When lawyers have a mess on their hands, they call Charles Sevilla
Published in 2011 San Diego Super Lawyers magazine on June 2, 2011
Petitions for habeas corpus before the California Supreme Court tend to have fairly long and legalistic titles, such as “Due to the Pattern of Witness Intimidation, Petitioner was Denied His Right to a Fair Trial Under the 14th Amendment of the U.S. Constitution.” The document filed by attorney Charles M. Sevilla in 1987, petitioning for the release of Herman Martin, an insurance executive who was convicted of murder, was an exception.
It said simply: “Something Is Wrong.”
“That’s a very unusual title for a legalistic pleading,” says Sevilla, of the Law Office of Charles Sevilla. “But I felt something terrible had taken place in this case. A lot of information never came out in the trial, including that the defense witnesses were intimidated by the law enforcement investigator, and I needed to do something unusual to get the clerk’s attention because the case had already been appealed and lost.”
The gambit worked. Martin’s conviction for second-degree murder was overturned based on misconduct by law enforcement, and Martin, after pleading guilty to voluntary manslaughter, was released for time served. “Later,” Sevilla says, “someone in the attorney general’s office told me the petition got their attention because the title was so unusual.”
Those three words—“Something Is Wrong”—capture both Sevilla the sly wordsmith, who has penned two satiric novels about a bamboozling lawyer, and Sevilla the voice of moral authority, who instructs other lawyers about ethics. Criminal defense attorney Bob Boyce echoes a common sentiment when he calls Sevilla “the lawyer I would turn to if I was in trouble [with a case].”
Would and has. Five times, between 1985 and 2008, Boyce asked Sevilla to handle appeals of his cases; four times Sevilla has won. “In all four cases [that he won],” Boyce says, “I really believed in the clients, and I was devastated and bleeding all over the courtroom after we lost. I think of Chuck as the Mr. Wolfe character in Pulp Fiction, the fix-it guy who John Travolta and Samuel L. Jackson call when they have a body in the trunk. When I have a mess on my hands, I call Chuck.”
All four cases involved headline-grabbing legal issues—prosecutorial misconduct; jury misconduct; double jeopardy; and failure of the court to allow impeachment with Myspace materials.
“Although we were aware of most of these issues at the trial level, they didn’t fit neatly into established case law,” Boyce says. “What Chuck does is refine the point until it does fit and the court says you’re right. It’s because of his creativity and ability to express the facts in a manner that brings to light the injustice that occurred in the trial.”
Sevilla, a lover of quotations, explains his process via a line of Daniel Webster: “If he would be a great lawyer, he must first consent to become a great drudge.” Sevilla asks the trial attorney to flag any issues in the trial. Then he reads through volumes of trial material, doing what he calls “fact shoveling”: dividing all the relevant issues into legal categories. Then he researches to see if the category is worthy of inclusion in the appeal.
The description of his process may be straightforward, but it obscures the passion behind it.
In his office, Sevilla keeps a plaque with the words “Freedom: A Right Worth Fighting For,” which was given to him by Thad Jesperson, a popular elementary school teacher who spent two and a half years in prison on child abuse charges.
“[Jesperson] was a warm, wonderful guy who did all these extra things to bring education to children,” Sevilla says. “He would build a dinosaur model on his own time and then bury it in the sandbox so the kids could have an excavation.” Despite the sweetness of the scene he’s just painted, a quiet rage percolates when Sevilla recalls the way the accusations in the case escalated. “It went from, originally, ‘He didn’t do anything,’ to charges that he molested children in an open classroom, with parents and monitoring coming in all the time,” Sevilla says. “And no one saw anything!”
Sevilla won his release in 2007.
It should come as no surprise that, even as a kid, when he and his dad watched the Gillette boxing matches on TV together, Sevilla rooted for the underdog.
