201105070814Interview with Tom Mesereau
He was a very special person, and I’ve always said repeatedly that he was one of the nicest, kindest people I ever met. I will always say that because it’s true.
Tom Meserau was not sure he wanted to be a lawyer; in fact, his first career choice was journalism. But after taking his father’s advice, Tom graduated from Harvard University (cum laude) with a major in International Relations; he received a Master of Science from The London School of Economics and graduated from The University of California’s Hastings College of Law.
He first gained national attention in the Robert Blake murder case preliminary hearing which was widely televised, and became internationally known for acquitting Michael Jackson in a case seen by many as unwinnable. In one year alone, Tom Meserau obtained 7 acquittals and 2 hung juries. Now he is deemed as one of the best trial lawyers in the country and the recipient of many public service awards and honors. But there is another side to Tom that he sees as perhaps his greatest accomplishment in a career both long and distinguished, and that is his humanitarian and charitable work.
Apart from his pro-bono work, Tom operates a free legal clinic in south central Los Angeles, called “The Mesereau Free Legal Clinic” and donates his time to such inner city organizations as the N-Action Family Network, Save Our Sons, Women of Watts, and Families to Amend California Three Strikes.
In this exclusive, heart-to-heart interview, Tom gives us his insight not only into the upcoming trial of Conrad Murray, his “lawyer” persona and Michael Jackson, but also into the man he is inside; a man dedicated to justice, the community and educating the young against gang violence, and to giving people a sense of worth and value in lives that might seem to them hopeless and pointless.
Transcribed by Valmai Owens
Valmai: Tom, you were educated at Harvard University (cum laude), The London School of Economics and The University of California’s Hastings College of Law. Was it always in your heart to become a lawyer?
Tom: No, actually. My father was a graduate of The United States Military Academy at West Point in New York, and he took a law course while he was in college. He always said to me, "Consider law school, particularly if you’re not sure what you want to do; it’s a great background for many things." I always had it in the back of my mind, but I never was sure that I wanted to be a lawyer; in fact, I thought seriously of being a journalist.
My major in college was government; I concentrated in International Relations. After college I tended bar in Denmark for the summer, and then I was a speech writer for a United States Congressman from New York. Then I went to The London School of Economics and received a Master of Science in International Relations. So I applied to law school; I still thought about being a journalist, but ultimately I decided to be a lawyer.
Valmai: Well, we’re awfully glad you did.
Tom: Well, thank you.
Valmai: Now you specialize in both criminal and civil trials and are widely recognized as one of the best trial lawyers in the country. You have also received many public service awards and honors. What do you consider as being the greatest achievement of your career to date?
Tom: Well first of all, you have to understand that every life is valuable; I don’t value one life as more important than another life. So whether the case is high-profile or low-profile, a life is a life. When I save a life, it’s just as important to me whether the person is rich or poor or known or unknown, valued or not.
But I would say, to answer your question, my greatest accomplishment has been my ability to blend the practice of law with charitable work. I do a lot of pro-bono work. I founded my own free legal clinic in South Central Los Angeles, called The Mesereau Free Legal Clinic, where judges, lawyers, law students, college students and activists donate their time at least two Saturdays a month, to assist the poor who have legal problems. I’m talking about every kind of legal problem, both civil and criminal. It could be landlord/tenant, it could be healthcare, it could be Social Security, it could be probate or criminal, you name it.
I think because I’ve gotten to be a high-profile defense lawyer, it’s made it easier for me to spread the word that lawyers must get back to the community, that we can make a tremendous difference and that a lot of the idealism we had in law school that we lost through the hard knocks of living can be recaptured. So I think my greatest accomplishment has been to serve as an example of lawyers who get back to the community.
Valmai: So that would be your motivation behind your civil rights and pro-bono work, to get lawyers back to the humanity of law?
Tom: Yes! First of all, there’s a selfish motivation as well as a charitable motivation. The selfish motivation is that I feel better as a person and I feel better as a lawyer. It’s good for the soul; it’s good for the spirit. So, when I talk to law students and lawyers about the need for pro-bono work, the need to find a certain percentage of your practice that is devoted to giving rather than receiving, I always tell them there is a selfish component: You will feel better as a human being.
Valmai: You also assist local organizations and churches in drug recovery and youth counseling?
