The Last Hope

Dennis Riordan, who likes underdogs, takes on a mad-dog case

Published in 2007 Northern California Super Lawyers — August 2007

Like many San Franciscans, Dennis Riordan watched the 2002 trials of Marjorie Knoller and Robert Noel with great interest. The infamous “dog mauling” couple mesmerized the city with tabloid-ready behavior from the start, inspiring barroom shouting matches and quizzical head shakes.

For Riordan, who has practiced law in San Francisco for over 30 years, the interest was more than pedestrian; it was professional.

In a 2003 piece titled “Meet the Top Ten Lawyers,” the San Francisco Chronicle called Riordan “The Last Hope.” As the Bay Area’s top criminal appellate lawyer, the nickname seems appropriate.

Ask Damien Echols, alleged “ringleader” of the “West Memphis Three,” three young men convicted of ritually murdering three 8-year-old boys in West Memphis, Ark. Ritual murder of children doesn’t go over well in rural Arkansas, and the local police were under enormous pressure to nail down the suspects. They arrested the teenagers after one of the three, who is borderline mentally retarded, said he witnessed the crime. Echols and the other teen maintained their innocence. Their devotion to the culture of heavy metal rock music and Gothic dress code made them seem like probable suspects, and their crazy train to jail and death row rolled steadily forward, even as most of the evidence against them evaporated. Echols found Riordan and spent five months trying to convince him to join his appeal team. In 2004, when his time allowed it, Riordan jumped into the case. To date, he’s filed several writs of habeas corpus for Echols, the most recent of which is pending. Enhanced DNA testing is also underway—the results of which could lead to a new trial.

So it was that Riordan—who, over the years had built his reputation to the point where he could almost predict which cases would come his way—watched with great interest as the trial of Marjorie Knoller unfolded.

Knoller was indicted for involuntary manslaughter, keeping a mischievous animal that killed a human being and, most interestingly to Riordan, second-degree murder. Noel, her husband, who was not present when their two Presa Canario dogs, Bane and Hera, killed 33-year-old lacrosse coach Diane Whipple, was tried on the first two charges, but not the last.

Riordan’s firm, Riordan & Horgan, had been approached to represent Noel prior to his trial. They had no interest. “There wasn’t anything that attracted [us] to it,” he says. 

Whatever his personal feelings, Riordan was positive that this “horrible and extraordinarily disturbing incident” did not fit into the state’s definition of murder, which is exactly what Marjorie Knoller was convicted of by a jury.

Suddenly, Riordan was interested.

“Had that case come back with two involuntaries [involuntary manslaughter], our interest would have been the same as before. None,” says Riordan. “But the murder came back, and I said, ‘We’re going to get this call, and we’re going to do this case.’” Add soothsayer to his long list of skills. 

“This was a case where [our passion] was really prompted by a legal issue, not a deep connection with the client,” Riordan says. “There was no way the facts of that case could have fit into the legal definition of murder. The notion of that offense being held to fit the definition of murder just scared the hell out of me.” 

Knoller hired Riordan shortly after March 21, 2002, the day she was convicted by an L.A. jury. Riordan had the murder charge struck down in California Superior Court the following June 17. Then the Court of Appeals reinstated the conviction. This May 31, the California Supreme Court ruled that both courts interpreted the murder statute incorrectly, so the case is back in the Superior Court. For this particular case, Riordan’s work is not yet finished. 

Lingering cases are something Riordan knows very well. After all, he earned his legal stripes on an appeals case that lasted 14 years.

In his long career, Riordan has passionately argued cases for medicinal marijuana advocate Ed Rosenthal, fratricidal pornography king Jim Mitchell, former Ukrainian prime minister Pavlo Lazarenko, Irish prison escapee Pol Brennan and former San Diego city councilman Michael Zucchet. Then there was the case of Johnny Spain.

In 1975, fresh off a clerkship in Madison, Wis., with Judge James E. Doyle, Riordan came to California to join friends who had already come west. Riordan, who entered Colgate University in 1966 “relatively apolitical,” exited campus in 1970 a fiery veteran of anti-war sit-ins and protests. “By the end of the ’60s,” he says now, “there was nothing else [other than law] that I could think of doing.”

At New York University Law School, Riordan worked on the Attica prison riot cases, which did not endear him to prison cases. “Criminal law is like oncology in one sense,” he muses. “You’re always dealing with people who are in great distress. Some of them are wonderful; some are pathological.”

