So far, Stephen Yagman has 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.
According to Laurie Levenson, a professor at Loyola Law School and a prominent legal observer, Tarlow is a “hard-charging lawyer.”
“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.”
The professor is referring to Yagman’s singular habit of insulting federal judges — deemed extremely unwise in the legal world, yet almost a hobby for Yagman.
In 1994, Yagman grabbed headlines when he publicly derided U.S. District Judge William Keller as a “drunk” and an “anti-Semite.” As a result, he was suspended from practicing law by a federal Standing Committee on Discipline. In typical Yagman style, he fought back vociferously. The committee’s decision was reversed a year later — on the grounds of free speech.
At the time, now–Assistant D.A. Frey, a.k.a. “Patterico,” worked for Keller as a law clerk. “Yagman clearly said untrue things,” says Frey. “It was part of a pattern that he would say outrageous things about conservative judges so he could get them to recuse themselves for his civil rights cases — and then get liberal judges” to oversee his cases, often against police.
Yagman was once a guest on the cable talk show Full Disclosure. On the show, he claimed, “I think there’s intellectual corruption [among judges]. I don’t think there’s corruption in the sense of judges taking bribes, at least in the federal court system. I think there are people who are intellectually corrupt, who are not intelligent enough to realize and interpret the law correctly.”
Apparently, the jurist overseeing Yagman’s criminal trial, Stephen V. Wilson, is not intellectually corrupt or stupid. Although he was appointed to the bench by President Ronald Reagan in 1985, and might be a natural enemy of Yagman’s due to his conservative credentials, Yagman and Tarlow have wisely said exactly nothing against him.
One has to wonder if Wilson is feeling a special kind of glee seeing Yagman sitting, sweating, in his courtroom as a defendant.
“Wilson is a no-nonsense judge,” says Levenson. “I don’t think he will hold anything against [Yagman]. He won’t give him any leeway either. But he isn’t going to be rooting for his conviction.”
Geragos agrees that Wilson “runs a tight ship,” and Frey, who interviewed with the judge for a law-clerk position in 1994, describes Wilson as “great.”
“He will absolutely give him a fair trial,” Frey says. “He’s definitely one of the top judges. He’s really smart, and he’s really fair.”
Yagman is smart too, and almost endlessly resourceful. He will work every angle with Tarlow to nail down his acquittal. In fact, according to one employee at Tarlow’s law offices, the high-powered attorney has been regularly staying up until 1 a.m. prepping for the case.
“If [Yagman] prevails,” says jury consultant Hennington, “he’s going to be larger than life.”
Maybe so. But if Yagman fails, it will be a very, very hard fall. There are no courtrooms in federal prison in which he can pursue his calling of challenging the legal system and its judges. There are no quote-starved journalists waiting at his elbow for another verbal bomb. There are only men with names like Cornfed and Bonecrusher — and a lot of them can’t stand lawyers.