Celebrity lawyers at odds

Mark Ger­a­gos con­vinces a judge that Robert Shapiro’s de­fense in a rape case was faulty. A new trial will be held.

Los Angeles Times - - CALIFORNIA - By Stephen Ceasar

The rape ac­counts sounded strik­ingly sim­i­lar.

Two women, who didn’t know each other, told au­thor­i­ties about sep­a­rate in­ci­dents in which they had ac­com­pa­nied ac­tor Robert Aaron Stephens on a night out in Hol­ly­wood. They both ac­cepted a drink from him and quickly felt dazed af­ter drink­ing it. Each woman tes­ti­fied that they were later sex­u­ally as­saulted at his apart­ment.

Pros­e­cu­tors ac­cused Stephens of giv­ing the women drinks with the “date rape” drug GHB. In 2013, af­ter a jury found him guilty of rape and other charges, he was fac­ing a life sen­tence in pri­son.

But newly dis­closed ev­i­dence re­cently prompted a judge to throw out the rape and as­sault con­vic­tions tied to one of the women and or­der a new trial af­ter find­ing that Stephens’ trial at­tor­ney was “in­ef­fec­tive.” Now, a new lawyer for Stephens, 36, is chal­leng­ing the re­main­ing guilty ver­dicts.

The case has pit­ted against each other two heavy­weights in the world of celebrity lawyers.

On one side is Robert Shapiro, the 72-year-old high-pow­ered at­tor­ney who as­sem­bled O.J. Simp­son’s legal “dream team” and rep­re­sented Stephens at his trial.

On the other is Mark Ger­a­gos — known for rep­re­sent­ing such celebri­ties as Wi­nona Ry­der, Michael Jack­son and Chris Brown — who now counts Stephens as a client and has ac­cused Shapiro of fail­ing to pro­vide him ef­fec­tive legal coun­sel.

At the cen­ter of the case is Shapiro’s de­ci­sion not to show ju­rors a video that Ger­a­gos says con­tra­dicts the tes­ti­mony of one of Stephens’ ac­cusers. The video, se­cretly recorded by Stephens, shows him and the woman en­gag­ing in con­sen­sual sex, Ger­a­gos ar­gued.

Af­ter view­ing the video, LA. County Su­pe­rior Court Judge Craig J. Mitchell agreed, say­ing in a Jan­uary rul­ing that the record­ing clearly shows Stephens and one of the women, and refutes her tes­ti­mony “to such an ex­tent that this court can­not un­der­stand why the video was not used,” ac­cord­ing to a court tran­script.

“The court concludes that a sig­nif­i­cant por­tion of the nearly hour­long video ap­pears to be in­con­sis­tent with a forcible sex­ual as­sault,” the judge said.

Mitchell granted a new trial on the charges in­volv­ing the woman in the video but re­jected Stephens’ re­quest to or­der a new trial on the re­main­ing counts of rape by use of drugs and as­sault with a deadly weapon con­nected to the sec­ond woman. Ger­a­gos has now set his sights on per­suad­ing the judge to undo the con­vic­tions in those counts too.

In an email to The Times, Shapiro said he and his legal team — in­clud­ing jury con­sul­tant Jo-El­lan Dim­itrius, who worked on the Simp­son case — had con­ducted “a great deal of re­search and thought” and con­cluded that show­ing the video “to a jury would be con­sid­er­ably more harm­ful than help­ful.”

“The con­sen­sus was that when the al­leged vic­tim was car­ried into the bed­room, she looked dead,” Shapiro said in the state­ment.

Had he shown ju­rors the video and Stephens been con­victed, the ar­gu­ment would have been made that he shouldn’t have used the record­ing, Shapiro said.

The L.A. County dis­trict at­tor­ney’s of­fice de­clined to com­ment on the case.

Be­fore his ar­rest, Stephens acted in about a dozen mostly un­cred­ited tele­vi­sion and film roles, ac­cord- ing to the on­line movie data­base IMDB. He also was a lead ac­tor in a 2007 hor­ror film in which his char­ac­ter rapes and mur­ders a woman at a party while record­ing the attack on a hid­den cam­era.

Pros­e­cu­tors filed charges against Stephens in 2011, al­leg­ing he sex­u­ally as­saulted the two women in sep­a­rate in­ci­dents more than a year apart.

One of the women ac­cused Stephens of drug­ging her in his apart­ment in May 2009, court doc­u­ments show. She told po­lice that she woke up in Stephens’ bed, wear­ing his clothes, with no mem­ory of that night. Next to her were clumps of her hair, she said. She told au­thor­i­ties Stephens grabbed her by the neck and choked her as she tried to leave.

