Stephen Yagman — the blustering, hated, brilliant, beloved, disbarred lawyer who won fame by regularly defeating police departments in brutality lawsuits, got out of federal prison in 2010, having served three years for bankruptcy fraud and money laundering.
Today, the once high-flying Yagman is quietly hunkering down in his former Venice law offices, working on the most important and improbable legal battle of his life: restoring his ruined integrity and regaining his revoked license to practice law.
The normally voluble Yagman is keeping an exceptionally low profile, but he's raising eyebrows anyway. He hopes to win back his old life by having his conviction overturned on appeal before the U.S. District Court for the Central District of California.
And to do that, among other things, Yagman hopes to convince the court that his good friend, Irvine School of Law Dean and legal scholar Erwin Chemerinsky, misrepresented him and screwed up Yagman's previous and unsuccessful appeal.
Last November, Yagman filed a petition for a writ of habeas corpus to vacate his convictions. Key among his claims since then: that the government withheld evidence and that he got ineffective assistance from Chemerinsky, who worked pro bono on his appeal.
Top appellate lawyers in Los Angeles describe Yagman's chances of convincing the court that Chemerinsky ruined Yagman's appeal as “next to zero,” “forget about it” and “absolutely no way.”
In fact, appellate attorneys say, the number of times a judge has agreed to overturn a habeas corpus case on appeal in recent years can be counted on a few fingers.
Yagman's crimes include his failure to pay $158,000 in taxes, 17 counts of money laundering and bankruptcy fraud for hiding his assets — including a 2,800-square-foot house in Venice — from creditors and trustees when his firm Yagman & Yagman went through bankruptcy.
Yagman is hated by many cops, but also by many attorneys. In the criminal case against him, brought by the U.S. Attorney in Los Angeles, he tried to get that office's prosecutors disqualified. It didn't work.
“We knew going into the case he would throw everything he possibly could at us,” Assistant U.S. Attorney Beong-Soo Kim told the Legal Intelligencer last February.
At his 2007 sentencing hearing after Yagman's conviction, a courtroom spectacle stretched on for three days as he pummeled U.S. District Judge Stephen V. Wilson with haggling and legal minutiae. The scene prompted Loyola Law School Professor Laurie Levenson, who once worked as a federal prosecutor, to say, “There are death-penalty phases that don't last that long.”
Yagman's almost singular intensity, even among L.A.'s subculture of aggressive and hard-headed litigators, worked like a charm in numerous cases he took on behalf of victims of police mistreatment. But those same skills have not worked in his own defense.
Dennis A. Fischer, a respected appellate attorney, says of Yagman's effort to overturn his conviction: “I don't think much of his chances. These are seldom successful.”
Yagman is arguing for a writ of habeas corpus — essentially, yet another review of his case — after a judge reviewing his first appeal, put forth by Chemerinsky, found nothing wrong with the government's case and refused to overturn Yagman's conviction.
“Recent decisions of the U.S. Supreme Court have expanded restrictions on habeas corpus relief,” Fischer says. A 5-4 vote against such maneuvers has solidified under Chief Justice John Roberts.
Still, Yagman has an uncanny ability to pull off seemingly impossible legal stunts.
In the late 1990s, Yagman became one of the most reviled lawyers in Los Angeles after agreeing to represent the family of a violent bank robber in the infamous 1997 North Hollywood shootout at Bank of America. The shootout is considered by many to be the longest and bloodiest event in U.S. police history.
The crime left both robbers dead and 18 police and civilians — including many bank customers — injured. It played out for hours on local TV, riveting Americans who watched as the two heavily armed robbers, wearing sophisticated military-grade body armor and using armor-piercing bullets, outgunned the regular police in a running battle through the streets. After better-equipped SWAT arrived, the robbers were pinned down.
In the hours that it took LAPD to secure the area and uncover possible accomplices, one gunman, Emil Matasareanu, shown on TV alive and lying handcuffed in the road not far from an LAPD officer, slowly bled to death.
Police said they never realized he was mortally wounded, but his family sued LAPD for failing to save Matasareanu's life.
Yagman stepped forth to take the case, and managed against great odds and massive, mostly negative press coverage to get a hung jury. He pressured LAPD to pay a settlement for the Matasareanu family, but failed.**
Yagman's friend Donald W. Cook, whose law firm Robert Mann and Donald Cook in 1995 was named the NAACP's “Civil Rights Law Firm of the Year,” says, “The North Hollywood case riled so many people, but the basic factual case was a good one.” Given the negative public reaction, Cook asks, “How the hell would you ever win that case? The basic factual issue in that case was the cops let the robber bleed to death. Maybe the cops were justified to delay the response, maybe not … but it was a good factual case.”
Yagman's targeting of his famous friend Chemerinsky fits perfectly with the outrageous, often over-the-top style that's made Yagman the scourge of violent cops and helped him win millions of dollars for victims.
“I'm not condoning or excusing conduct that led to the criminal conviction — because it sounds like the government had a lot of evidence” against Yagman for bankruptcy fraud and money laundering, Cook says.
But, he adds, “I hate it when critics say that the practice of law is better off without [Yagman], that we're better off without him in the federal court taking his cases to trial. That's just nuts. The civil rights bar was much better with him — and owes him a debt of gratitude.”
There's widespread doubt that the widely published, prominent Chemerinsky can be painted by anyone — even the wily Yagman — as a guy who screws up cases.
Cook says, “In the rarefied existence [of appellate attorneys], Erwin is at the top.”
Peter Eliasberg, legal director of the ACLU of Southern California, says that, thanks to a recent Supreme Court case, a challenger such as Yagman “must show that council's representation fell below an objective standard of reasonableness.”
Chemerinsky commented on the case by email to L.A. Weekly, saying, “I am sad that Mr. Yagman made these allegations. I worked very hard to provide him the best representation I could. I encourage anyone to read the briefs I filed and the transcript of the oral argument in assessing Mr. Yagman's allegations.”
Yagman claims Chemerinsky didn't have enough time to devote to his case. But Chemerinsky writes to the Weekly: “I devoted a very significant amount of time to writing the briefs and preparing the oral argument. I think that will be evident to anyone who reads the briefs or listens to the tape of the oral argument.”
The two men are widely believed to still be friends, and Yagman told the Legal Intelligencer a few months ago that he and Chemerinsky have been “close friends for over 20 years.”
Yagman still keeps an office at the law firm now run by his ex-wife and a partner, based in the same old building in Venice. A secretary there said Yagman could not be reached. Once so willing to offer up quotes to the media, Yagman was not around to discuss his unusual quest.
** Correction: The original version of this story incorrectedly said that Yagman won a settlement payout from the LAPD for the Matasareanu family.