County.
Tony Serra has spent his life defending society’s outcasts. He began his practice in the 1960’s, an era he calls the golden age of law. Perceiving himself in the role of a warrior, Mr. Serra has continued to battle for more freedom for more people through law. His role in the Chol Soo Lee case was depicted in the film True Believer. Tony Serra has always known how to express the poetry of the law, while fighting in the ditches and dark alleys of legal practice. He has gained national prominence for his closing argument techniques.
Over the past 30 years Mr. Serra has spoken to hundreds of professional organizations on various legal issues in multiple forums in 14 different states.
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Attorney at Law
Tony Serra - Transcript
Louis Goodman 00:05
Welcome to Love Thy Lawyer. I'm Louis Goodman. Today's guest needs no introduction. He may be the most famous living legend attorney in America. Tony Serra represented Huey Newton, the Hells Angels, Ellie Nesler, Judi Bari, and Raymond "Shrimp Boy" Chow, among many others. He recently took on the government in the Ghost Ship fire case here in Alameda County. At 87 years old, he is probably the oldest still practicing litigator, certainly in California and maybe in the country. He served time in federal prison for taking a principled stand against paying taxes during the Iraq war. He's been portrayed by actor James Woods in the movie True Believer. He has famously taken a vow of poverty, and a little known fact, I have confirmed with him that he actually served as an Alameda County Deputy District Attorney in the early days of his career. Tony Serra, welcome to Love Thy Lawyer.
Tony Serra 01:19
Well, with an introduction like that, I'm starting to love my lawyer. I don't think many do.
Louis Goodman 01:28
Well, a lot of people do love you, Tony. You have managed to create a career that if nothing else, is a career of principle and you are someone who in my view has always very authentically represented your interests and the interests of your clients.
Tony Serra 01:48
A lawyer is not supposed to place his personal belief system, his political perspective, his social ideology ahead of the clients'. We're not here to use the client as some kind of a vehicle to get a political message out that, you know, we, the lawyers believe in. So, I've never tried to do that. What I've tried to do is adopt myself to the political position of the client. You know, see it the way he saw it, walk the last mile with him. And probably that's one reason why a lot of the clients, you know, respect me, like me because they know I'm in it for them. And the proudest words that I court in my profession, and, you know, serve with the undying loyalty is "not guilty", that's what I want to hear over and over again.
Louis Goodman 02:55
Tony, where are you talking to us from right now?
Tony Serra 02:58
From what we call Pier 5 Law Offices in San Francisco.
Louis Goodman 03:04
You're originally from San Francisco. Is that correct?
Tony Serra 03:07
I'm one of those rare native, indigenous citizens, yes.
Louis Goodman 03:11
Where'd you go to high school?
Tony Serra 03:13
At Lincoln High.
Louis Goodman 03:14
You were quite the athlete when you were at Lincoln High.
Tony Serra 03:17
I was an athlete in high school and I did pursue E athleticism, or whatever words you wanna call it, in college. In college, for instance, I boxed, I played baseball and I played football, but I was making a transition in my psyche and in my, you know, overall philosophy of life. And I was taking a lot of graduate courses in poetry and English. I was a philosophy major, epistemology, you know, major within the field of philosophy, English minor. And so I was starting to get intellectualized. I was starting to get politicized and I put that above playing sports because they often came at the same time.
Louis Goodman 04:07
You went to Stanford, is that correct?
Tony Serra 04:09
Louis Goodman 04:11
How did you decide to go there?
Tony Serra 04:13
They, how would I call it, solicited me. I come from an upper lower class, you know, my father worked, he was in the Union, brought home the check. I got good grades and in all through school I could have signed with the San Francisco Seals, we didn't have the Giants then. Then right after high school, and they would've put me in their farm club at Yakima, but I obviously was gonna go to Stanford. They were paying my way. I was actually on a Scholastic scholarship, not an Athletic Grant-in-Aid, but a Scholastic scholarship for my previous grades. And then, you know, grades that I got at Stanford.
Louis Goodman 05:01
After you graduated from Stanford, you went to law school at Berkeley, is that correct? At Cal Berkeley?
Tony Serra 05:10
I wanted to be a writer. I wanted to be a poet. I wanted to be a world traveler. So as soon as I graduated from Stanford, I went to Morocco and a lot of expatriates were there. There was a big kind of intellectual level of people writing and publishing.
