In August of 2007 Lester Hogan, a San Franciscan with a long history of arrests, got a collect call from his nephew. Devaughndre Broussard, then 19, was on a jail pay phone, crying almost hysterically, saying he had been charged with murder.
Hogan tried to calm Broussard, but when he learned that his nephew had given police a recorded statement in which he admitted shooting Chauncey Bailey, editor of the Oakland Post
, a weekly African-American newspaper, he began screaming, "I told you to leave them fucking Muslims alone."
He meant the cultish Bey family, which ran a self-described black empowerment organization from Your Black Muslim Bakery in North Oakland. Bailey, 57, had been writing a story about its bankruptcy filing.
Broussard--the child of an absent father and drug-addicted, gun-toting mother, who shuffled between institutions for most of his childhood while she was in prison--had drifted in and out of the bakery for a year.
Don't accept a public defender, Hogan barked at his nephew. And under no circumstances was Broussard to allow the Beys to get him an attorney. He told Devaughndre to keep his mouth shut and wait for him to send "a good lawyer."
The attorney Hogan turned to had been his own. LeRue J. Grim says he can't remember whether Hogan called him or just showed up at his tiny San Francisco office on Bryant Street, tucked above Puccinelli's Bail Bonds and next to a bright yellow-and-purple auto body shop. Directly across the street is the San Francisco Hall of Justice--a dreadnought-size structure that houses the police department, the district attorney's office, and the criminal courts. It's a building with which Hogan is deeply familiar.
Maybe, like a lot of Grim's clients, Hogan just went down Bryant Street hoping to spot the lawyer's 1975 robin's-egg-blue Rolls-Royce--an incredibly conspicuous indication of the whereabouts of an inconspicuous man.
A single line of type on the building's directory leads visitors to an unadorned door at the end of a dim hallway above Puccinelli's. The first time I went looking for Grim's office, I mistakenly thought I was knocking on the janitor's closet--an unwarranted assumption given the building's musty smell.
This is where Hogan found the "good lawyer" he'd promised his nephew. The cluttered, three-room office is home to both Grim's practice and his hubris. He is just as likely to turn casual conversation to arguing past cases before the state supreme court as he is to reiterate a claim, originally made in 1997 before the State Bar Court, that the sex he'd had with a client's wife wasn't really sex because he didn't consent to it. LeRue Grim could make Bill Clinton blush.
Grim is 83, and his nearly half-century career is littered with accusations of serious professional misconduct against him--many of them substantiated. At the conclusion of his disciplinary trial, for instance, Judge Eugene E. Brott wrote: "Although Respondent has been in practice for more than 30 years and is well-known for his zealous advocacy for his clients, the Court is deeply troubled by Respondent's absolute blindness to conflicts of interest and professional ethics." But Brott rejected the prosecutor's argument for disbarment, recommending instead that the supreme court impose a 30-month suspension. It did. (In the Matter of LeRue Grim
, Nos. 94-0-17544, 94-0-19001 (consolidated) (St. Bar Ct. Jan. 21, 1997); No. S060817 (Cal. Sup. Ct. discipline order July 1, 1997).)
More than a decade later Grim largely resides in his office, a wizened man, often in a soiled trench coat, taking meals at Deli De Leon and accepting clients from society's margins--desperate, often unsophisticated people with cases no one else wants.
Despite his record of discipline, Grim continues to claim in interviews that he never intentionally harmed or deceived a client. In the preface to an autobiographical essay on his website entitled "The Kind of Person I Am," he writes, "[A] small percentage of people will try to take advantage of a person who is sympathetic and supportive." Such people include "individuals who are psychologically deeply flawed" and who "want more than good legal advice, they want a close, dependent relationship with me and for me to do unreasonable things with them. A lawyer must protect himself from those persons, or he will end up with the problem I have."
There are still clients willing to overlook Grim's transgressions. Hogan sought out Grim because he had represented both him and, over the years, other members of Broussard's extended family. As Grim told me, "Lester said, 'We'll try to get some money together,' but his nephew needed a lawyer right away."
Daro Inouye, a retired San Francisco deputy public defender, has known Grim for years. "[He] has generational contacts around the Hall of Justice. He has street credibility he's built up. I was aware of his problems, but nonetheless I felt he was a very skilled trial attorney."
Grim "is a man of contradictions," Inouye adds. "He's done good for people, but his reputation suffered. It isn't something you can overlook. You take the person for who he is."
