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Gigi Gordon's Death Matters

Gigi Gordon
ILLUSTRATION BY KYLE WEBSTER

Something was wrong. It was just after sundown in mid-January and Madelynn Kopple knew that her longtime friend, colleague and, most recently, housemate, famed Los Angeles criminal defense attorney Gigi Gordon, should have returned home from running errands hours ago.

When Gordon, who had been battling multiple sclerosis for more than a decade and whose condition was worsening, didn't answer her cellphone, Kopple and her husband rushed to their car and drove around the Westside searching for her.

Gordon earned a national reputation fighting dirty cops and unreliable jailhouse snitches and pushing for the preservation of old DNA evidence to use in exonerating the wrongly convicted. But in early 2011, she quietly took a medical leave of absence from running the Post Conviction Assistance Center and moved in with Kopple.

It seemed only fitting. Kopple, an attorney herself, had hired Gordon fresh out of law school more than 30 years earlier to help defend those accused of killing four people at a West Los Angeles Bob's Big Boy in 1980. Unlike most criminal lawyers, Gordon never worked any misdemeanor cases. She started with a death-penalty case and never looked back. It was the start of an extraordinary legal career and a meaningful friendship.

Over the years, Kopple and Gordon traveled the world together, visiting France many times to indulge Gordon's passion for cheeses and fine red wine. Together, they trekked through the monkey- and cattle-filled jungles of India looking for a German Hare Krishna who was in hiding and did not want to take the witness stand in an L.A. murder trial.

But by the time Gordon moved in with Kopple last year, Gordon's quality of life was beginning to deteriorate.

"She had MS for a number of years," Kopple says, "and she didn't want anyone to know about it. It was getting worse and she went into a horrible state of depression that no amount of treatment could help."

A voracious reader who could devour 20 books a month, Gordon knew her mind was being ravaged by the disease. In her journal, says Kopple, Gordon wrote that words would break apart in front of her eyes so that she couldn't understand them anymore. She confided to Kopple that she could no longer think clearly and knew she was rapidly declining.

After searching for Gordon for hours that evening in January, Kopple feared the worst. But she was not about to give up. At about 11 p.m., she set out again to look for her friend. Kopple remembered that Gordon used to take her dogs to a field in nearby Kenter Canyon, nestled among the hills above Brentwood, so she drove the narrow, twisting road to Crestwood Hills Park.

It was pitch-black outside, well after the park had closed, and Kopple encountered a tall, chain-link fence with a "No Trespassing" sign. Kopple could not see inside the park and didn't even know if Gordon was there. It was just a guess.

The next day, after Kopple filed a police report, officers found Gordon, 54, at the park, in the backseat of her car, dead from an intentional overdose of pills.

"It was like seeing someone very close to you sinking in quicksand," Kopple says, "and you try to grab them with your hand and they keep slipping farther away from you. As the months went on, it looked more and more like she was going to do this. She saw no hope, but she gave hope to so many."

David Allen Jones was one of them. Shortly after four prostitutes were murdered near an elementary school in 1992, Jones, who had an IQ of just 62, confessed and later was convicted of three of the killings. In 2002, Gordon began working on Jones' case. Through DNA, she was able to exonerate Jones in 2004 after tests pointed to Chester Turner, who was convicted in 2007 of being the serial killer who terrorized South L.A. and murdered 10 women.

"Gigi literally saved this guy's life," says her colleague on the Jones case, attorney Glen Tucker. "It was amazing."

Neither Gordon's ex-husband, Andy Stein, nor her fellow attorney at the Post Conviction Assistance Center, Christa Hohmann, can recall the precise number of wrongly convicted people Gordon helped exonerate or secure a reduced sentence for, but they say it was at least several dozen.

"Gigi thought of the Jones case as one of her biggest victories," Hohmann says, "but Gigi had a lot of 'biggest accomplishments.' "

District Attorney Steve Cooley first met Gordon during his campaign in 2000. After Cooley won, they began a decadelong working friendship. Cooley says Gordon helped shape his trendsetting and transparent "Brady compliance policy" — a policy copied by many other California district attorneys, which requires prosecutors to give defense lawyers certain evidence, even if it hurts the state's case.

Gordon also collaborated with Cooley to implement a 2001 state law enabling prisoners to seek postconviction DNA testing of evidence.

At the time, numerous big-city police agencies were still engaged in mass purges of old physical evidence, believing it was more important to clear shelf space than to save blood samples, rape kits and other evidence. Gordon slammed the practice in "Trashing the Truth," a yearlong investigative series by the Denver Post in 2007, saying, "To give the public the impression that the bad guy will be caught and the good guy will be exonerated based on DNA evidence is a fraud. ... Because more likely than not, the evidence is in the trash can, and that trash was taken out years ago."

In L.A., Gordon persuaded Cooley to preserve forever evidence in capital cases and to retain the files in most felony cases for 25 years. "If there was evidence that had not been previously [DNA] tested," Cooley says, "we set up a protocol to refer those cases immediately to Superior Court and to Gigi's outfit so nothing would drop through the cracks. We shared a common sense that accurate justice is the best justice."

Gordon also successfully crusaded against the use of uncorroborated testimony by jailhouse informants to secure criminal convictions. Along with a grand jury in 1990, she shed light on the fact that prisoners were lying in court in exchange for favors or leniency. This problem was addressed later by state legislators and strengthened last summer when Gov. Jerry Brown signed a law requiring prosecutors to supply evidence in support of testimony provided by a jailhouse informant.

A Superior Court judge tapped Gordon to sift through the aftermath of the Rampart scandal, appointing her to represent more than 2,000 indigent clients, all possible victims of dirty cops and bad arrests.

"Assigning one person to undertake that task was a cruel hoax because it was impossible for one person — much less a 50-person task force," says well-known former civil rights lawyer Stephen Yagman. But "She was good-hearted and a zealous advocate for her clients."

When Hohmann met Gordon in 2002, Gordon was wearing her typical uniform: a dark suit, black cowboy boots, eyeglasses swinging from a chain around her neck and a lit cigarette in her hand.

"Gigi taught me a lot," Hohmann says. "All the nitty-gritty details. Now the challenge is continuing on and using the skills she taught me to do the same volume and quality of work that she did."

When Gordon died, she left a pile of cases. Hohmann declined to discuss any of them, saying Gordon preferred to keep their work "under the radar."

"I don't think Gigi had in her mind the next big systemic problem to tackle," Hohmann says. "The future was all about refining and about the individual cases."

When asked about Gordon's life, friends and colleagues focus on her passion and intelligent sense of right and wrong.

"I think her legacy is the example she set for other lawyers," Cooley says, "and recognizing it's very important that aggressive but professional advocates on behalf of the accused are absolutely essential for the criminal justice system to work. If not, it would be despotic and corrupt. We need people like Gigi."

Reach the writer at cvogel@laweekly.com.

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