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Thursday, May 16, 2019

Charlie Gessler


I started as a law clerk in the Public Defender’s office while waiting for bar exam results. My first assignment was the “Division 20 panel,” the misdemeanor courts which were then in the Civil Courthouse (The new CCB was not yet open.) Charlie Gessler was our supervisor, a job the office assigned to trial lawyers as a break. I didn’t know him then, but my first impression was that he appeared to be the model of the sort of civil service lawyer that my generation was meant to improve upon.

     You see this was the late 60’s. My notion was that we were in the office to shake things up, to start the revolution from within the system. These older guys had to step aside.

     Charlie was a bit younger than the WW II vets who were running the office, Littlefield and Moore and others like them. But still, he was older (36) than we were, and he looked like he was from a different generation. He was balding with a fringe of graying hair that wasn’t long enough for the current style. He never would wear denim suits with flared pants, boots, purple shirts and wide patterned ties. 

     He was pale, not tanned. He wore short sleeve white shirts and thin ties that might have had a baby’s spit up stain. He always carried a Styrofoam coffee cup. I guessed that he lived in a suburban home, drove a station wagon, had 2.2 children and went to church every Sunday.

     One morning I had a question for him. “I subpoenaed this doctor, but he has a problem. He has surgeries all day and he can’t come to court.” I had told the doctor that I understood his situation. I thought my supervisor would say that his patients’ lives took precedence over our little misdemeanor.

     Charlie was an intense listener. He pursed his lips when you talked, sniffed breaths, moved his hand to his chin in thought. He asked me a pertinent question. “Is he an essential witness?”
     “The client is charged with possession of controlled substances. He says the doctor prescribed them.”

     “All right,” Charlie said. “Tell the doctor that we will try to work with his schedule, but if he refuses to appear we will get the judge to send a sheriff to arrest him.”

     Just like that. I was shocked. It didn’t seem to fit – not my image of the civil servant, the career public defender. My first lessons: (1) our client comes first; and (2) maybe I was selling guys like Charlie just a bit short.

     For years, I joined those who ate in the lunchroom on the 19th floor of the CCB. It was a tough crowd, especially when someone was in trial and came in looking for sympathy. What they usually got was sarcasm rather than pity.

     By then, Charlie was getting a ration of difficult cases. For weeks he had been defending a client the press called “The Skidrow Slasher.” That title should give an impression of what Charlie was facing. Each day of the trial, he faced the ever more gory details, the mounting evidence against his client. At noon, he would come into the lunchroom, with his usual Styrofoam coffee, unwrap a sandwich, chew, and accept the ribbing about the miserable case he was stuck with.

     “How’d it go today, Charlie?” From the snickering gadflies, none of whom envied Charlie his daunting task of being pummeled into dust each day. 

     Charlie shrugged, said in his usual grave yet calmly enthused voice: “Had a good morning. Think I developed an argument on the use allegation in count twenty-six.” 

     I thought that was funny . . . until I was faced with a tough case. I realized that the definition of wins and losses for a public defender is relative. Charlie understood that for anyone, any lawyer, and especially a public defender, winning meant doing the best you can for your client, even in the midst of a horrible case. If that means cutting one year from multiple life sentences, so be it. You fight hard for that one year. 

     Charlie Gessler earned respect the old fashioned way. One of his appointed clients was G. Gordon Liddy, of Watergate infamy. Liddy was charged with the break-in of Daniel Ellsberg’s psychiatrist’s office in L.A. He saw himself as the good soldier, stoic and silent in loyalty to his perceived duty. He would fall on the sword to protect his secrets. He famously held his hand over a candle to prove his manly virtue.

     Liddy later said that of all the lawyers he knew, Charlie Gessler was the only one he admired. To my knowledge, Charlie kept Liddy’s secrets, whatever they were.

     When I was assigned to appellate, Charlie asked me to file a writ on one of his capital cases. His client had gone to a police station to inquire about his brother who was there as a possible witness. They were placed in an interview room while the cop went for coffee. A hidden microphone captured incriminating statements and Charlie filed a motion to suppress.

     I wrote the brief and the California Supreme Court accepted the case. Unfortunately, they ultimately ruled against us, deciding for the first time, and contrary to Katz v. U.S. (which had held that the 4th Amendment protects people, not places) that a police station is a place where no one has a reasonable expectation of privacy.

     Later, when Charlie coordinated death penalty cases, he helped me clarify my thinking many times. His ability to listen intently and get to the gist of any problem was his strength. He took his profession seriously and did it with pride.

     Long after the hot shots of my generation “burnt out,” some without having done anything that really got them warm, much less burnt, Charlie Gessler kept going. He never demanded attention or praise for doing his work. He retired quietly.

     One year I joined Charley, his wife and Mike Adelson and his wife for dinner in Monterey at the annual Death Penalty Seminar. Both Mike and I had left the office long ago. Charley had recently retired. We reminisced about the old days and I realized what nostalgia was all about.
1933 - 2019