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How Dean Johnson Became a Journalist

A phone call to chasten legal pundits catapulted the criminal defense attorney onto national TV

Published in 2012 Northern California Super Lawyers magazine

One rainy Wednesday afternoon in 2004, Dean Johnson was at home watching MSNBC. He was furious.

“I’m just railing at the television,” he remembers.

The Scott Peterson trial had caught fire in the national media. The case, in which Peterson was charged in the deaths of his wife, Laci, and their unborn child, was being tried in San Mateo County—Johnson’s backyard. It was also being tried on cable news.

“I’m listening to broadcasts on national television analyzing the case, and the people who were the ‘pundits’ … some of them had never tried a case in their life,” Johnson says. “I don’t think any of them ever practiced in California, and here I was, a California lawyer who does criminal prosecution and criminal defense, who was a homicide prosecutor, and they’re just … wrong, wrong, wrong.”

After watching her husband gesticulate and yell about various mistakes, his wife, also an attorney, asked, “Why don’t you just call them?”

So he did. “I said, ‘Hi. I’m a California lawyer. … I was a prosecutor for 15 years and I’m now in private practice. I’ve been watching your commentary, and I think a lot of the things you’re saying about what’s going to happen are just wrong.” MSNBC’s response? Get down here. Pronto.

“I made my first TV appearance that afternoon, on the Dan Abrams show,” Johnson says. So impressive was Johnson that a producer asked him to stick around and talk about the sexual assault case against Kobe Bryant. Within a week, Johnson was on television every day.

“I started getting calls from ABC, NBC, CNN, the Larry King show,” recalls Johnson, who had just moved his criminal defense practice into a new building, where he was virtually the only tenant. So when the media circus came to town, Johnson’s landlord rented space to the journalists. “I would get a call from ABC and they’d say, ‘We’ve heard that you can comment on the case; would you be willing to?’ and I’d say, ‘Of course,’ and they’d ask, ‘Where are you?’ and I’d say, ‘Right across the hall.’”

A couple of years ago, he found himself running back and forth in federal court for KGO-TV, between the Barry Bonds trial on one floor and a constitutional argument on another. His assignment editor called and barked, “Where are you, Dean?” Johnson told him he was in between courtrooms. The editor snapped, “You get back to this station right now.’” Says Johnson, “I thought, ‘Oh, thank you. I’m finally part of the family.’”

For months during the Peterson trial, when Johnson didn’t have to be in court for his own cases, he was on TV around the clock. His days started at 3 a.m. and didn’t end until after the 11 p.m. news.  “There were times during the Peterson case when, if you watched the 6 p.m. news, you’d see me on channels 2, 3, 4, 7, 11, and, if you got cable, 56 and 60—all at the same time.”

The day the country breathlessly awaited the verdict, he says, “My anchor, Heather Ishimaru, put the mic in my face and we went live. She asked if I had a prediction, and I said, ‘I know what’s going to happen. Scott Peterson is going to be convicted, and he’s going to get the death penalty.’ And she took a step back. … I don’t think anyone in TV would make a prediction like that, but having sat there and watched the arguments and watched the body language of the jurors and having analyzed the evidence again and again, it was just so obvious.”

As much face time as Johnson logged during the case, he is quick to point out that he was not the only highly visible analyst. Still, he had parlayed it into a paying gig.

“I actually became a journalist,” he says. “My contract with ABC is exclusive for local television programming with ABC-7/KGO.”  KGO submitted his coverage of Proposition 8 for an Emmy (though he didn’t win, it was quite an honor), and he put his prognostication skills to use again when he called Justice Sandra Day O’Connor’s retirement. “I was reading Supreme Court cases and looking at the trends in O’Connor’s opinions, and it became very clear to me that she was on the cusp of a huge change,” Johnson says. “So I sent an email to my managing editor and said, ‘Keep your eye out for a major story about O’Connor.’” Four days later, she resigned.

Of course, Johnson is still a practicing attorney. His criminal practice is a true solo act, with just Johnson and his computer. “Everyone always asks me, ‘How are you a lawyer, too?’” Johnson says. “I guess the answer isn’t that satisfying, because it’s simple: It just all works out. Sometimes it’s downright spooky.”

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