By Hillel Aron
By Joseph Tsidulko
By Patrick Range McDonald
By David Futch
By Hillel Aron
By Dennis Romero
By Jill Stewart
By Dennis Romero
So far, Stephen Yagmanhas been behaving himself. The successful and controversial Venice Beach civil rights lawyer hasn’t called anyone a “drunk,” an “anti-Semite” or “corrupt.” Then again, the prospect of spending 180 years in prison can quickly silence a man, even one who has created a rebel reputation with his big mouth.
Last week, Yagman, the defendant, attended the first day of a trial against him by the United States government at the Federal Courthouse downtown. He is charged with one count of attempting to evade payment of taxes, one of bankruptcy fraud and 17 of money laundering. If Yagman loses on all 19 counts, he could grow old and die in jail.
These are big stakes for anyone, but especially for a public provocateur. This is a man who has often successfully taken on — in the press and in courts — the Los Angeles Police Department, the FBI, the IRS and the federal court system. He could become a righteous martyr for those who hail him as an important civil rights attorney, but Yagman is a certain breed of lawyer who craves the limelight. If he loses, Yagman won’t be the center of anyone’s attention and will never practice law again, particularly against his favorite target: the LAPD, which he has often described as a “criminal enterprise.”
Yagman undoubtedly understands the import of his current legal predicament. The civil rights attorney is not defending himself, instead opting for the services of criminal-defense lawyer Barry Tarlow, who represented Mel Gibson during his infamous drunken, anti-Semitic episode and who has represented other celebrity clients, such as Courtney Love.
“He is loyal to one person only,” says Levenson, “and that’s his client.”
Tarlow has already presented the core of his defense: that every count against Yagman can be reasonably explained and reinterpreted. The lawyer also insists Yagman is the target of the U.S. government because of his client’s widely reported battles with various federal agencies. While the presiding judge, Stephen V. Wilson, refused to dismiss the case on those grounds, it is telling that the judge has already allowed Tarlow to question the motives of the federal agents who started the Yagman investigation.
“I have no doubt Yagman and his lawyer are going to make a circus out of this trial,” says Patrick Frey, a Los Angeles County deputy district attorney who operates the influential legal-community Web site Patterico.com — and who distrusts Yagman. “They’re going to make it a David-versus-Goliath thing.”
The federal prosecution team, led by assistant U.S. attorneys Beong-Soo Kim and Alka Sagar, says it will present a winnable case over a two-week period expected to end in about mid-June. “We believe we have the evidence,” says Public Affairs Officer Thom Mrozek of the U.S. Attorney’s Office in Los Angeles.
But that depends on how far Team Yagman will go to defeat them.
For the opening statements last Wednesday, Assistant U.S. Attorney Kim wrapped up in 45 minutes. Yet Tarlow spoke to the jury for three hours — longer than most feature-length movies, and without the popcorn and soda. It was a clear-cut signal that the defense plans to engage in a contentious trial, questioning every minute detail of the government’s case. It’s not at all clear if Kim and Sagar can match that trademark Yagman relentlessness.
“They have to do a full-court press” against the federal prosecutors, says Mark Geragos, a Los Angeles–based criminal-defense lawyer who clashed with the feds when he successfully represented Clinton-family insider Susan MacDougal during the President Bill Clinton–Whitewater fiasco. “His career is at stake.”
Geragos, who believes the bombastic and yet erudite Yagman fills an important niche in the legal world as a “defender of the downtrodden,” also says the civil rights lawyer must be true to himself during the trial.
“The most effective travelers in this life are the ones who are most comfortable in their own skin,” Geragos notes. In other words, Yagman shouldn’t suddenly become St. Francis of Assisi on the witness stand.
Laurie Levenson isn’t so sure. “He can’t change his personality,” says the professor, who knows Yagman and says she gets along with him. “He has to be himself in front of the jurors, or else he comes off as fake. But his outspokenness may hurt him.”
Marshall Hennington, a Beverly Hills–based jury consultant and clinical psychologist, concurs: “People do not always appreciate wild cards. They like people who are calm and rational. When they run into someone who doesn’t fit into the box of mainstream society, they have a problem with that person.”
Hennington, though, believes Yagman, with his dramatic and even mesmerizing stage presence, will endear himself to the jury. “He will be credible and likable on the stand. He just needs to be himself, and all that entails. He’s not the type of person you can coach, anyway, which is not a bad thing.”
Still, Levenson can see Yagman’s full-throttle ways causing him problems. “It hasn’t always worked for him in the past. It has gotten him into trouble, and this time if he gets into trouble, he’ll be sitting in prison waiting for an appeal.”