Louis Goodman 05:31
Where in Morocco did you go? What city?
Tony Serra 05:33
Mostly in Tangier, but I traveled throughout because I, you know, I rented a little car and slept in the back seat and I traveled throughout Morocco, went up into the hill country, went into the desert, went to Casa Blanca, went to, you know, other cities in Morocco. I've always loved Morocco, for some reason. People are really friendly there.
Louis Goodman 06:00
Well, I've been to Morocco and I just loved it. I spent about six weeks there and traveled all over the country.
Tony Serra 06:06
Louis Goodman 06:07
Yeah. Well, let me ask you this. So how much time did you take off between college and starting law school in Berkeley?
Tony Serra 06:16
I would say roughly a year. Then at Berkeley in law school, I did real well. I think I was like number 11 of a class of about 320. So I said, well, this is easy stuff. And I took off another year and I traveled from Europe to ..., you know, sleeping in the desert, going at night because it was 120 during the day, seeing camel caravans along the way, going through Iran, et cetera. So then when I came back, you know, I resumed going to law school. And ultimately, as we've talked, made application at the District Attorney's Office.
Louis Goodman 06:57
When did you first start thinking about being a lawyer, where you first said, "Hey, you know, law school being a lawyer, that's really what I should be doing."?
Tony Serra 07:10
It was when I was in Morocco. When I knew that I wasn't fitted to be there because I was a jock. I didn't even drink coffee until I was 27, or tea. And they were all, they were all doing heavy drugs, man, you know, like good people, good minds, whatever you wanna call it. Idealistic, journalistic but doing an awful lot of drugs, heavy drugs, bad drugs, you know, and therefore I knew at that point, I'm gonna do something different. I'm not gonna hang out here. And I thought I'd go to law school, but this was in my mind. Absurd. As I look back, absurd, that I wanted to be a mafia lawyer. I wanted to go to law school. I wanted to then go back east, you know, I have brothers, we were all San Franciscan, but I have brothers, you know, two brothers who went back to New York. I could go back there. I could work with the mafia. I don't even know where the hell that was in my mind. But somehow it was, and it's absurd. And you know, much later in life, I represented mafia, did a big case in Miami, did a case in New York for mafia. They wanted me kind of to be their house counsel. I remember saying, "Hey, man, I'm a hippie from California. I'm a free spirit. I love you, but I'm not gonna work for anyone including the mafia." And you know, came back to California to the beginning of the Haight-Ashbury. You know, I was there, I was part of the Haight-Ashbury. I was there every night. I became a, my athleticism background made me like a free dancer. Oh, I would dance in front of the stage. You can remember all of the hand gestures and all of the rock and roll and all of the freaky dancing. I would bring an extra set of clothes with me, put it in a car. Because when that came out after about five hours of rock and roll dancing, I was completely wet with perspiration. So I had to change my clothes, but it shows you, you know, how I don't know, passionate, the sixties were in terms of the music, a part of it.
Louis Goodman 09:37
Now you were, you were famous for your criminal defense work. I would like you to explain just a little bit about how you got into the Alameda County District Attorney's Office and what you did there.
Tony Serra 09:52
Yeah. Yeah. When I graduated from law school and I had done well, so I could probably, you know, get work at any dimension of law practice, but what I wanted to do, always wanted to do, and I don't even know why was jury trials. Somehow the appeal, you know, of the peer group in terms of a serious judgment caught my imagination and my passion. So, I went around to all the Public Defender's Offices in the Bay Area. And they in essence said, 'No, we put you on the counter for the first year.' Oh. You know, meaning that you will be interviewing police, interviewing witnesses, interviewing victims, that kind of important. But it's not what I wanted to do, be on the counter. So then I went around to all the DA's Office and I got the same thing from San Francisco. 'No, the first year you're not gonna go to court.' So the only county that said, 'We'll put you right in, Tony, into court.' That's where I wanted to be. I didn't wanna be writing briefs. I didn't wanna be, you know, on the counter. And so I went with them and for 11 months, I, you know, prosecuted, mostly misdemeanors, mostly very short trials, day and a half, two days, something like that. But I had 34, I think, 34, 35 jury trials in that 11 months. So, in terms of my peer group, I was, you know, years ahead of everyone.
