Lust for justice, Tony Serra style


“So Paulette Frankl, why did you want to write a book about Tony Serra?” It seems like a reasonable question. After all, the “long hair” woman before me spent a good 17 years of work on her biography of San Francisco's most famous counter culture lawyer (book release party at Fort Mason Sat/20, btw). Her answer was a bit surprising. 

“I didn't want to write a book about him! I wanted to be his artist!"

The inability (or lack of desire) to shape her own involvement in his life speaks to the abject admiration and connection to Serra that has been borne over the last few decades by Frankl. It's a pull that led her to accompany the lawyer to hearings, speeches, client meetings, and quiet afternoons in Bolinas in the pursuit to capture his inner essence. It's a pull that seems to baffle even her. 

She's right when she says she didn't set out to be a biographer. While living in a planned community (read: commune) outside the city, Frankl agreed to drive a friend to a three-day exam the friend was taking in San Francisco. While she was there, Frankl, a long time painter and sketcher, decided to follow up on a vague interest she'd had to get into court illustration. 

“I thought the lawyers always had money – the worse things get, the more money they get!” In Lust For Justice, her recently completed Serra biography, she tells the story of the first case she saw. A young woman apprehended in a drug bust was being pumped for the names of the dealers involved. In Lust for Justice, Frankl writes that woman said “if I rat they'll kill me. I'll be out of prison sooner than I'll get out of the grave.” 

The pathos in the room was palpable, and it got her creative fruits juiced. Frankl was hooked on the court scene. But when she saw Serra, an SF native given to wearing thrift store finds in the court room and who makes a career of defending those against whom society's odds were stacked – high profile cases like Huey Newton, Bear Lincoln, minorities facing racist institutions – she was no longer interested in drawing the cross-examination of any other defense counsel. 

Feel like a hung jury yet? Frankl captures the high Serra in Lust for Justice

“I sensed his energy,” she remembers. “I got him on an emotional basis.” Serra is prone to stalking like a lion in court rooms, using his whole body to put on courtroom theater that strikes past juries' preconceptions to get to understanding on some archetypal level. Frankl shouldered her notepad and resolved to become his traveling court illustrator. “If I can ever capture this man and express him, I will have arrived as an artist,” she recalls thinking.

Serra eventually assented to her demands, and during the Ellie Nestler case – in which a mother from a small town in the Sierra Nevadas shot and killed her six year old son's molester at the man's preliminary hearing  –  she realized there was a larger story there, that of Serra's unflinching dedication to repairing society's inequities. 

“I said Tony, where's the book about you? Let's do it – my art, your words.” They drew up an informal contract on the hood of the car and away they went.

Only, not. Because the very reason Frankl was writing the book about him inevitably became the reason why she'd never have a co-collaborator on the project. “He just always in trial,” she sighed. Forget writing his autobiography, she soon found herself lucky if she could get an hour of his time to talk about the parts of his life she couldn't see: his childhood, his underlying motivations. 

Many, faced with such apparent disinterest in their project, would have stepped back a bit, but speaking with Frankl it becomes clear that she saw this as no option at all. So enraptured of the man was she that to render his evocative court appearances she devised a new, impressionistic style of court illustration. One drawing (they are neatly captured throughout the self-published Lust for Justice) shows Serra's hand extended in the closing arguments of the 1997 trial of a Native American charged with a cop killing. A bear crouches over Serra, an animal spirit that Frankl saw vividly during the trial itself.

Trippy? Well, yeah. Frankl's ethos is firmly grounded in the LSD mind expansion of the '60s. One chapter attributes Serra's ability to transcend in his lawyerly duties, to whit: “he willed himself to align his body, mind, and soul with the highest calling of the law: the cause of justice.” The emotional connection she feels with Serra informs the book, which borders on the overly effusive praise of a disciple. But not a disciple that can't get pissed off at their savior. “I don't think I overglorify him," Frankl told me, perhaps prepping for this inevitable assessment of her work. "I mean, he can be a real pain to be around! I wanted this to be my experience of him, though – and I do think of him as a great defense lawyer.”

As he is. And though perhaps Frankl isn't a master wordsmith (to be fair, she doesn't claim to be for a moment), but Serra's story deserves to be available in book form. It's is a story of a man who doesn't compromise on anything – from courtroom theatrics to lost cause cases to getting high and/or performing Natvie American protective rites before court sessions. And he's had some amazing legal victories for defendants against whom the odds were stacked, in a system that oftentimes seems as though it was designed to prevent that from happening.

Told by a woman who was there for much of the story, Lust for Justice certainly lives up to its red-blooded title. To check out the man himself, you can either start hanging out with in judge land, a la Frankl, or hit up her book release party tomorrow, where Tony Serra will be in attendance, no doubt holding court. 

Lust for Justice book release party

Sat/20 5-8 p.m., free

Room C-370

Fort Mason, SF



Lust for Justice book reading

Sun/21 1 p.m., free

Modern Times Bookstore

888 Valencia, SF

(415) 282-9246


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