The Warrior Poet
Because he had to get some demons out of his psyche, Chuck Patterson discovered he was a poet
Published in 2004 Southern California Super Lawyers magazine
on January 26, 2004
Updated on July 31, 2015
So, is a litigator really a hired gun? Who better to ask than Chuck Patterson, the lead outside counsel for Madison Guaranty in the Whitewater Investigation, a Vietnam veteran and the author of an acclaimed book of war poetry, The Petrified Heart. For a poet who’s fired a gun in combat, does the metaphor ring true?
“In the sense that a barrister gets called in at the last minute, yes,” says Patterson. “But in the sense of having animosity against the other side, no. A trial is a game unless you’re dealing with somebody’s freedom or life. Usually what’s at stake is money. And it’s not even your money.”
Patterson has played the game of litigation extraordinarily well for more than 30 years. A partner in the Los Angeles office of Morrison & Foerster, Patterson has tried more than 100 cases to a verdict before a jury and 30 cases to the court. He recovered $97.5 million for Malibu landowners in a rockslide suit. He has sued Hughes Communications, represented Campbell’s Soup (winning $5 million plus) and defended an ad agency in a suit brought by Vanna White.
Patterson’s distinction of a trial as a game from matters of life and death may come from Vietnam, where he served from 1967 to 1968 as a captain with the 3D Marine Division just south of the DMZ. He received multiple decorations and returned to civilian life, only to discover “that nobody wanted me to talk about it. I had to decide whether I was going to lash out with rage or forget about it. I took everything I had from the Marines and put it in chests or in the back of closets.”
Along with his uniform, he buried the first lines of a poem about Hank Norman, a fellow Marine who was killed during the siege at Khe Sanh. Patterson had written poetry as a boy, which he describes as “pretentious, overly scholarly” imitations of established poets. In Vietnam, he began to find his own poetic voice, only to have it stilled by civilian life.
In 1982, as the nation began to heal its wounds with the erection of the Vietnam War Memorial, “it all welled up again,” he says. “I had to get it out.” He finished the poem about Hank Norman 14 years after he began. As he continued writing, he sent poems every so often to “a guy I’d been with in Vietnam.” Nearly 20 years later, in the summer of 2001, “I got a call out of the blue from a publisher asking how many poems I had, because they wanted to publish them,” he says. “I’d thought I was going to give them to my kids and grandchildren.”
Poetry hasn’t made him wealthy — “if you sell a thousand copies, that’s great.” But he’s received letters from writers praising his work. And, most valuable of all, he hears comments from those to whom he has given a voice, “the veterans who say, ‘I read your book. I keep it with me.’”
A FELLOW MARINE ON DEATH ROW
In the late ’90s Patterson was asked to look into the case of fellow Marine Manuel “Manny” Babbitt, who was awaiting execution on death row, a case that became the most publicized of Patterson’s extensive pro bono work. (He received the American Bar Association’s 2000 Pro Bono Award.)
“He had a drunk and a bigot as a defense counsel,” says Patterson of Babbitt’s lawyer, who was later disbarred, “and a prosecutor who was willing to do anything to get him convicted.” Defense had failed to adequately present Babbitt’s history of mental illness before, during and after Vietnam, and also failed to present clear evidence that could have put reasonable doubt in the minds of the jurors.
In addition to leading the efforts to reverse the district court’s denial of habeas corpus, and when that failed, to prevail upon the governor to grant clemency, Patterson filed some military paperwork. Babbitt received the Purple Heart he had earned in Vietnam — on San Quentin’s death row.
In spite of $1.1 million in time and expenses expended by Patterson and two associates, Babbitt was executed on May 4, 1999.
“Before he was executed, Manny and I talked a lot about dying,” says Patterson “Veterans understand it. You learn — in his case at 18 or 19 or in mine at 26 — that you can die anytime, anyplace. He was all right with the idea that he was going to die. And I was all right. It goes into my chest with all my friends in Vietnam.”
HELPING THE DESTITUTE
Patterson looks to the future with The Fund for the Unrepresented on Death Row. He is founding this charity for death row inmates who are destitute so they can pay for glasses, doctor’s visits, paper and pens, and other necessities.
“I feel very lucky about life, compared to my friends who died over there, to get up in the morning, see the sun, the ocean, listen to the birds, talk to my wife.” Patterson quotes a sign he saw in 1968. It was written on a portion of a discarded C-ration box in the tactical Operations Bunker at Khe Sanh: “For those who have fought for it, life has a flavor the protected never know.”
Patterson’s book, The Petrified Heart, can be ordered through major online and retail book sellers.