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.
Judge Wilson agreed with the defense on six of the counts, saying that “no rational fact finder could determine whether the transaction involved criminally derived proceeds or innocent funds.” The other money-laundering counts, as well as the charges that Yagman had evaded taxes and committed bankruptcy fraud, were not overturned.
At the time, Mrozek, spokesman for the U.S. Attorney’s Office in Los Angeles, said the judge’s ruling did not negatively affect the overall verdict. “The core of the case is still there,” Mrozek said. “The case of criminal conduct remains.”
The government could not appeal Wilson’s slashing of the counts against Yagman, according to Mrozek, so in recent months the prosecution team — led by assistant U.S. district attorneys Alka Sagar and Beong-Soo Kim — tried to dig up more evidence to buttress their argument for a tough sentence against Yagman. During their probe, investigators discovered that the wily defense attorney had married K.D. Mattox in Aspen, Colorado, in 2005, begging the question of whether Yagman lied in court when he failed to disclose his marriage and claimed that he gave Mattox, his longtime “girlfriend,” the title of his Venice Beach home as a “gift.”
Yagman faced 120 years behind bars, setting off a flurry of speculation before his sentencing about just how long he would have to give up his Venice Beach law office on Ocean Front Walk. Mrozek — not given to guesswork as the official spokesman for the U.S. attorney — had said Yagman probably would not do much more than six or seven years.
When Yagman’s guilty verdict was handed down, Patrick Frey, an assistant district attorney for Los Angeles County, who as a private citizen blogs at the media- and law-oriented Patterico.com, was one of many law enforcement types who took a certain amount of glee in the lawyer’s downfall. A number of postings on Patterico.com, written by anonymous police officers, talked about attending Yagman’s sentencing hearing as if it would be some kind of tailgate party.
One person claiming to be a “retired vice cop” wrote, “As one who was frivolously sued by Yagman a number of years ago (he didn’t get a penny), it’s refreshing to see the law catch up to him at last. The legal system he has abused for so long is now holding him accountable.” And in a reference to what he might face in prison, including male rape, the cop added, “Don’t drop the soap, Yagman.”
Yagman, who has never been afraid to taunt the LAPD or the federal government through the press, vanished from the media following his trial five months ago, and rarely, if ever, uttered a peep in the weeks leading up to his sentencing.