Tom: Yes, I speak at schools whenever I can, including middle schools and high schools, about the need for education. I try to encourage students to consider being lawyers, and I also speak out against violence, particularly gang violence. I try to educate kids on the justice system because Los Angeles is the gang capital of America. The gang problem is worse here than any other city in the country. Some of these gang families are now multi-generational. The grandparents, the parents and children have been associated with violent street gangs, and because it is so deep in a cultural way, I think people have to direct these young people as to what is really going on in the justice system when it comes to gang arrests and gang prosecution. A lot of these kids don’t realize that the tattoos they put on themselves or the nicknames they have, the way they conduct themselves, could get them convicted even of crimes they didn’t commit. There is such an anti-gang fervor in Los Angeles, it’s considered to be a form of urban terrorism.
I also just try to give positive direction to young people to let them know they have value, that they’re brilliant, that they’re smart, that they’re creative and that they should have high goals for themselves. I look at a lot of these young people and they can’t believe that someone is telling them they can be a lawyer, because no-one ever has. So I do like to go to the schools whenever I can.
I also counsel people at my clinic. Very often parents will bring young people in who are troubled, and I will do what I can to talk to them. I also have associated with various organizations that deal with youth. I march through the Projects once or twice a year with the Women of Watts and their children, against gang violence. These are some of the most violent Projects in Los Angeles. We usually march in June through the city with the police department, and we sometimes have shorter marches through individual projects, where we will light a candle on a spot where a young person was shot to death in gang violence and say a prayer. We try to focus attention on just what is wrong with all of this.
I’m also on the advisory board of a group that deals with women and drug recovery or who are in jail, and also homeless children, particularly children whose parents are in jail. So we try to do what we can to help people transition into a better form of life. I get called from time to time to participate in various functions that deal with issues like this in the inner city.
Valmai: Tom, what is your advice to young people with drug problems or going through recovery?
Tom: Well, I don’t pretend to be an addiction expert. I can only give people the advice that I think is helpful. I try to let people know they’re not the only ones who are troubled, that all of us as human beings go through ups and downs. We all have our problems. Their problem might be drugs; for other people it may be emotional or it may be depression, maybe self-esteem. They may have turned to drugs for a reason; other people turn to other forms of anti-social behavior. So I try to let them know, don’t be down on yourself because you have this problem. All of us have similar types of problems in one form or another.
I try to tell them that they are very special people. They have value. They have uniqueness. This is just one obstacle to overcome. I do the best I can to let people know they have value because very often, young people come out of family situations, you know, where the recurring message is, "You have no value. You’re not special. You have nothing to contribute." When you hear messages like this directly and indirectly for a long period of time, it can do damage. I learned a long time ago that I had an ability to let people know how special they are and let them know what they can accomplish.
I remember a number of years ago when I spoke at a small middle school. It was for very troubled youth in Los Angeles, and these were young people who had been kicked out of every school. There was no other school left for them to go to; this was the last school that would take them. It was in a low-income neighborhood, a lot of poverty, a lot of violence and gang activity, and I was telling these students they should consider being lawyers. They first looked at me like I was crazy; they couldn’t believe I was telling them this.
So at the end of this talk, a young African American girl came up to me who had had a terrible upbringing, and she had bullet scars on her forearm and shins where she had survived drive-by shootings on the street. She said to me, “I want to be a lawyer. I didn’t know I could be.” So I told her, “Yes you can. I think you would be a very good lawyer.” I saw the look on her face, and I realized that no one had ever told her anything like this.
A lot of these young people in the inner city need to be told they’re special, need to be told they’re brilliant. They have to be told they have value and that they can accomplish things. Nobody has ever told them this. Every message they’ve ever gotten has been quite the opposite.
So this is something I strongly believe in, in the way I conduct my personal and professional life. I very much believe that you have to find a way to let people know they have value.
Valmai: I guess if you’re told something often enough, if you’re told you’re stupid or ugly or worthless for example, you start to become the label you are given; you start to live it.
Tom: Yes! And also remember, as I said before, that Los Angeles is the gang capital of America. This is where the Crips and the Bloods were founded and it’s now into its third generation. A lot of these young people don’t have families. They’ve been turned out on the street early. They’re being raised by one parent who may be a crack addict or have all sorts of other problems, and the gang becomes their family. People want to have a family and they do their best to find it somehow.