Soon after arriving in California, Riordan went to work for Charles Garry, the attorney Time magazine famously called “The Panthers’ Honky Lawyer.” Through Garry, he became involved in the travails of Spain, one of the “San Quentin Six.” “I wasn’t eager to get involved in a heavy prison case,” Riordan explains of his early interest. “It was more the opportunity to work with Charlie Garry.”

Spain, the son of a married white woman and a black man with whom she had an affair, was cast out from his family as a young boy, and sent to live with a family in South Central Los Angeles. By age 17, he was in jail for a murder committed during a botched holdup. He became a member of the Black Panther party while at San Quentin. There he met and was mentored by prison activist George Jackson, and participated in an August 21, 1971, escape attempt. During the chaos that ensued, Jackson and two other inmates were killed. So were three prison guards. In the 15-month trial that followed, three of the San Quentin Six were acquitted of all charges; two were convicted of assault. Only Johnny Spain was convicted for the guards’ murders.

Riordan’s commitment to Spain’s cause became legendary. He started working on the case in the public defender’s office, and then as a private lawyer, although he no longer received regular compensation for the case. Then, through the endless string of appeals, Riordan argued passionately for Spain’s freedom. He and Spain had become close. “He was about my age, a really smart person. He was somebody I related to and connected with in a personal way.” 

After 14 years, Riordan got Johnny Spain’s conviction overturned. He was elated, and exhausted. “I connected with Johnny,” he says, “and as a result, that [case], which went on for years and years, was personally debilitating. It’s hard to be so connected to a person’s fortunes when you have no control over what happens.”

Spain connected with Riordan’s sense of commitment to fairness and social justice. Riordan says he has been interested in issues of race since he was 13 and competed in a New York City-wide speech contest. “They had these enormous public-speaking contests for kids in Catholic school,” he recalls. Riordan made the finals, speaking before hundreds of people at La Salle Academy, a huge Manhattan high school. 

He was assigned a speech condemning racism and the Ku Klux Klan. Returning to the La Salle auditorium in December 1961, he says, “This was a stirring condemnation of racism in the South … and there were African Americans in the front row [of the auditorium]. I’d never given this speech on racism before people who were black.”

If that wasn’t enough, Riordan’s main rival, who eventually finished first to his second, presented Clarence Darrow’s closing argument in the Dr. Ossian Sweet case of 1926. (Sweet, an African American, was tried for murder after shooting a member of a mob that had gathered outside his Detroit home in 1925. The case is credited with creating the legal arm of the NAACP.)

“That case, of course, was all about race. It was incredible. An incredible argument.”

Riordan’s history of defending the seemingly undefendable might be difficult to understand without knowing him as a rights defender, anti-war activist and doting father. (Riordan notes, when discussing his now 23-year-old daughter, “You know how people say, ‘When I take my last breath, I’m not going to say I wish I’d spent more time at the office. I’m going to say I wish I’d gone to the volleyball games’?” I went to all the volleyball games.”) He has stood up in court for some very unpopular and seemingly guilty people. Some have been guilty but all have been victims, in Riordan’s eyes, of miscarriages of justice.

The truth is, Riordan is passionately committed to the law. He cannot stand to see it warped, twisted or bypassed. If this means attaching himself to a client as unpopular, reviled, hated as Marjorie Knoller, Riordan is willing to do it.

“You do this for 40 years, you know, you wind up seeing that the contradictions are great. Any notion of dividing the world into good guys and bad guys, well, as Mick Jagger said, ‘Every cop is a criminal and every sinner a saint.’”

To those who know him, Riordan’s reputation is unassailable. Lawyer Dylan Schaffer, who worked full-time with Riordan for several years before becoming a three-times-published novelist, calls Riordan “the lodestar in my career.”

“I have a hard time imagining a better colleague or boss,” adds Schaffer. “Even as a first-year associate, if I felt his approach to an issue was flawed, he welcomed the dialogue. There was, effectively, no hierarchy in the firm.”

In 1984, he moved his practice to a slightly renovated Victorian house in Hayes Valley, in what was then a tough neighborhood. He favors open-necked shirts and a desk piled high with papers. Has he managed to hold onto his ideals during the ride?

“I came out of law school with a political vision of what I would do,” he says, considering his track record. “Thirty-five to 40 years later, am I still somebody who would take a case for little compensation because of a general principle involved, or because a little guy is being treated unfairly? But I am also very happy to get an interesting, complicated white-collar case that pays very well.”

Riordan chuckles. “I sometimes say to people that my political principles are now down to one: try not to be stupid. And you know,” he adds, “there are a million ways to be stupid.”

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