Mesereau’s new found fame
Mesereau’s Fame Doesn’t Alter Focus
The attorney who won Michael Jackson’s acquittal sees himself as an advocate for the mistreated, especially in the black community.
By Carla Hall, [LA] Times Staff Writer
It’s hard to miss a 6-foot-2 white man in a black church — especially a man with a shoulder-length mane of white hair. But on a Sunday at West Angeles Church of God in Christ, Thomas A. Mesereau Jr. was doing more than just getting noticed. The criminal defense attorney was causing a bit of a stir.
"Let me shake this hand!" said churchgoer Wayne Boylan, reaching out to him.
"Thank you for helping Michael!" gushed Valata Williams as she approached.
During the five months that Michael Jackson was on trial on child molestation charges, Mesereau was a fixture of daily TV footage, shown walking into and out of the courthouse. He rarely spoke or waved, his big, broad-shouldered frame encased in double-breasted suits, his layered hair flowing in the breeze.
Jackson’s acquittal in June catapulted Mesereau from familiar face to legal star, the country’s newest celebrity lawyer. It is a designation he detests.
"I have no desire to be Mr. Hollywood," he says.
Barely 10 years ago, Mesereau was in the process of retooling from mostly civil law to a criminal defense practice, even buying the videotape of Johnnie Cochran’s closing statement in the O.J. Simpson criminal case to study a master at work.
Now, he stands to inherit Cochran’s mantle as the defender of choice for people in big trouble. He continues to act as a kind of general counsel for Jackson, who is embroiled in civil litigation. And he won’t say no to taking on another star.
But if Mesereau is going to be a celebrity — inadvertent or otherwise — he has decided the image he wants to project is as a defender of the mistreated, particularly blacks.
"My mother always told me, from a very early age, that black people are closer to God than we are," said Mesereau, who has taken Jackson as well as former client Robert Blake to church.
The ‘we’ refers to white people. "To survive the horrors of slavery and all the efforts to degrade and dehumanize black people, she always told me that black people developed a closer connection with God."
That may sound patronizing coming from an affluent white person, but over the last two decades, Mesereau, 55, has linked his identity to the black community, which in many ways is the place he calls home.
So he found himself sitting in another black church on a September night with the man who may be his next client: Tony Muhammad, a Nation of Islam community activist. Muhammad could face misdemeanor charges from the Los Angeles city attorney for his role in an altercation with Los Angeles police during a street prayer vigil in August that left him injured. Muhammad may also sue the city over the incident.
"I really wasn’t looking for another case to take, but I’m outraged," said Mesereau, who offered his services to Muhammad pro bono. "I’m very offended that the LAPD would beat up one of the main peacemakers in the community."
Mesereau is a lot of firepower for a misdemeanor case. But it’s more a cause than a case.
"I know what people don’t know in other neighborhoods. And they know nothing about how you work with all these other races and religions," he said to Muhammad, as a cluster of activists stood around them before the start of an evening meeting at Bethel African Methodist Episcopal Church. "This is a city which is extremely segregated. People don’t travel into other neighborhoods."
"That’s real," Muhammad said.
"People need to know what you really do, particularly in this day and age, with Muslim-phobia, whatever you want to call it."
"They need to know you go to all these different churches and work with everybody," Mesereau said. "They don’t know that."
"He’s accepted as a lawyer without color," said Brian Dunn, a black attorney with the Cochran firm, which is also representing Muhammad for a possible civil suit.
Dunn marveled at Mesereau’s ease as the only white person at a dinner of six that included Muhammad and Nation of Islam leader Louis Farrakhan. "These are two of the blackest black people — and it’s not like he’s feeling self-conscious," said Dunn, who attended the dinner. "He was being himself. He wasn’t trying to sound like a black man. He sounded like a white man."
Much of Mesereau’s life since the Jackson verdict has been predictable: a lot of speeches to law groups and students, an appearance on "The Tonight Show With Jay Leno."
He will be featured on the Nov. 29 ABC special "Barbara Walters Presents: The 10 Most Fascinating People of 2005." And a high-powered agent is circulating his book proposal.
But he’s also taken on the role of mediator. In the last few weeks, he has mounted a campaign to restore an outreach program between black churches and the Jewish community, calling pastors at various churches and a rabbi at the Reform synagogue, Temple Isaiah.
"I see myself as a facilitator," said Mesereau, who is neither Jewish (he was raised Catholic) nor, of course, black. "In my opinion, both communities need to understand each other and work with each other more."
Today, many of Mesereau’s friends — including the woman he lives with, Minnie Foxx — are black, as are most of his former high-profile clients.
He represented Patricia Moore, the Compton city councilwoman who was caught on tape taking bribes and was convicted of extortion.
Mesereau also defended Larry Carroll, a local newsman who had been accused of a complex fraud. Those charges were dismissed.