After graduating from Santa Clara Law in 1969, Sevilla went to The George Washington University to study urban law, or “poor people’s law,” as he puts it. His master’s thesis examined what happened when two large federal programs collided. Specifically, he found that the federal highway program always trumped the model city’s program, so highways always went through poor areas that were meant to be upgraded, “dividing and destroying neighborhoods with rivers of assault,” he says.
At one point, while researching his thesis, Sevilla called someone at the highway program at 4:30 p.m. on a Friday. “‘You know,’” Sevilla recalls the person saying, “‘we’re only about 20 minutes from Monday, so why don’t we continue then.’” Sevilla adds: “I learned a lot about the bureaucratic mentality. He was so fixated on the 5 o’clock departure that it’s a good thing I wasn’t there in person—I would have been trampled under all the people rushing to leave.”
After graduating in 1971, and returning to California to serve as a federal defender in San Diego, Sevilla got involved in his own bureaucratic battle. John Cleary, the head of the San Diego office, was a tough boss who demanded long hours, but this didn’t sit well with some of his young, underpaid underlings. In his second year, Cleary says, “Several of the attorneys decided to revolt and overthrow the dictator. They weren’t all that smart, so they enrolled Chuck as their advocate because they couldn’t write as well as him.”
Sevilla, a workaholic himself, didn’t have a beef with Cleary but took up the charge in documents he prepared for the organization’s board of directors. “[He] raised all my defects in glaring color,” Cleary says, “pointing them out forcefully and persuasively.”
After many months, Cleary won the battle. As punishment, he promoted Sevilla to be his chief trial lawyer. He simply respected his ethics, recognized that he was the best candidate, and never held it against him that he tried to get him axed.
Like most public defender offices, the San Diego office’s operation was underpopulated with lawyers and overpopulated with cases. Sevilla recalls working seven days a week, often with his wife, whom he had just married, joining him in the office on weekends and evenings. He worked on cases; she worked on history studies.
“It was a wonderful era for criminal defense,” Sevilla says. “The Warren court had just revolutionized criminal law in the ’60s.”
By the time he turned 30, Sevilla had argued two cases before the U.S. Supreme Court. Sevilla remembers few specifics from those appearances other than the banter. “One of the justices mentioned they got a lot of frivolous petitions, and I got a laugh when I quipped, ‘I might have filed one or two of those myself.’”
In 1976, Sevilla was appointed to head the new state public defender’s office in Los Angeles, which had 42 lawyers and half as many support staff. The office almost exclusively handled felony appeals. That was the primary lure for Sevilla.
“I love doing appeals,” he says. “In the trial arena, everything comes at you incredibly fast and it’s an incredibly stressful experience. I compare it to a man with a butterfly net. The issues are coming at you, and you catch some and miss others. The appeal is an opportunity to strategically think through your position in the briefing. I like the deliberative process and the opportunity to write my position.”
But he never cared for the bureaucracy of state government, and, in 1983, after Gov. George Deukmejian cut the office’s budget in half, he left. Enter his old boss, Cleary, with whom he had stayed in touch. The two started their own firm after agreeing on two rules. “We would never have any associates, and we would practice our own law,” Sevilla says.
Their type of law was groundbreaking. Two years after going into private practice, Sevilla established the current standard for the insanity defense. People v. Skinner involved a schizophrenic who thought God permitted him to kill his wife because of the “till death do us part” clause of the marital vow. Sevilla successfully petitioned to reverse a variant of the ancient “wild beast test” for insanity. Previously, the defendant had to show he or she did not understand the nature and quality of the act and did not understand right from wrong. Skinner established that it could be either, not that it had to be both.
Several years later, Sevilla handled the much-publicized appeal of former Mayor Roger Hedgecock, who had been convicted of 12 perjury counts and one count of conspiracy for violating the fair political practices act. “His trial was the last sequestered jury in San Diego County, and this case made sure there would never be another,” Sevilla says. “The juries were partying, drinking and talking to the bailiff about the case. The justice said they gave new meaning to ‘hung jury’ because one of the jurors was hung over during the verdict.”