So the gang becomes their family; their identity for protection, their direction, their religion, and it’s not all their fault. Someone has to do what they can to break that cycle, to let them know that there is an alternative which values them as people because too many of societies messages are, "You don’t count."
Valmai: Yes, it’s very sad. We actually have the Crips and the Bloods where I live. Tom, are you following the Murray trial in this lead-up phase?
Tom: Well, I’ve been following it in the media, but I’m not involved.
Valmai: Are you able to give a professional opinion at all on the defense tactics?
Tom: I’m hoping he’s convicted; I admit I’m not objective. My opinion is that he acted very improperly; he should never have been administering propofol and certainly not allowing it to be in the home. That’s ridiculous!
I didn’t know until the preliminary hearing that there was evidence that he had allegedly tried to clean up the crime scene. I didn’t know that there was evidence that he allegedly did not tell paramedics and police about the propofol, at least initially. I was very surprised to hear that.
But you know, I’ve followed too many celebrity cases... Elvis Presley, Anna Nicole Smith, and you find these physicians become enablers. They’re afraid to deny the celebrity what they want for fear that they’ll be out of the fold, and I think it’s something law enforcement has to take very seriously.
Valmai: Well how do feel about the defense strategy in saying that Michael killed himself?
Tom: I think it’s ridiculous! I’ve already been on television saying it’s absurd. The Michael Jackson I knew was not suicidal. The Michael Jackson I knew had problems; you know I met him during a very difficult period, his anxiety, his sleeplessness, his depression was very acute, you know, as he was on trial for his life for things he never did. Anyone in that position would probably have needed some sleep medication or some anti-depressants, and I don’t know what he was using because I never saw him use anything. Nevertheless, I met him during a very difficult period, a very stressful period, but the Michael Jackson I knew was not suicidal and would never have wanted to leave his children. So I think it’s absurd!
Valmai: Yes, I think we all agree with that, but I think it’s safe to say that what we can expect from the defense is the portrayal of Michael as suicidal.
Tom: Well yes, defense lawyers have an ethical and professional obligation to vigorously defend their client. From a strictly professional standpoint, the lawyers appear to be acting in a professional way consistent with their obligations. However, I disagree with what they’re doing and I think their client is guilty.
Valmai: Another point we agree upon. Tom, have you had any experience with Judge Pastor? Do have an opinion on him?
Tom: Yes I have. He’s a very, very smart judge, very experienced, very intelligent, very wise and I think he’s going to be a very good trial judge.
Valmai: Well I’m a layman; I’m not that familiar with the judicial system or the law. Many of the fans aren’t. Can you tell me how much leeway does a judge actually have in his decisions regarding subpoenas, who testifies, and how expansive or restricting questioning can be?
Tom: Well judges have considerable leeway to direct the course of the trial. They have tremendous power to do what they think is necessary to keep the trial orderly, to keep it dignified, and depending on who the trial judge is can have a tremendous effect on what happens.
Valmai: The defense requested that Michael’s financial records be made available. Do you think they were aware the judge might deny this motion and this is why they have called Dr. Tohme as a witness?
Tom: I don’t know if they were aware the judge might deny it. I think they are on a fishing expedition; I think they are desperate to try and find some kind of defense theory that might seem plausible. I’m very happy the judge denied the request to pursue a fishing expedition into Michael’s finances. I think Michael’s finances have absolutely nothing to do with what Conrad Murray allegedly did.
Valmai: No they don’t. I agree with that, but I think what they are trying to prove is that Michael’s finances were in such disarray, that he was in so much debt and so stressed out, this is why he allegedly killed himself.
Tom: That’s absurd! It just shows how desperate they are to come up some kind of defense.
Valmai: Do you think Murray will be called to take the stand?
Tom: I don’t know the answer to that. I think that’s just going to depend on how the trial progresses and how well the defense believes they are doing. Trials always have surprises. No matter how prepared you are, you always know that certain witnesses are going to come up with things that no one expected them to say or do. I don’t think they’ll make that decision until the end.
Valmai: Tom, what are your feelings about the lawyer hired by the defense who was peripherally involved in Michael’s 2005 trial? Do you see this as a conflict of interest?
Tom: Well, I don’t know what he had access to, I really don’t. The judge apparently did a thorough investigation into the issue, and concluded there was no actual or potential conflict interest. So I have to assume in his confidential discussions with the attorney, that he concluded the attorney had no information that would create a conflict. But I really don’t know what this lawyer had access to, I really don’t.
