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Uncensored Tony Serra: Consummate Criminal Defense Lawyer

Tony Serra in his office. Photo: Jonah Raskin.

“In the 1960s I was dropping acid and doing cases pro-bono and decided then and there that I didn’t want to own things. In that sense I’m a Marxist. I’ve been in jail three times for not paying taxes. I’ve always helped prisoners. There’s usually a long line of people waiting to see me for legal advice.”

– Tony Serra

On December 2, 2016, a fire swept through a living and workspace in Oakland, California. Thirty-six people died, many of them attending a late night party in a converted warehouse known as the “Ghost Ship.” Investigators never determined the cause of the fire, but the Alameda County District Attorney charged “master tenant” Derick Almena and his assistant, Max Harris, with 36 counts of involuntarily manslaughter. The DA did not bring charges against the “acting landlord,” Eva Ng, or against her mother, Chor Ng, and her brother, Kai Ng, who together own the building.

Legendary civil rights and civil liberties lawyer, Tony Serra, defended Derick Almena. San Francisco attorney Curtis Briggs defended Max Harris. Before the trial began, on April 2, 2019, Briggs charged the Alameda County DA with “institutional corruption” for prosecuting “an underdog.” On September 5, 2019, the jury found “underdog” Harris not guilty of all charges. The same jury was unable to reach a unanimous decision on Almena.

Judge Trina Thompson—the first African American woman elected to be a judge in Alameda County— declared a mistrial for Serra’s client. He went back to jail while Harris went free. Almena may face another trial. He’ll find out on October 4. Family members of the deceased have filed civil lawsuits against the City of Oakland.

This interview took place in Tony Serra’s law office on Geary Boulevard in San Francisco where he was planning to host an “Impeach Trump Rally” with wine, music and speakers.

For those who don’t know you, how would you introduce yourself?

A: I went to Stanford and studied epistemology and then to Tangier thinking I’d be an ex-pat writer, but the people I met were using opiates and I didn’t fit in. I’d been a jock at college and didn’t even drink coffee until I was 28. I came back to the States, graduated from law school and went to work in the D.A.’s office in Alameda because I wanted courtroom experience. After that I went to South America for a while. When I came back the Haight-Ashbury was blooming. A whole house would be busted. Between 1964 and 1966 lots of people wanted me to defend them so I got even more experience.

You were part of that scene and shaped by it, weren’t you?

In the 1960s I was dropping acid and doing cases pro-bono and decided I didn’t want to own things. In that sense I’m a Marxist. I’ve been in jail three times for not paying taxes. I’ve helped people on the inside. There was always long line of people waiting to see me for legal advice.

I pay $450 for a small apartment where I live in North Beach. I wear old clothes from second-hand stores. My wife and I raised five kids in Bolinas. I have a brother who’s a famous artist. I defended the Black Panthers and stayed up all night with them behind sand bags when we expected a police raid.

Did the judge impose a gag order during the trial?

Yes, gaged throughout the trial and until after the verdict. Judge Thompson imposed it. Not my choice. I believe in the First Amendment and that the media should inform the public.

You don’t know if your client, Derick Almena, will be retried and you’ll be back in court. Do you feel like you’re in a legal limbo?

The main thing is that I won’t negotiate. I don’t talk to my enemy. The worst that could happen is after a second trial there would be another hung jury. It would cost the state at least half-a-million-dollars to retry Almena. Most of the families of the people who died in the fire want closure, so that favors dismissal. The DA might make an offer we can’t refuse. If there were negotiation, co-counsel would do that. He’s artful.

I remember attorney Bill Kunstler telling me that he once saw himself as “an officer of the court” and that during the Chicago Conspiracy Trial he changed his perspective and saw himself as an advocate for the defendants.

I have never thought of myself as an officer of the court. That title and what goes with it, is a way to manipulate a lawyer so the judge can exercise control.

How do you think the Ghost Ship fire trial will be remembered in the annals of American jurisprudence?

It’s an aberration and not a landmark case. This whole thing should have gone to civil court. The case was prosecuted to try to create a scapegoat and deflect from a civil suit against the city of Oakland, the fire department and the landlords who own the building. Sadly, that’s the way politics works. I have said that behind the scenes. Now I’m saying it openly.

In 2018, before the trial began The New York Times ran a long piece by Elizabeth Weil about Harris and about Almena. She depicted Almena as evil.

It was a nasty piece that hit him below the belt.

The media has often cast Harris as the angel and Almena as the devil.

Max is young. He graduated from art school and his professors were character witnesses. He totally co-operated with the government; during the fire he went back into the building to save lives. He was a hero. He should never have been indicted. In a way, I was handicapped by Max’s heroism.

Derick world have set himself on fire if that would have satisfied the families who wanted his blood. After he was locked up he was on suicide watch. When he was on the witness stand I think he did a damned good job. Jurors always want to hear from the accused. We gave them what they wanted when Derick testified.

Did you hold back anything during the trial?

Everything that I wanted to be revealed was revealed. I left out some things that would have agonized the families of the deceased.

I have friends who are legends in their own minds. You’re a genuine legend in the minds of a great many people.

I’m an old guy. I’ll be 85 in December. I’ve been around so long that I have outlived my enemies. Positive attention is good when you’re young, not when you’re old. I came out of the office one day during the Ghost Ship trial and a guy on the street walks up to me and says, “Why do you defend such horrible people.” I get that, too, and hate mail.

What drives you?

I want a reality in which everyone gets a fair trial and a lawyer. Poor people under our system don’t get the same justice as rich people, and black people don’t get the same justice as whites. Everyone knows that. It’s no secret.

I like to say that if I could be reborn I’d like to be reborn a black woman activist. They know what’s wrong with the system instinctively and they’re on a noble quest for equality under the law.

Did you consider a change of venue in the Ghost Ship Trial?

No, because we could never get a better jury than in Oakland.

What about Judge Trina Thompson?

I respect her. She came from the working class and became a public defender. She took death penalty cases. During the trial she let me get physically close to the jury and raise my voice and read poetry and use body language. Some judges don’t allow that.

Are you in contact with Almena?

I talked with him today. I met with him in jail after the verdict. I put money on the books for him all the time. He has been under appreciated. He’s an artist with a sense of community and loves his wife and children who were living at the Ghost Ship. Derick wouldn’t have allowed that if he thought it was unsafe. No sheriff and no police said that the building violated any code. On the contrary they said it was beautiful, awesome.

Do you think that the Trump administration had shaped the criminal justice system?

Not in San Francisco, but in Texas. Trump scares people. He’s the greatest threat to our democracy in my lifetime. He’s impeachable because of his collusion with the Russians. Everything he does is for a profit, and he has packed the courts with right-wing men who will jeopardize liberty for decades. Trump has poisoned the well.

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