Geragos Stunned by Peterson Loss
LOS ANGELES – Last winter, Mark Geragos (search) was the king of defense lawyers, a legal superstar who was managing to represent both Michael Jackson and Scott Peterson (search).
What a difference a year makes.
Peterson's five-month trial ended Monday with a jury recommending he be executed for killing his pregnant wife. A case that started well for Geragos ended with a futile plea to spare Peterson's life.
It was the second high-profile rejection for Geragos, who earlier this year was fired from Jackson's child molestation case expressly because he was so focused on defending Peterson.
Geragos told The Associated Press that he was more worried about Peterson than himself.
"I'm not concerned about my career or reputation," he said in a telephone interview. "I'm concerned about my client."
Geragos said he knew from the start that the defense of Peterson would be unpopular and many colleagues counseled him to stay away. But once he saw what looked like "a lynch mob" greet Peterson at the jail in his hometown of Modesto, he agreed to take the case.
"I don't think it gets any worse than this, losing a death penalty case in such a public way," said trial watcher and Loyola Law School Professor Laurie Levenson. She said that while the death sentence is far from a death knell for Geragos' career, "he has fallen from on high."
As a principal partner in a thriving Los Angeles law firm, Geragos won't lack work despite the loss. He said he would be in court Wednesday and was "bouncing between three different cases, a murder, a fraud and an attempted murder."
But, for a time, it won't be the way it was — the solution for cases requiring an elite lawyer was simple: "Get Geragos."
He won legal battles for Whitewater figure Susan McDougal (search) and represented former congressman Gary Condit (search) while police investigated him in the disappearance of intern Chandra Levy (search).
One victory that touched him personally didn't involve big names: Geragos — an Armenian-American — wrangled a $20 million settlement in January to cover unpaid life insurance benefits to about 1.5 million Armenians killed nearly 90 years ago in the Ottoman Empire.
Geragos, 47, had built a cachet, though he couldn't help actress Winona Ryder (search) beat shoplifting charges in a trial many observers said should have been avoided with a plea bargain.
Then came Peterson. As a cable TV analyst, even Geragos cast suspicion on Peterson.
Once he was on board, Geragos promised in opening statements a defense more compelling than he could muster at trial.
At first he was dazzling, attacking the police investigation and convincing the large press contingent he could score an acquittal.
But he couldn't make a likable character out of Peterson, a philanderer who appeared strangely unaffected by the death of a wife whose photogenic smile captivated millions of Americans. And, ultimately, Geragos' most dramatic promises fell flat.
He claimed witnesses saw Laci Peterson (search) being shoved into a van in the couple's neighborhood. Those witnesses never appeared.
He promised to show that Conner Peterson, the couple's son to be, was born alive — the implication being that Laci Peterson was kidnapped and gave birth weeks after she was last seen around Christmas Eve Day, 2002. But a crucial medical witness failed to deliver the promised knockout.
"I'm sure he regrets all the things he said he was going to prove and couldn't," said attorney Steve Cron, who has represented comedian Paula Poundstone and other celebrity clients. He called Geragos a "fine lawyer," but added "he stuck his neck out and in a high-publicity case everything you do is scrutinized."
Still, jurors — who felt enough of a connection to call Geragos "Mr. G." — gave him high marks.
"I respect Mr. G. I think he's a great lawyer," said juror Richelle Nice.
It was the facts of the case, she suggested, that conspired against Geragos. The bodies washed up near where Peterson told police he had been fishing alone and the husband who should have been grieving was instead calling his mistress and becoming increasingly detached from his in-laws.
Another juror, Greg Beratlis, said he would want Geragos to represent him should he get in trouble.
Attorney Leslie Abramson (search), who has lost limelight cases in her time, including the murder case of Lyle and Erik Menendez (search), said Geragos will remain a celebrity lawyer.
"Once your name's out there, it's out there," Abramson said.
But she warned of the pitfalls of pursuing celebrity cases.
"Mark doesn't care about money, but he did care about fame," she said. "Sometimes when you pursue that beast, it eats you."