Valmai: What do you think about the decision to televise the trial? Do you see it becoming the same media circus as it was in 2005?
Tom: Well, they didn’t televise the 2005 trial. I think there will be tremendous media interest in the case, particularly because it’s televised. It will give the public the opportunity to really look at these witnesses and see how they behave, and to really look at the evidence that the prosecution thinks should result in a conviction. So I think there will be tremendous interest around the world. Michael was the best-known celebrity on the planet, and much loved all over the world, on every continent.
Valmai: I think what a lot of people are concerned about is the way the media portrayed Michael, especially in 2005, and whether they are going to do the same this time round. I know in 2005 the trial wasn’t televised, but the media weren’t exactly impartial in the way they reported on it. If fact, some were quite cruel.
Tom: Well the media are not interested in justice or fairness, they are interested in business, and business to them is revenue and ratings. They love shock value, they love controversy and you have to look at the media with that in mind. To them this is entertainment. It’s not a quest for justice; it’s not a quest for fairness. In their mind it’s strictly entertainment, so they will focus on whatever they think entertains, and that makes themselves profitable.
You have to be very wary of the reports you hear about trials when those reports come through the media. At least in this case people will be able to watch it, as opposed to listening at the end of the day to very shallow, short summaries from the media.
Much of the reporting in the Michael Jackson trial in 2005 was dreadful. They simply weren’t being accurate. They were just trying to report what was sensational and shocking. They would sometimes report what a witness said under direct examination, without even waiting to hear the cross-examination from the defense. So I think they presented a very illegitimate, a very awkward and poor portrayal of what was happening in the courtroom.
Valmai: Will you be making yourself available to news outlets if they request your input on the proceedings?
Tom: It depends on who they are, who the outlet is and if I think it’s going to be a professional type of situation. I’m available for that.
Valmai: Tom, how do you see this trial ending?
Tom: Well, I have no way of knowing; I’m not involved in the case and I haven’t seen the evidence. I’m hoping that it ends with a conviction. I’m hoping that he is held accountable for what I think in my opinion, was a very unprofessional, very selfish and very foolish way in treating his patient.
Valmai: You spent many, many hours with Michael during what was one of the most traumatic periods in his life. What do you remember about his personal strength and composure?
Tom: Michael was one of the nicest, kindest people I’ve ever met, and my law firm partner Susan Yu, feels exactly as I do. He was nice. He was kind. He was well-meaning. He liked to see people do well, and he liked to use his reputation and resources to help disabled people, children from the inner city who grew up in poverty and violence. He liked to see people happy. He could have taken his wealth and prestige and just not dealt with children, not dealt with worthy causes. He could have been purely selfish if he wanted to, but that wasn’t what he chose to do. He truly wanted to make a difference. He wanted to bring people of all races, all religions and all nationalities together. You can see this in his music; you can see this in the way he lived. He had a great empathy for animals because he was such a kind person and he wanted to make a difference.
He was somewhat naive when it came to the forces of evil circling around him and trying to destroy him. He didn’t quite believe that was going to happen and unfortunately, they put him through a nightmare.
Valmai: Did you stay in touch with Michael after the trial?
Tom: Off and on for about 9 months after he moved to Bahrain. Susan Yu and I were helping him out, but he was talking to Susan much more than me. We did help out for about 9 months with the transition and then we moved on to other things.
Valmai: How do you think your life has been affected by Michael? What do you remember most about him?
Tom: Well as I said before, what I remember most is a very, very kind, decent, sensitive person. One of his great gifts was to make a positive difference in the world. He could have been more selfish. He could have simply rented a home on the Riviera and party if he’d wanted. He could have been purely self-centered, but that wasn’t the way he wanted to live. He felt that God had given him wonderful gifts and wonderful success, and hoped to change the world in a positive way. I believe he did.
Valmai: Well, I agree most certainly with that. Tom, the MJTP and all the fans just want to thank you for believing in Michael, and for all the wonderful humanitarian work that you do. We love and respect you very much, and I thank you for taking the time to do this interview with me.
Tom: Well thank you very much. I’m honored and privileged to speak to you about all this and I wish everyone the best. He was a very special person, and I’ve always said repeatedly that he was one of the nicest, kindest people I ever met. I will always say that because it’s true.