Sevilla filed a 250-page brief in the appeals court. In 1991, the dozen perjury counts were thrown out at the state Supreme Court, and Hedgecock accepted a conviction of a single misdemeanor count in exchange for no jail sentence and no retrial.
Headline-making cases are not always successes, of course. “Most of Chuck’s battles are really uphill ones,” Cleary says.
Sevilla turns morose when he thinks of the uphill battles he’s lost. He talks at length about a recent client who killed his cousin with a knife. “[The cousin] was like a sister to him, but he got paranoid and thought she represented the forces of darkness.” The client was convicted and sentenced to 29 years to life. Sevilla thought he made a compelling case before the Supreme Court—that in the original trial, the attorney made a mistake in not pursing an insanity plea.
“The Supreme Court suggested in their opinion that the original attorney did a great job because his client wasn’t sentenced to death or life without the possibility of parole,” Sevilla says. “But he never faced those sentences! It surprised me the Supreme Court made an error of that magnitude without correcting it. But it’s as one justice said: ‘We are final not because we’re perfect, but because we’re the last court in town.’”
One of his most emotionally difficult cases was the death sentence appeal of convicted murderer Robert Alton Harris in 1992.
“Chuck took personal calls from Harris and helped with the guy’s morale,” Cleary says. “When he was fighting the execution up to the last second, Chuck was right up in the institution in the interview room.”
It was Sevilla’s uneasy task to monitor his client through the night to determine if he would suffer a mental collapse—which would mean he could not be executed, since condemned prisoners must be legally sane at the moment they are strapped into the chair to receive cyanide so they understand the punishment.
Sevilla had negotiated unmonitored phone access to Harris’ cell behind the gas chamber to keep him informed of the attempts to stay the execution. During the evening, as Harris ate his last meal, stays were issued by lower courts, and then overturned by the U.S. Supreme Court. Cleary recalls talking to Harris at 4:08 a.m., finding him “hyper-excited, hungry for details of what had happened.”
At 5:48 a.m., on April 21, the U.S. Supreme Court vacated the last stay and Sevilla said goodbye to Harris, who was escorted to the gas chamber. Sevilla sat numbly for the next hour staring out the window as witnesses to the execution filtered out of San Quentin. It was the state’s first execution in a quarter-century.
Cleary says, “In that case, Chuck felt like a failure, though, ironically, all his fellow lawyers remarked on how he performed at the highest level.”
As a way to vent the frustrations of his work, Sevilla has written two satiric novels about a lawyer, John Wilkes, named for a 17th-century, English, radical journalist and politician who spent much of his life alternately being jailed and elected to public office. Sevilla situated Wilkes’ adventures in New York so no one would think the characters were modeled on actual San Diego attorneys. Consequently, many New York lawyers wrote to him, asking if the characters were based on their friends. “I told them all this speaks to is the transcendental quality of the courtroom,” Sevilla says. “Whether in New York or San Diego, the experiences are the same.”
No one would ever mistake Wilkes for Sevilla, however. “He curses, bamboozles, wheedles, whines, and wins any way he can,” Sevilla writes of Wilkes in one of the novels. “He never met a judge he could respect.”
In contrast, when Sevilla talks about his clients, there is an unmistakable fondness. “[Mayor Hedgecock] may have made errors of judgments, but that balances against all the good he did,” says Sevilla. The schizophrenic who stabbed his cousin to death was, Sevilla says, “a nice young man who is stable and makes sense when he is under heavy psychotropic.
“In the work I do, you need to have compassion for your fellow man,” Sevilla adds. “Yes, they might have done wrong or made colossal misjudgments. Although they are being judged by the court system for the worst thing they did in their life, I look at their life span. I don’t judge them by the worst thing they did, but by the whole fabric of the threads of their life.”