T-Mez defends underdogs in trials of known, unknown
Sunday, April 16, 2006
News staff writer
Reputation vs. reality
Mesereau’s reputation as a celebrity lawyer began in 2001 when he helped persuade prosecutors not to charge boxer and convicted rapist Mike Tyson after another rape accusation.
Mesereau also defended actor Robert Blake in pretrial hearings in his murder case, pulling off the rare feat of getting bail in a capital case.
But it was Jackson’s trial that splashed Mesereau’s face daily all over the international media.
Jackson fans chattered on the Web about the lawyer they dubbed "Mez." One set up a Tom Mesereau Fan Club site, while another offered do-your-own "T-Mez" dolls.
USA Today declared Mesereau the "new `go-to guy’ for celebs in trouble." Barbara Walters named him one of her 10 Most Fascinating People of 2005.
Mesereau blushed when told Jackson’s fans labeled him "a god" and "super duper rad." Walters’ accolade was an honor, but he shrugged off the rest.
"I had to psyche myself up, almost like an athlete, to avoid the media and to view them almost as the enemy," said Mesereau, an ex-boxer who also played defense for the Harvard Crimson football team.
"I believe cases are won in the courtroom, not the media," he said. "Lawyers who get too star-struck or addicted to the cameras make a terrible mistake."
Mesereau said lawyering in the limelight isn’t his calling.
"I don’t want to be known as a celebrity lawyer," he said. "My heart is in civil rights work. I am a lawyer with a love of justice."
Mesereau’s interest in civil rights keeps bringing him to a Jefferson County courtroom.
After meeting Salvagio and Birmingham attorney Wilson Myers, he took on his first Alabama case in 1999.
Cooper’s trial was his fifth capital murder case here. Another is tentatively set for June in Greene County. He and Salvagio also defended a man facing a potential death sentence in Mississippi several years ago.
"What better place for a civil rights lawyer than in the cradle of civil rights?" Salvagio said.
Mesereau’s volunteer legal work here is an extension of the pro bono work he has done in Los Angeles for two decades.
He works monthly at a legal clinic for an LA church. He recently helped open another free legal clinic there, which is named, in part, for him.
Mesereau serves on several social agency boards in Los Angeles and works with a group that helps women recover from drug abuse or incarceration. His latest project is to help broker a dialog among black ministers, the Nation of Islam and rabbis.
Mesereau said his civil rights work attracted the celebrities.
"I’ve always seen the Michael Jackson case as a civil rights case," he said. "The prosecution attacked his music, skin color, appearance and sexuality."
Mesereau’s desire to defend the little guy wouldn’t mean much if he were not a winner in court. He recently had an undefeated year, obtaining eight acquittals and two hung juries.
None of his Jefferson County clients got death sentences, although some were convicted of lesser charges.
A defense attorney’s bread and butter is cross-examining witnesses to create doubt about the state’s case. Mesereau has made it an art form.
"It’s a little like running into a buzzsaw," said Keller, the California lawyer. "He’s very methodical and intense."
Mesereau said the key is to listen to witnesses and not be so in love with your preparation that you can’t adjust on the fly.
For example, during the Jackson trial Mesereau had six volumes of documents ready for prosecution witness Debbie Rowe, Jackson’s ex-wife and the mother of two of his children.
When he realized her testimony favored the defense, he didn’t use any of the prepared documents in his cross-examination, he said.
In a Birmingham courtroom last week, his demeanor was confident but humble. He introduced himself to witnesses by saying, "I’m here to speak for Mr. Cooper."
His closing argument was casually conversational, yet sharply focused on his defense themes. Colleagues say his people skills help him connect with jurors.
He doesn’t always connect with victims’ families and some prosecutors. One local prosecutor even once called him "a Hollywood fraud."
But Jill Ganus, who faced Mesereau in a 2000 case in Bessemer, said he has integrity.
"I respect his passion," said Ganus, now a judge. "I respect what he does and how he spends his own money doing it."
Mesereau said providing quality defense for all is his calling.
"Many lawyers view the profession as simply a business," he said. "They don’t approach what they do with passion. If you view it as a business, it is likely to be reflected in the concern you show for your client."
"My heart is in civil rights work. I am a lawyer with a love of justice." –Tom Mesereau
Source: Birmingham News/MJEOL