Getting Justice the Geragos Way


By Alin K. Gregorian

Mirror-Spectator Staff

LOS ANGELES — Mark Geragos commands attention. Whether it is in front of TV cameras or St. James Armenian Church Men’s Club in Watertown, he is able to connect with people. It is almost enough to make one feel sorry for his opponents in court, in front of juries.

Geragos, who heads Geragos & Geragos, a large law firm in Los Angeles, has just released a book, Mistrial: An Inside Look at How the Criminal Justice System Works … and Sometimes Doesn’t, with his law partner Pat Harris.

In the book, which is written in such a way that lay people would understand, through anecdotes, Geragos makes suggestions for changes to the US legal system. Some of his suggestions are appointing judges, rather than electing them, and allowing them a bigger role in plea bargaining.

Another suggestion is to change the sentencing for non-violent drug offenders serving sentences that often surpass those of people convicted of second-degree murder or sexual assault. He and Harris suggest that Congress needs to address the issue of alternative sentencing for drug addicts, as well as the mentally ill.

Most people seem to know Geragos both for the very famous clients he represents, as well as his proud assertion of his Armenian heritage and work on behalf of  Armenian Genocide descendants. Among those clients have been Michael Jackson, Chris brown, Winona Ryder and Mike Tyson.

Some, such as Scott Peterson, convicted of first-degree murder, have been vilified in the media. “I think it is unethical to not take a client just because they may be toxic to the public,” Geragos said.

While the famous clients can pay well, doing the work is that much harder when there is a media circus, he said. “The media attention compounds the representation. Having to deal with that magnifies the defense and makes it quite a bit more time intensive,” he noted.

Still, when asked how he accepts cases, he said something about the client has to appeal to him, even if the client does not have universal appeal.

One case that he accepted about a year ago and meant a lot to him involved an older veteran going up against an insurance company regarding a policy on his house. “The guy was a 90-year-old WWII veteran and the insurance company was just trying to screw him out of $24,000 and I felt like they needed to be tried and have the jury teach them a lesson. Luckily, the verdict came back to hit them with $8 million in total, $7.5 million of which were punitive damages. And to think they could’ve settled the whole thing for $24,000!”

Being a lawyer came naturally to him, as it was a family profession. “I loved my father — he is my hero. I used to follow him around. I watched him in court when he was a prosecutor and though I considered going to divinity school —  I was talked out of it by the then-archbishop — he thought I could do more good as a lawyer,” said Geragos in an interview.

Geragos was well-respected lawyer, but no more famous than other lawyers, until he said, the case of Susan McDougal, the then-fiancé of his current law partner, Pat Harris. “I think the trajectory took off when I represented Susan McDougal in the 1990s. That was a watershed turning point for me,” he said. McDougal had been one of the people entangled in the White Water case, along with Bill and Hilary Clinton previously, and thus a focus of a federal criminal probe. The case which brought her to Geragos involved her employer accusing her of embezzlement after McDougal’s move to Los Angeles. Geragos was able to clear her of all charges.

(Harris did not end up marrying McDougal. “I’ve got custody of Pat Harris and he is married to a wonderful woman named Carol Welsman, who is an internationally-known jazz singer,” Geragos joked.)

It is not only wealthy clients that can enlist the services of Geragos. He said that at any given time, his firm handles 10-12 pro bono cases.

Geragos has been rightly lionized in the Armenian community for his vociferous defense of Armenians not only in TV studios, but in courts. He and his firm were able to secure a $17 million win in 2005 against the French insurance giant, Axa. They had accused the company of benefiting from the deaths of Armenian policy holders during the Armenian Genocide.

“The Genocide litigation has been extremely personally satisfying to me and has certainly highlighted my career,” he noted.

More recently, Geragos, on Anderson Cooper’s CNN show, defended the community against the repeated accusations of Ruslan Tsarni, the uncle of alleged Boston Marathon bombers Tamerlan and DzhokharTsarnaev.

“I think it’s humbling any time people tell me that [I make them proud]. Anytime I see an Armenian in the media or an Armenian accomplishing something, there is a certain pride I feel to be an Armenian as well,” he added.

Geragos said that he sees a shift in attitudes towards lawyers, one in which defense attorneys are treated more as heroes. “I think there’s been a definite change in the attitudes towards criminal defense lawyers over time. When I was growing up, you could read books like To Kill a Mockingbird and they were about noble defenders of the underdog. Now, not so much,” he said.

In the book, he refers to Nancy Grace, the former prosecutor and current TV host, who can target a defendant vociferously before all the evidence is in. “She has a following and her followers respect that kind of lawyer, and I think that has an impact on the people who watch her and subsequently think that’s the way you should approach a criminal,” Geragos explained.

One case in the book that he says drove Grace and other programs similar to her was that of Scott Peterson, the California man convicted of murdering his wife, Laci, and their unborn child. In the book, Geragos laments that so many untruths were circulated regarding Scott Peterson, who is currently on death row.

Mistrial is available from Amazon and all major book retailers. For more information on his law firm, visit www.geragos.com.