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
UP TO THE VERY END, Stephen Yagman never stopped haggling and battling. After an unusually long sentence hearing that was drawn out over three days, U.S. District Judge Stephen V. Wilson finally hit the controversial lawyer with three years in federal prison. Loyola Law School Professor Laurie Levenson, who once worked as a federal prosecutor, says the sentence was “predictable.”
“In the end,” Levenson says, “it became any man’s sentence. I don’t think he was treated as the civil rights hero or the court villain.”
Yagman faced a maximum penalty of five years for one count each of tax evasion and bankruptcy fraud. The 17 money-laundering counts each carried a maximum of 10 years in the clink. Yagman spoke on his own behalf during the sentencing hearing, saying, “I have deep remorse, for I have made poor choices and shown poor judgment.” The attorney partly blamed sloppy decision making and paranoia, which he claimed were brought on by chronic back pain and his use of Vicodin and prednisone. Judge Wilson said the lawyer’s explanations were “difficult to swallow.”
Levenson pointed out that the judge gave Yagman “his day in court and more,” noting that the length of the sentence hearing was “extraordinary.” She added, “There are death penalty phases that don’t last that long.”
Prosecutors are not sulking about Judge Wilson’s three-year sentence. The defense, which asked for no prison time, and federal prosecutors, who sought a nine-year jail term, never expected Yagman to live out his life behind bars. “We’re pleased to have this resolved at the trial level,” says Thom Mrozek, a spokesman for the U.S. Attorney’s Office.
Yagman must surrender to federal authorities by January 15, 2008, and his lawyer, Barry Tarlow, said he plans to appeal the case. Specifics of the appeal are not known yet.
FIVE MONTHS AGO, renegade Venice Beach civil rights attorney Yagman — known for his contentious, and sometimes successful, battles with the Los Angeles Police Department, the FBI and federal judges — was convicted on one count of attempting to evade his taxes, one count of bankruptcy fraud and the 17 counts of money laundering. In addition to spending time behind bars, he can never practice law in California again, with the California State Bar already designating him as “not eligible” to remain an attorney.
And by the time he walked into court Tuesday, cops, legal experts, bloggers and civil rights attorneys were abuzz over his impending doom.
“For all you good people who don’t live in So. Cal.,” wrote a blogger named “1oldsarge” on the cop-friendly Web site Officer.com, “can you get the idea that we down here don’t really care for the guy? At least his license to practice law will get revoked. Plus he can give an awful lot of legal advice to his peers in the very near future.”
Yagman couldn’t have been surprised by those who wanted to see him suffer, since he always led with his chin while pursuing excessive force, civil rights abuse and other cases against the LAPD, Los Angeles County Sheriff’s Department and many others.
In 1992, Yagman won a high-profile excessive force lawsuit against the LAPD’s Special Investigations Section for shooting and killing three robbers at a McDonald’s in Sunland — setting off a major controversy when it emerged that the police did not act until well after the robbers had terrified and held up people inside the restaurant. It was one of many cases where Yagman battled the SIS, which he dubbed a “death squad.”
Yagman also won decisions for clients who were victims of the LAPD’s Rampart Division scandal and sued the federal government on behalf of terrorist suspects held at Guantanamo Bay, Cuba. He enraged many Angelenos by suing the LAPD over a fearsome and bloody 1997 bank shootout in North Hollywood, accusing police of crassly letting bank robber Emil Matasareanu bleed to death on the street, in full view of media cameras, while cops secured the area. Yagman sought an award of taxpayer cash for the gunman’s two young sons, but the trial ended in a hung jury.
Tuesday’s ruling followed a miserable five months for Yagman, if not for his critics. Instead of practicing his trademark activities — tangling with cops and mouthing off to the media — Yagman faced losing his freedom and possibly being disbarred from the only profession he ever wanted to pursue.
Things suddenly began looking up for him in August when Judge Wilson, who presided over Yagman’s four-week trial at the Federal Courthouse downtown, granted Yagman’s motion to acquit him of six counts of money laundering. Wilson’s dramatic reduction in the counts against Yagman set off controversy when a 2001 video emerged in which Yagman described his 20-year relationship with the judge as “friendly.” Leslie Dutton, host of the rowdy cable TV show Full Disclosure, and a handful of critics, including Loyola Law School professor Stanley Goldman, questioned whether Yagman got soft treatment from Wilson.
The defense asserted in court papers that even though the jury found Yagman guilty of all money-laundering charges, the evidence did not establish beyond a reasonable doubt that each transaction in question totaled more than $10,000 in criminally derived property. According to Yagman and his lawyer, Tarlow, the government failed to meet a test established by federal court precedent in seven of the 17 money-laundering counts.