King of the Tabloids
Mark Geragos is on the front page as often as his high-profile clients
Published in 2009 Southern California Super Lawyers magazine
on January 21, 2009
Updated on June 11, 2009
You know you’re traveling in the fast lane when you defend Michael Jackson and it’s only the third-biggest media circus you’ve encountered.
Or when The New York Times, in a splashy article headlined “For Lawyer, It’s Michael Jackson on Line 1, Scott Peterson on Line 2,” dubs you “America’s celebrity lawyer du jour.”
Or when, in a strange way, you have Kenneth Starr to thank for it all.
But on this particular day Mark Geragos is conducting business from one of his least-favorite places—his office. “Anyone here will tell you that if I’m here more than two days in a row, I go crazy,” the garrulous attorney says, pointing to the downtown Los Angeles offices of Geragos & Geragos, of which he’s the principal. “I love doing nothing but back-to-back trials.”
This discomfort is mitigated by the fact that it’s a Saturday—a day the 51-year-old Armenian-American Geragos normally reserves for the “procession” of clients who walk in, and for the free-wheeling working lunch attended by many of the firm’s other eight attorneys and nine staff. Over hummus, chicken salad, pizza, spring rolls and other dishes, topics veer abruptly from upcoming cases to rampant kibitzing over the identity of a staffer’s latest paramour.
But it’s clear that weekdays—and courtrooms—are what gets Geragos going. Not only is the law in his blood, he got his DNA from a D.A. “My father was sworn in as a D.A. in January 1957, the same month I was conceived,” he says.
Six-year-old Mark sat in the back rows and watched his father, Paul, try cases, an activity he continued until he shipped off to Haverford College. Even then he saw the appeal in practicing law.
“You could get paid for shooting your mouth off and not much else,” he says with a laugh.
While still proclaiming, “My father was one of the greatest lawyers I’ve ever seen,” he was most convinced to join the defender’s side by watching his dad send someone to state prison for “sitting in a room where marijuana was smoked.”
“It blew me away that you could sit in a room where someone else was doing something and be prosecuted. It stayed with me for years. I thought, ‘If that was the law, the law was an ass.'”
Upon graduating from Haverford, he attended Loyola Law School, where he moonlighted as a Pasadena rock concert promoter, booking some 300 shows, including The Pretenders, The Go-Go’s, The Ramones and Smokey Robinson.
In 1982, he began clerking for his father, who, after working in the district attorney’s office from 1957 through 1969, had formed his own law firm. A year later, Geragos passed the state bar and joined the firm.
In order to get trial experience in those early days, father would take son to the courtroom’s preliminary hearing floor and introduce him to judges, who’d appoint him to cases.
Although he was involved in all sorts of criminal cases and others involving the Armenian-American community, Geragos mainly stayed “under the public radar” until one day in 1995 when, as a favor to a friend, he visited a woman being held on charges of embezzling $150,000 from the conductor Zubin Mehta and his wife, Nancy, while working as their assistant and bookkeeper.
“No one knew who Susan McDougal was,” Geragos says.
By the time she was acquitted of all charges in 1998, McDougal was a household name and political cause célèbre, as a result of being caught in the crosshairs of “Whitewater” independent counsel Kenneth Starr in his pursuit of Bill Clinton. For refusing to testify, McDougal was charged with obstruction of justice and criminal contempt, and was transferred to federal custody, shackled, and kept in solitary confinement for up to 23 1/2 hours a day. Geragos handled that case, too.
During that trial, Hickman Ewing, the deputy independent counsel, revealed that he had a draft indictment of Hillary Clinton in his desk drawer. Under cross-examination, Geragos estimates Ewing answered “I don’t recall” about 50 times. When Geragos asked Ewing why he drew up the indictment, Ewing replied, “I didn’t like that she was evasive.” Shot back Geragos: “Sort of like you right now?”