And finally, there is Michael Jackson — the seemingly self-tortured black man who is one of the most famous and unusual celebrities in the world.
"I didn’t get to Michael Jackson through a Hollywood connection," Mesereau says. "A person close to Michael Jackson knew a lot about my work in the black community." For Mesereau, the Jackson matter was everything he could want — a high-profile case with "an absolutely ideal client on a personal level" whom he saw as persecuted by overzealous prosecutors.
"There’s no question in my mind he was targeted because he was a celebrity," Mesereau said. "They went after him with more passion and resources than they did with murderers."
Santa Barbara County Dist. Atty. Tom Sneddon, who prosecuted Jackson, declined to be interviewed.
Despite the acquittal, casting Jackson as a victim of the system is a hard sell. Mesereau has paid a price for acting as Jackson’s protector— even in the community where he feels such kinship.
Mesereau quit his longtime membership in the First AME Church, where he helped run a free legal clinic, after the new pastor, John Hunter, refused to let the church send children to Neverland while Jackson was facing charges, and then spoke to Court TV about it.
"I’m very disappointed in the church’s position," said Mesereau, who also stopped doing his legal clinic work on Sundays at First AME and now offers his services at West Angeles Church of God in Christ. "I just thought it was inappropriate for kids to be going out there at any time," Hunter said. "This is somebody that has been charged with child molestation, but more importantly has admitted to sleeping in the same room, if not the same bed, with children. And that is inappropriate by most standards."
Mesereau says Jackson has never acted inappropriately with children or allowed them to stay in his duplex-sized bedroom without parental approval. Nonetheless, Jackson "has to recognize what a target he is," Mesereau said. "I have counseled him not to let families stay in his bedroom."
When Mesereau, who has no children, is asked how he would feel about his girlfriend’s young son staying in Jackson’s bedroom, he threatened to walk out of an interview.
"I’m not here to be interrogated with sleazy questions like that," he said.
Later, he offered a more measured response: "I’ve been at Neverland with my girlfriend and her son. He has spent time playing with Michael and his children and his family. I am absolutely convinced that Michael has never molested any child in his lifetime."
Mesereau revels in surprising people who expect a successful white attorney to confine himself to glittery clients and glitzy surroundings.
Before the trial started, he took a BBC film crew to an anti-violence street march in Watts and a service at First AME Church. "It wasn’t exactly the flashy Hollywood experience they were looking for," he said, breaking into his big, throaty laugh.
Mesereau’s father was a West Point graduate and former wartime aide to Gen. Douglas MacArthur. His mother’s family founded the now-defunct Mama Leone’s restaurant in New York.
After a rocky academic start in Englewood, N.J., he did an extra year of high school at the prestigious prep school Andover Academy. He went to Harvard, where he majored in government and boxed in intramural competitions, before earning a master’s degree at the London School of Economics and attending UC Hastings College of the Law in San Francisco.
He spent an unhappy year as a prosecutor in Orange County, where he says, "I was a fish out of water." He also worked at various law firms and for a Getty Oil subsidiary. Along the way, he picked up experience in business law and did some white-collar criminal work.
By the mid-1980s, he had a respectable corporate and civil practice and a Brentwood condo, which he shared with his wife, a 1970s-era fashion model, once known as Heidi Lieberfarb, who walked the runway for the designer Halston and appeared in fashion magazines.
Ultimately, he was content with none of it.
"I woke up one day, I was married to the wife who was a model, I was the Harvard graduate, I was a partner in the law firm, and everything was not as great as it seemed," he said.
He told Dana Cole, an attorney and close friend from law school, that he planned to read every book on criminal defense and become a famous criminal defense attorney.
"I don’t recall ever saying I was going to become a famous criminal defense attorney," Mesereau says now.
"I swear on the Bible," Cole said, laughing. "Because it was so funny for someone to say that. If it wasn’t ‘famous,’ it conveyed that thought — he would be one of the best."
Mesereau set out to educate himself, watching lawyers in court and voraciously reading books by defense attorneys. He was dazzled by Clarence Darrow and William Kunstler and their fearless representation of controversial clients.
He took up pro bono work, both in Los Angeles and in the Deep South. A fervent opponent of the death penalty, Mesereau has teamed since 1999, mostly with attorneys in Birmingham, Ala., to represent Southern death penalty defendants, both white and black. "If you can, bury them in your opening statement. That’s his philosophy," said attorney Charles Salvagio, who has worked several times with him.
"Defense attorneys are taught to be cowardly," said Mesereau. "They’re not taught to go all out and take risks. I think you should," he says.
His personal style is just as bombastic. "Many people say, ‘What’s with that hair? What’s that all about?’ " says his friend Cole. "When it comes to juries or judges or the media, it’s just separating yourself from the crowd."
As Mesereau moved up the food chain of criminal law, he became adept at casting his clients as victims of a system wielded by overzealous, over-charging prosecutors.