Tony Serra 11:37
So after that I took another trip. I've had a lot of nice trips in a homemade camper on an old truck. I went along the Pan-American Highway and there's a few places you gotta go by boat, and then took a year off to visit, you know, Mexico, Central America and South America. And I think get all the way down to Tierra del Fuego, and then I did come up the other side. So I saw a lot. So then when I came back, I opened my own practice. Haight-Ashbury was just starting then it was so fabulous, you know, to be there right at the beginning and see all of the music that was being created.
And they, you know, I can't say they, but parts of the Haight-Ashbury were turning toward the east. They were bringing in the philosophies, you know, of pretend Hinduism and the gurus, you know, appeared. And people lived collectively and there was a form of religion practice and out of that context, which kind of Buddhistic mentality, I took what you call a vow of poverty. And, you know, I said to myself, "I am amongst a peer group that will never let me starve." You know, these are good people. And for some reason, I came from a lower class, I never valued money. I somehow it's just something in me, you know, some peculiarity and quite the opposite, I don't respect people that do whatever they do merely for money, you know, for profit. So I took the vow poverty that I would never make, you know, like a profit off the practice of law.
Louis Goodman 13:38
Some point, I think your really first big public case was the Black Panther Huey Newton case. Is that correct?
Tony Serra 13:47
Well, to get that case, I did others that were, you know, serious. Murder cases, things like that. So, I was qualified. But absolutely, that's the one that gave me a national reputation. And I, you know, I used to sleep within the Black Panthers' houses in Oakland and in San Francisco, they thought they were gonna be raided. They had been raided back in Chicago. I think Fred Hampton had been killed. And so I would sleep there at night, you know, waiting for the police to come. They never came, thankfully. But that's how I met Huey. I would, he was always there. He would be, they had a paper that, you know, they generated there in San Francisco at their place. And so I got to talk to him and we became very friendly with him. And Huey was not a racist, you know? So he had no problem with the so-called white representing him. And he befriended youth. I mean, he wanted to be surrounded, at least in terms of litigation at that early period, he wanted to be surrounded by idealistic youth.
Louis Goodman 15:01
And you fit the bill as idealistic youth.
Tony Serra 15:03
Yes. So yes, that was like a big one. The courts were packed. It was like being in church because the courts were all packed and I be, pretend I'm cross examining, "Yeah, you did that, didn't you?" I could hear from the background "And you tell him, Tony!", "Right on, Tony!" They couldn't be stopped.
Louis Goodman 15:29
How has actually practicing law met or differed from the expectations that you had about it and how have those expectations transformed over the years?
Tony Serra 15:41
The second question is easy. I haven't changed. I still embrace, you know, the ideology, dare I say, of my youth. I remember I was back in Washington or something and a tourist bus pulled right in front of me and they yelled out the window for some odd reason,
"Hey man, what tribe are you in? What tribe?" Because I looked like an Indian when I was young, maybe born there. I'm old, I don't know. And I looked up and I go, "San Francisco hippie!" you know, like that's, and so, you know, it shaped my whole life and I adopted the more or less the, you know, the better portions of the, idealism of the sixties. And I retained it ever since. So what's different than what I expected? Sadly, I expected to go to New York and be a mafia lawyer. But that was quickly changed to being kind of the best, I was the best pro bono lawyer, you know, pro bono means you don't get paid, you're doing it for goodness sake, et cetera. So, I always kind of believed that unexpectedly I became the best pro bono lawyer. And I can remember like being in San Francisco and, "You want the Public Defender?" "No, we want Tony Serra!" Because they know I come in like a Public Defender, and as a consequence of doing that, I've come to deeply respect Public Defenders. You know, they're overworked, they're underpaid. They're not appreciated. They get too many cases they have to deal out. They can't go to trial and everything. They don't have the resources and they're up against the government with unlimited resources. So I've been a champion of the Public Defender's Offices.
Louis Goodman 17:42
Yeah. Let me ask you this. I'm holding up a copy of your book. The name of it is Tony Serra: The Green, Yellow and Purple Years in the Life of a Radical Lawyer. And it's a book that you wrote while you were in federal prison. And I'm wondering if you could explain what you mean by the green, yellow, and purple periods of your practice of law?
