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Tom Mesereau defends big names and no-names

By Ann O'Neill, CNN
Tom Mesereau handled the Michael Jackson and Robert Blake cases but prefers the cases of poor, no-name clients.
Tom Mesereau handled the Michael Jackson and Robert Blake cases but prefers the cases of poor, no-name clients.
STORY HIGHLIGHTS
  • Tom Mesereau won an acquittal for Michael Jackson in a child molestation case
  • He also got actor Robert Blake out on bail in his murder case
  • Mesereau defends at least one poor client in the South each year
  • He is highly critical of lawyers of who seek the limelight

Los Angeles, California (CNN) -- When a case spirals out of control, Tom Mesereau gets the call. He won an acquittal for Michael Jackson in a child molestation case that was followed by millions.

For Robert Blake, accused of murdering wife Bonny Lee Bakley, Mesereau set the groundwork for acquittal with a preliminary hearing that was more like a mini-trial. He also got Blake out on bail, almost unheard of in a high-profile capital murder case.

But what kindles the fire in Mesereau's belly are the capital cases of little-known defendants from the Deep South: the homeless black man who faced the death penalty for allegedly killing a white woman in Alabama; the woman accused of beating her toddler to death with a plastic bottle filled with M&Ms. He won acquittal for the first, and the other client was convicted of manslaughter but spared the death penalty

Mesereau, who is 60, represents these poor clients for free, handling at least one trial a year. He also operates a free legal clinic in South Central Los Angeles.

"He is very dedicated to social justice and volunteers an incredible amount of his time to clients who would not otherwise have a chance in our system," said Loyola Law School professor Laurie Levenson.

A chance meeting with Michael Jackson's brother, Randy, later led to Mesereau's representation of the most famous pop star in the world.

"He did a great job in the Jackson case and he didn't have the world's easiest client," Levenson said. "His cross-examination in the Jackson case was masterful."

Tom Mesereau walks into court with his most famous client, Michael Jackson, the late King of Pop.
Tom Mesereau walks into court with his most famous client, Michael Jackson, the late King of Pop.

Levenson added that Mesereau is "impressive in and out of the courtroom."

His presence in the courtroom is commanding. He is tall, with broad shoulders, chiseled features and an arresting mop of snow-white hair. Legal peers consider his laser-like cross-examination skills to be the best in the business.

But Mesereau seems unaffected by the limelight; if anything, he avoids it.

"I'll never instigate getting the media involved in a case," he said. "There are some lawyers out there who will try to promote their clients' problems to try to draw attention to themselves. I am not one of them. I see lawyers acting like clowns just because there's a camera around."

During the Jackson trial, Mesereau lived like a hermit in a rented condo, far from the Santa Barbara hotels where the media stayed. He was in bed by 8 p.m., and up by 3 a.m.

He learned discipline early. He was born into a military family in West Point, New York. His father, a close aide to Gen. Douglas MacArthur, was on the battleship Missouri with him when Japan surrendered, ending World War II. After the Army, his father joined the family business -- Mama Leone's Italian restaurant in New York City's theater district.

But Mesereau didn't follow his father to West Point. He graduated cum laude from Harvard, where he was on the boxing and football teams and protested the Vietnam War. He received his law degree from Hastings School of Law in San Francisco.

After a brief stint in Washington as a speechwriter on Capitol Hill, he joined the Orange County district attorney's office. But he soon learned his true calling was defense work. In one of the first cases he was assigned to prosecute, Mesereau recalled, he wanted to hug the defendant, a 14-year-old accused of shoplifting.

Mesereau's first celebrity client, or at least the first one who received publicity, was heavyweight boxing champ Mike Tyson, who was investigated for sexual assault in San Bernardino County. Mesereau persuaded prosecutors not to file charges.

I see lawyers acting like clowns just because there's a camera around.
--Tom Mesereau, attorney
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The Blake case catapulted Mesereau to fame, although he didn't last until the trial. Blake was known as a difficult client, and Mesereau was the second high-profile lawyer to leave the case before trial.

Soon afterward, Jackson's family begged him to take the criminal child molestation case, replacing attorneys Mark Geragos and Ben Brafman. The Jackson family told him he came highly recommended by Johnnie L. Cochran Jr., who won acquittal for O.J. Simpson.

Mesereau still cringes when he talks about the circus atmosphere surrounding the Jackson case. "Mountains were made out of molehills," he said. "The case was characterized by crisis, shock and confusion."

In "Defending Michael," an article Mesereau wrote for the Los Angeles Daily Journal, a legal newspaper, he recalled the morning Jackson hurt his back, went to the hospital and was late for court. When the judge threatened to revoke bail, Mesereau ordered his client to come to court, immediately.

"His pajama bottoms became a media feast," Mesereau recalled. "But they had no bearing on the trial or verdict. The jury foreman later informed me that no juror even noticed Michael's pants, or lack thereof."

Mesereau defied conventional wisdom in a case involving children, aggressively grilling the young accuser, who was a cancer survivor. And he brought the jury into Michael Jackson's world.

"He was a very kind-hearted, gentle, sensitive, intuitive artist who truly believed he could heal the world in some positive way," Mesereau told CNN. But, he added, "He attracted one profiteer after another. There was loneliness, isolation, distrust. The cruelest thing of all was taking children and turning children against him."

Jackson was acquitted of all charges -- a verdict that surprised many. But Mesereau saw it coming. "I thought we were winning all along," he said, even though media reports indicated otherwise.

During the trial, Mesereau fended off encroachments from other lawyers who, he said, "were constantly trying to get to Michael." Reporters called up old girlfriends, digging for dirt. Journalists tried to cozy up to the lawyer, promising favors for inside tips.

He hasn't tried a celebrity case since, although in Los Angeles, his defense of real estate agent to the stars Joe Babajian received plenty of attention. Babajian, who was accused of mortgage fraud in federal court, was acquitted of 13 counts, and the jury hung on the remaining 8 charges.

Mesereau knows the Jackson case is part of his legacy.

"No matter what I do in the future, I'll be judged by that case for the rest of my career."

Quote: "Big cases either tend to take you sky high or drop you into the pits of hell."

Clients: Michael Jackson, Robert Blake, Mike Tyson

Personal: He's traveling to Alabama this month to defend an African-American man facing the death penalty for allegedly executing a man over a drug debt. None of his clients has received the death penalty.

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