Moore, the Compton councilwoman, he argued, had been targeted unfairly by the government. "I argued it was based on race," he said. She was convicted on 13 of 23 counts and sentenced to federal prison. "I had gone through three attorneys prior to him," said Moore, whose lengthy case Mesereau accepted pro bono. "Tom was the only one who made me feel like there was a possibility of real justice. You didn’t feel like you were in the battle alone."
John Potter, the former assistant U.S. attorney who prosecuted the Moore case, calls him "a very skilled lawyer" who does his job at full tilt. "I view those claims merely as a legal tactic," said Potter, who now defends white-collar criminals in San Francisco. He added, "I personally recognize Tom was trying as best as he could to defend his client."
Subtlety is not in Mesereau’s legal arsenal. A court has levied sanctions against him for interrupting a deposition of his then-client Robert Blake, and for referring to the opposing lawyer, Eric Dubin, as "a clown." Mesereau, who was fined $18,950, is appealing the matter.
Dubin says Mesereau was grandstanding during the videotaped proceedings. "He was trying to show Robert Blake and the world that he was a tough lawyer, because at that time he was unknown by everybody, including Mr. Blake," Dubin said.
Mesereau won Blake’s release on bail after the actor had spent a year in jail. But he and his partner, Susan Yu, left the case before trial after "a falling out" with Blake. None of the parties would discuss the case. But Mesereau’s departure left him available when Michael Jackson came calling.
"He loves walking into a difficult situation," Cole says. "He likes being in the ring, punching when there’s nobody else but just him and an opponent."
The Jackson trial was more triathlon than boxing match.
The schedule was grueling, the unsolicited advisors irritating. "You should have seen these letters I got — ‘Why don’t you dress Michael in a suit?’ ‘Why don’t you have a blond girl walk in next to him?’ " he said. "What a bunch of morons."
And the media were relentless. During the trial, the National Enquirer ran a photo of a grinning Mesereau, drink in hand, wearing a T-shirt and shorts and a dog collar around his neck. In the photo, taken about 10 years ago at a Malibu party, he is kneeling next to a smiling woman in dominatrix gear who stands holding a leash attached to the collar.
"I think it’s as amusing as everyone else does," Mesereau said, laughing and recalling that he wasn’t the only one posing for photos. "Guys were doing it one right after another."
Even Mesereau’s girlfriend, Minnie Foxx, an actress, singer and proprietor of her own beauty salon, was enveloped by the Jackson publicity. A Vanity Fair story this summer by Maureen Orth — whose reporting Mesereau calls obsessively pro-prosecution — referred to Foxx as "a black chanteuse" and pointed out that her website "features pictures of her performing at Hustler publisher Larry Flynt’s supper club."
Her website does have photos of her at the club — wearing a long-sleeved dress. "I was afraid when that came out, it was going to hurt the direction I was going in," but instead her website traffic soared, she said as she sat in a West Angeles Church service wearing a sleek black sheath and heels.
Foxx met Mesereau four years ago when she was working in the restaurant of a now-closed club called Ladera. She was 36. He was 51.
"At first I was like, ‘Wow, I don’t know if I should go out with him or not.’ I’d never dated a white man before," said Foxx, a former Mademoiselle Courvoisier spokesmodel with high cheekbones and a sinewy frame.
"He was very much a gentleman. Just the laugh and the dimples lured you in."
They have been living together for three years with her son, now 8, from a previous marriage. As somebody who runs what she calls an "image salon" she has tinkered a little with Mesereau’s look, getting him to change his glasses. Otherwise, she lets him be who he is.
Foxx and Mesereau rent an unremarkable duplex in the Fairfax district. "I could have bought a house any time I wanted," Mesereau said. "I didn’t take a vow of poverty. I’ve always made money. I’ve always had paying clients."
He has extravagances: custom-made suits and shirts, nice restaurants. But the party that Foxx held for him in her salon as a belated victory celebration seemed to be more Mesereau’s style. Streamers and swirling multicolored lights filled the shop. Plates of cold cuts and dip were set out on tables and a makeshift bar was stocked.
Crowded into the salon were all the reflections of Mesereau — the friends since law school; the clients and the relatives of clients who now consider the attorney a member of the family; his law partner, Susan Yu, who hates parties but showed up for this one. Otis O’Solomon of the Watts Prophets performance group wrote him a poem, and Jackson’s sibling Randy embraced him. "Thanks for saving my brother’s life," he said.
All of it was overseen by Foxx, who installed Mesereau in a chair in the middle of the salon as the focus of attention. She bustled about, part stage manager, part emcee, theatrically calling up his friends and colleagues for remarks in a kind of "This is Your Life" fashion.
It was gushy and hokey and affectionate all at once. Mesereau sat on his party throne, smiling. "That was a very meaningful event," he said days later, "as opposed to these highfalutin events."
Source: LA Times/MJEOL News