Tony Serra 18:08
Okay. Just as a preface, while I was doing 10 months, the last time I was in for being a tax resistor. They don't take my license because it's, you know, it's a matter of protest. I wrote three books and published four, a book on poetry. So that was one of the three. And what that purports to be is a metaphoric narrative of my career. So, the green years are obvious, it's obvious, is when I was young, I was green. You know, I was just starting and I give an account of my cases and my belief system during that time. Then, you know, in the mid life, it's the yellow, it's the time to harvest. It's a time, you know, when you are most respected, your cases become more noteworthy. I'm traveling all over the country doing various trials. I'm traveling all over the country making speeches. So those were the yellow years. The purple years are the ones I'm getting older, not as active as I used to be, taking on too many cases just to prove myself that I can still do it. But I see the darkness, you know, is on the horizon. Darkness means in this context, it is the image, you know, of death. So the purple is the what precedes, you know, the last of your life, so to speak. But I did all my cases in metaphors. Like I said, I'm in court and green, I'm making this up now because I don't remember what, but it was like this, green butterflies, I faced the jury! I opened my mouth and green butterflies flew out over, you know, the heads of the jury! That kind of stuff. So yeah, I made, I call it chromatic type of interpretation. It means a color interpretation of my career.
Louis Goodman 20:31
I gotta say, Tony, that this is one of the most interesting books by a lawyer that I've ever read. With your permission, I'm gonna read a paragraph right out of the book having to do with the Huey Newton Black Panther trial. You say,
"Green had dominated the trial. It had infiltrated darkness. We sent green radiance into the black hole of the judge's bench. We ensnared the prosecution with vines. I stood in the court on mowed and unmowed grass. It was a rush, an unstoppable force, a core of life, thrust and energy of the green sea, the green earth, the green planet. Huey Newton's trial for me was my first experience in harnessing the green force that underlies all life on earth."
I've never seen a lawyer write like that about a case.
Tony Serra 21:35
Hey, I don't know this be good or not. You never seen a lawyer smoke as much dope as I have. There was some of it...
Louis Goodman 21:46
Well, one of the things that I found really interesting in reading this book was that you have fought against the system your entire life. And ultimately, I think in looking back you can really say that to a large extent you were really right about things. About marijuana, about the overreach of the government.
Tony Serra 22:13
About the grand jury, about the informants, about mandatory sentencing, all of those things I protested over a life, you know, a career as a lawyer, I still protest it. As you say, one by one, they are fading or being knocked out.
Louis Goodman 22:31
Yes. And I think at the end, I read this whole book, by the way. And at the end of the, you really talk about. The, the power of the government and how, if you were a private attorney and you went to a witness and tried to bribe the witness with money, for example, you know, you would be committing a criminal offense, but the government is able to bribe their witnesses with shorter jail sentences, not going to prison, things that are way more valuable than money and how that corrupts the system. And I just think the way you spoke about it was, I don't know, it really impressed me the way you spoke about it.
Tony Serra 23:17
Well, it's something I feel every day of my life, practically. The overwhelming, you know, power that resources bring to the federal government. And, you know, we who defend are really kind of stripped of that and very vulnerable.
Louis Goodman 23:37
You recently had a case here in Alameda County, much of your career has been in Alameda County, the Ghost Ship case. And there were a lot of things that made that case. Very interesting from a sort of legal societal point of view.
Tony Serra 23:54
The issue is why was that case meaningful and significant? And it's because of the tragedy, man. So many people died. Beautiful young people, the best there were, you know. These were young people who were idealistic. That was the first time around. And the victim impact was so compelling. We were almost all crying. And the judge says, "I'm setting aside to plea. I can't go forward with it." You know, the family doesn't want it. And they wanna see him, whatever, go to jail for a long time. And so the plea was set aside. We did go to trial, you know, the case turned out better than we had hoped. And I think everyone who touched that case at any level came away with a form of, I don't know, chronic despair, you know? Serious kind of psychic impact.
Louis Goodman 25:06
What do you think is the best advice you ever received?