“It was one of the closest things to a political show trial I’ve ever seen. They spent $160,000 on jury selection. We went over to the registrar’s office and got a list of the Democratic voters.” The final jury panel consisted of seven Democrats and five Republicans. McDougal was unanimously acquitted on the count of obstruction of justice. On the criminal contempt charge, the jury deadlocked 7-5, in favor of acquittal, along party lines.
As a result, Geragos was named trial lawyer of the year by the Los Angeles Criminal Courts Bar Association in 1999, and his on-air TV appearances as McDougal’s attorney begat a new (albeit nonpaying) career as a legal commentator on various shows, including Today, Good Morning America, 60 Minutes and Larry King Live.
It also began a procession of A- to D-list celebrities beating a path to his door, including Bill Clinton’s brother, Roger (DUI, dismissed); rapper Nate Dogg (felony kidnapping, arson, dismissed); actress Winona Ryder (shoplifting, three years’ probation and counseling); and U.S. Rep. Gary Condit, who was under suspicion in the case of the disappearance of his intern, Chandra Levy. (Regarding Condit, Geragos says that his firm’s investigation pointed to a man who had been attacking women in a nearby park, but because of the focus on Condit, much of the evidence against this suspect disappeared.)
Then suddenly, he was representing the King of Pop.
The Times’ “Jackson/Peterson” article portrayed Geragos as perhaps a tad over-extended, but Geragos says he wasn’t.
“I’d represented Michael for 18 months, and I thought we had established that the Arvizo family was essentially trying to shake him down. It was pretty much over. Then we started representing Peterson. Literally the last day of Peterson’s preliminary hearings, the Santa Barbara Sheriff’s Department searched Michael’s Neverland Ranch.”
Geragos represented Jackson for over six months after the search, and after he was charged and had several court appearances, Jackson dropped Geragos, claiming he couldn’t devote enough time to his defense. Geragos acknowledges this was true, but says another issue was paramount.
One of the counts against Jackson involved a “conspiracy to intimidate” the Arvizo family. That had to do, Geragos says, with an investigation he authorized into the mother’s background, to know who she was and what was going on. Geragos realized he’d have to testify at the trial. “I couldn’t be in a position of sitting on the witness stand, running up, asking my question, and dashing back to the witness stand.”
Jackson was exonerated of all charges. Peterson, his No. 2 media-circus case, wasn’t.
Peterson, a regional sales representative for an international company, was charged with (and eventually convicted of) killing his pregnant wife, Laci. Liking his demeanor and his directness, Peterson’s mother retained Geragos even after she saw him on TV commenting that Laci’s body’s being found in the same location that Peterson used as an alibi was enough to charge him in the case.
“I’ve never seen anything like the hostility and depth of anger toward Peterson,” says Geragos, adding that the “lynch mob mentality” helped convince him to take the case. “During jury selection I said that San Francisco has a high proportion of Buddhists and even some of them said in this case they’d make an exception to their opposition to the death penalty.”
At least some of that hostility resulted from Peterson’s hijinks with a mistress, and not behaving the way a concerned spouse with an AWOL wife “should.” Indeed, in his closing arguments, Geragos said the prosecution’s case was nothing more than trying to paint his client as “a jerk” and “a liar.”
But, Geragos emphasizes, there was never any forensic evidence establishing a crime scene, no less tying Peterson to the disappearance.
“This was probably the most difficult case I ever had to deal with,” says Geragos, who steadfastly believes the convicted Peterson is innocent.
“I know I’m drinking the Kool-Aid, but I still lose sleep over that case because I don’t think he had anything to do with Laci’s death.”
Geragos claims that knowing the case evidence better than anybody, including police and the district attorney, doesn’t matter.
“When I talk about this case—especially with professional women—I can go through every single fact, contradict everything they say-and finally the woman will say, ‘Well, I don’t care. I had a boyfriend just like that!'” Geragos says. “Everybody knows someone like that, and at some point it’s just visceral.”