Pubdate: Sat, 25 Mar 2006
Source: Guardian, The (UK)
Copyright: 2006 Guardian Newspapers Limited
Author: Tony Thompson
Bookmark: (Marijuana - California)
Bookmark: (Cannabis - Medicinal)


Dope-Smoking Radical Who Wins Unwinnable Cases Loses His Own Fight

For any other lawyer, a jail term would mean financial ruin. For Tony 
Serra the 10-month sentence he starts this weekend for 20 years of 
tax evasion will be little more than a much-needed rest. With his 
long silver hair in a ponytail, his tie-dyed shirts and his admission 
that he smokes cannabis every day, Serra, 72, isn't like most 
lawyers, yet in a 40-year career he has built an unrivalled 
reputation of being able to win cases others dismiss as unwinnable.

What makes him remarkable is that, in a country where lawyers are 
among society's top earners, he has no credit cards, savings or bank 
account and owns no property. All his clothes are from charity shops 
or the Salvation Army. His net worth is whatever he happens to have 
in his pockets.

'I was born without a desire for material things,' he says in his 
downtown San Francisco office, where incense burns and ethnic prints 
and hand-painted murals adorn the walls. 'I am a child of the Sixties 
and that ideology - anti-materialism, brotherhood, non-racism - these 
are the things I still believe in.'

Occasionally Serra accepts payment for his services and uses the 
money to pay staff and bills, but for the most part he works for 
free. His client list has included Hell's Angels, environmental 
activists, Black Panther radicals and members of the Symbionese 
Liberation Army, which kidnapped Patty Hearst.

This is his third tax conviction. He did not pay in 1971 as a protest 
against the Vietnam war and served four months in prison. He forgot 
to pay in 1979 and got probation. His defence this time, apart from 
that he is 'financially dysfunctional', is that, having never 
profited from law, he could not possibly be liable for tax.

Serra was so poor that his five children - Shelter, Ivory, Chime, 
Wonder, and Lilac Bright - were put through college by his older 
brother, the hugely successful sculptor Richard Serra. The Internal 
Revenue Service saw things differently, announced that Tony Serra 
owed $500,000 in back taxes and demanded he be jailed. Many of 
California's leading lawyers attended court to testify that Serra had 
been their chief inspiration in taking up law. Having pleaded guilty, 
jail was inevitable. Serra must also pay back $100,000 at the rate of 
$1,500 per month.

Jury trials are the exception rather than the rule in the US. The 
process is expensive and the proceedings so drawn out that most 
defendants try to strike some kind of plea bargain. 'Most lawyers 
here don't like trials,' said Serra. 'But I love them. A lot of times 
I get attached to cases to add leverage. It shows they are serious 
about going to trial.'

He took on the case of an American Indian facing the death penalty 
for shooting a police officer in what he claimed was self-defence. 
Serra got him acquitted. 'In all, I've won four death penalty cases. 
Most of the time when lawyers talk about winning a death penalty 
case, they mean they managed to get the sentence reduced to life 
without parole. When I say I won, I mean the defendants were 
acquitted and walked out of court.'

In the words of one admirer, Serra 'uses his voice like a musical 
instrument'. He has juries hanging on his every word. His animated 
closing arguments often last several hours and regularly include 
poetry and even song.

'When I graduated I wanted to be a poet. I went around Europe on a 
scooter then ended up in Morocco with the expat crowd. I fell in love 
with a heroin addict. It was beautiful, amazing, but very 
self-destructive. I said to myself, "What are you doing? You're not a 
heroin addict. Do something else with yourself." '

He began as a prosecutor but was soon disillusioned. 'I didn't want 
to spend 40 years putting people in cages. I decided I'd work at 
setting them free instead.'

Serra's other great passion is marijuana. Much of his inspiration 
comes from what he calls 'cannabis consultations', and he defends as 
many drug dealers as he can, seeing the war on drugs as a war on 
civil rights. 'It hasn't stopped me from functioning as a lawyer, so 
I find it hard to subscribe to the view that it is harmful.'

Having smoked the drug illegally for years, Serra was recently 
certified to use medical marijuana to ease the pain of two hip 
replacements. Whether he will be allowed to continue using in prison 
is something his own lawyer is working on. 
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