Tony Serra 25:10
I think it's important to have heroes, to have role models, to have images of people whom you respect and seek to emulate. And that's really important for your own spiritual growth. On the other hand, you know, you learn from them by their example, you seek to practice in a way you believe they would practice. George Martin McGuinness, I don't know who remembers, died young, but he was like a Shakespearean actor in court. Oh, he looked at the jury and he espoused poetry. Every case was, you know, part of his closing was poetry. And boy, when I heard it, you know, my whole mind prickled up and that's what I wanna do. So it's not like, he said Tony used poetry. You know, you will win 'em all, but you learn, you know, from example and then apply it. Then it becomes part of your modus operandi. And it's not derived from some lecture it's derived from watching it in action.
Louis Goodman 26:37
If a young person were coming out of college and thinking about a career, would you recommend going into law?
Tony Serra 26:43
Louis Goodman 26:44
Tony Serra 26:46
Several reasons. You gotta be goddamn strong. You know, you're going to be attacked, physiologically, not attacked by a person, I'm talking just your wellbeing. You're going to suffer, you know, from physiological, psychological, you're going to, you know, make enemies. You're going to be renounced. It's a tough life! I have five kids and none of 'em are lawyers. They're all, you know, artists or, you know, making movies and things like that, things that operate on the other side of the brain. And so law, first, it's this very high stress, and then secondly, my God, it's hard to win a case! The prosecution has all the advantages!
Louis Goodman 27:41
If you had a magic wand, there was one thing in the world, the legal world, or otherwise that you could change, what would that be?
Tony Serra 27:47
Or it's so easy, death penalty of course. My God, you know how many times have they ascertained now mostly through DNA that they've executed the wrong person? How many times? And beyond that, and beyond that death penalty has no validity. It isn't more economic. It's more because it costs so much, takes 20 years, you know, to finish the appeal. It's more costly than life without.
Louis Goodman 28:28
You've brought up the subject of economics. Here's a question that I often ask guests, and I really even wondered whether I should ask you this question, but I will. Let's say you came into some real money, let's say 3 or 4 billion dollars. What, if anything, would you do differently in your life?
Tony Serra 28:51
Understand this, I've taken vow poverty.
Louis Goodman 28:55
Tony Serra 28:56
It's real, so I couldn't take the money. I probably would give it to a charity and, you know. I probably would deflect it, that is, I wouldn't say no because I can use that to help people.
So, I probably would give it all to a charity. I wouldn't keep it. I've taken a vow of poverty. A guy with a vow of poverty with a billion dollars? That's absurd. And nor do I want the money nor I give a damn about the money. I've never cared about money. You know, I'm known for old suits and whatever you wanna call it, the old cars. And I live very frugally and I don't want your goddamn money. When they give you money, they want something out of you. There's a hook, man, but let's say there wasn't, what I would do would be give it away.
Louis Goodman 29:53
Is there anything that you wanna talk about that we haven't touched on?
Tony Serra 29:58
Yeah. Something that's going on in this country that's exciting and beautiful. And it is Black Lives Matter movement. I think that's the strongest thing that's come along in a long time. Attack on racism, you know, anti-Asian hate crimes. Those things are in vivid display now. The racism, you know, so Black Lives Matter and a movement there, it's the biggest thing
I think since Black Panther Party, you know. Black Panther Party really was for the betterment of the black people. And Black Lives Matter has to be for the betterment of black people and maybe all people, you know, that are subjected to death penalty. Any rate that that would be, you know, my view.
Louis Goodman 31:00
Tony Serra, thank you so much for joining me today on the Love Thy Lawyer podcast.
It has been a pleasure to talk to you today.
Tony Serra 31:11
Louis, thank you very much. And I've learned something from you. That means when something's profound smile at it, you've got a smile that beams out, you know, from your face that I can see.
Louis Goodman 31:30
That's it for today's episode of Love Thy Lawyer. If you enjoyed listening, please share it with a friend and follow the podcast. If you have comments or suggestions, send me an email. Take a look at our website at lovethylawyer.com where you can find all of our episodes, transcripts, photographs, and information.
Thanks to my guests and to Joel Katz for music, Bryan Matheson for technical support, Paul Robert for social media and Tracy Harvey. I'm Louis Goodman.
Tony Serra 32:08
Marijuana's legal so I can talk about it. There's something in marijuana for me, not everyone, that stimulates imagination. That stimulates, you know, your ability to juxtapose ideas and theories and, you know, factual data. So it's been very good for me in that respect.