A de­tec­tive tes­ti­fied at a pre­lim­i­nary hear­ing that she ar­ranged for the woman to phone Stephens, who con­firmed dur­ing the con­ver­sa­tion that the pair had en­gaged in sex but in­sisted that it was con­sen­sual. He also con­firmed that he had GHB, but said he did not give it to the woman, the de­tec­tive tes­ti­fied.

Po­lice searched Stephens’ home and found GHB on his night­stand, the de­tec­tive said in court.

At trial, the pros­e­cu­tor told ju­rors that the woman had bruises and other in­juries con­sis­tent with be­ing raped while un­con­scious.

The sec­ond woman tes­ti­fied that she felt “weird” af­ter drink­ing a choco­late mar­tini pre­pared by Stephens at his apart­ment in Oc­to­ber 2010. She said he threw her onto his bed and she tried to fight him off as he forced him­self on her. She was left with scratches on her wrists, a lump on her head and a bruised lip, she said.

Stephens hired Shapiro, who was al­ready well-re­garded in legal cir­cles be­fore de­fend­ing Simp­son in 1995 but saw his fame sky­rocket af­ter the ac­quit­tal in the most-watched trial in his­tory. Shapiro is also a co­founder and the public face of Le­galZoom, one of the largest on­line providers of legal doc­u­ments and fil­ing ser­vices.

Stephens told Shapiro he sur­rep­ti­tiously made the video “so that he could pro­tect him­self from al­le­ga­tions of rape,” the at­tor­ney said in an af­fi­davit filed in court.

In the af­fi­davit, Shapiro said he be­lieved the video would do more harm than good for Stephens’ de­fense. The video, he said, showed the woman in the 2010 in­ci­dent ap­pear­ing “limp and dead” when she was car­ried into the bed­room and she seemed to go in and out of con­scious­ness, which could have led ju­rors to be­lieve she was un­able to give con­sent.

At times, the woman ap­peared to fight Stephens off, which would have cor­rob­o­rated her tes­ti­mony, he said in the doc­u­ment. The fact that he se­cretly taped the en­counter would have dam­aged his cred­i­bil­ity with ju­rors and sub­jected him to the risk of ad­di­tional crimi- nal charges, Shapiro ar­gued. Se­cretly record­ing some­one un­dress­ing or hav­ing sex in a place where they ex­pect pri­vacy is a mis­de­meanor.

Shapiro said in the af­fi­davit that he would have turned the record­ing over to pros­e­cu­tors had he be­lieved the video ex­on­er­ated Stephens of the se­ri­ous felony charges against him.

“The most dif­fi­cult thing a lawyer in trial has to do is make strate­gic de­ci­sions,” Shapiro said in an in­ter­view. “Hind­sight is al­ways 20/20.”

A find­ing of in­ef­fec­tive as­sis­tance of coun­sel is rare, but can be dam­ag­ing to an at­tor­ney’s rep­u­ta­tion, legal ex­perts said.

Ger­a­gos said he had never known an at­tor­ney to al­low po­ten­tially ex­on­er­at­ing ev­i­dence to go un­used. “I was as­ton­ished,” he said. “I didn’t un­der­stand, and I still don’t un­der­stand it.”

The judge de­nied Stephens’ re­quest for a new trial on all the counts he was con­victed of, say­ing he found that the woman’s tes­ti­mony about the 2009 in­ci­dent was “in­cred­i­bly per­sua­sive and was ad­di­tion­ally sup­ported by phys­i­cal ev­i­dence.”

Ger­a­gos said he plans to file a mo­tion seek­ing a new trial on the re­main­ing charges, say­ing the two sep­a­rate al­le­ga­tions were in­ex­tri­ca­bly in­ter­twined by the pros­e­cu­tion. The pros­e­cu­tion, he noted, ar­gued dur­ing the trial that the women’s com­bined tes­ti­mony proved Stephens was a se­rial rapist who fol­lowed a sim­i­lar pat­tern of be­hav­ior.

Shapiro said the rul­ing does not tar­nish his legal ca­reer span­ning more than 45 years. “This was a judg­ment call that a judge dis­agreed with,” he said. “My rep­u­ta­tion speaks for it­self.”

Jabin Bots­ford

ROBERT SHAPIRO as­sem­bled the legal team that de­fended O.J. Simp­son to an ac­quit­tal in 1995.

Gina Fer­azzi

MARK GER­A­GOS has rep­re­sented celebri­ties in­clud­ing Wi­nona Ry­der and Michael Jack­son.

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