Who Grim is, I have come to realize, is the lawyer of last resort--the one a man like Lester Hogan tracks down when his nephew calls from jail.
LeRue Grim once trained show dogs, an avocation that grew from his childhood in suburban Detroit, where his family raised Doberman pinschers. He joined the Air Force in 1946 after high school and eventually was stationed near Sacramento. After his four-year hitch, he moved to San Francisco, where he worked as a professional dog trainer and ended up playing a wild animal trainer on a children's television show.
Behind Grim's desk, on an office wall that looks as if it were once white, hangs a painting of a gathering of people in Victorian garb. Central in it is a tall figure with a stove-pipe hat that might be Abraham Lincoln, although the face is represented simply by a dull slap of flesh-colored paint. On the frame is a small gold plate engraved with the name "Belli." The painting, Grim says, came from one of attorney Melvin Belli's many wives; he can't remember which one. "It was a gift," he says. "I trained her dog." But that was the problem with dog training: Sometimes what you got for it was a bad painting.
Another piece of art hanging in one of his back rooms may better serve as Grim's antecedent. It is a print of M. C. Escher's lithograph Relativity
, which depicts a world where the normal laws of gravity and nature don't apply: Stairways lead in multiple directions, adding dimensions that the eye and brain cannot grasp. Consider Grim's route to the law, and his initial success.
In the early 1960s, Grim decided to give up canines. Lacking an undergraduate degree, he entered Lincoln University Law School, then in San Francisco and unaccredited. He attended night classes while continuing to appear on television and work with dogs. He was admitted to the California bar in January 1966.
According to his website Grim won his first criminal jury trial, and then received calls from his client's former cellmates. "In my first seven jury trials I won four acquittals and three hung juries," he boasts. "I was exhilarated and exhausted."
As Grim trolled for clients at the Hall of Justice, he also applied for court-appointed appellate work. Two years out of Lincoln he found himself arguing before the state supreme court, representing a Soledad state prison inmate who had been sentenced to death for stabbing another prisoner. Ralph Chacon and his two codefendants were lifers, and the law at that time made them death-penalty eligible for assault.
At their trial in Monterey County, all three were represented by a single lawyer. The defendants argued on appeal that each should have been provided separate counsel, especially in the trial's penalty phase. The case, People v. Chacon
, became known for Grim's client, and all three convictions were reversed on a unanimous vote (69 Cal. 2d 765 (1968)).
Another of the men had been represented by Ollie Marie-Victoire, who later became a San Francisco judge. "For me, [Chacon
] was important in that I prevailed," she told me at her home in San Mateo. Marie-Victoire recalls that the state supreme court justices thought that Grim "wrote a better brief than I did, and he got paid more. That sort of hurt my feelings."
The next year Grim was back before the state supreme court representing another death row inmate, William Albert Tahl, who had pleaded guilty to killing a husband and wife in San Diego.
Grim argued that because Tahl had failed to understand the consequences of his plea, it was made involuntarily. In fact the high court's opinion, written by Chief Justice Stanley Mosk, cited a recent U.S. Supreme Court decision that it cannot be assumed from a silent record that a guilty plea forfeiting constitutional rights had been made voluntarily (Boykin v. Alabama
, 395 U.S. 238, 243 (1969)). But the California justices ruled that Boykin
could only "be applied prospectively." (In re Tahl
, 1 Cal. 3d 122, 130 (1969).) Even so, they reversed Tahl's death penalty on other grounds and ordered a retrial of the penalty phase.
Grim considers the Tahl
victory the high point of his career. Three lawyers from the Attorney General's office had argued for the state, including one named Ronald M. George. As the ruling began to change how judges admonish defendants before they enter guilty pleas, it is difficult to imagine two California lawyers embarking on more divergent trajectories than LeRue Grim and the future Chief Justice of California.
Grim's career began to slip within a few years. He was overwhelmed by casework, unorganized, putting off clients, missing court dates. Marie-Victoire was San Francisco's calendar judge in the mid-1970s when she noticed one morning that Grim had six felony cases scheduled for trial on the same day. And he was nowhere to be found--not in court, not answering his phone, not at his office across Bryant Street.
Marie-Victoire laughs now when she tells the story, but says she was extremely angry at the time. She was "making my record" of the matter and preparing to have Grim brought in for a contempt hearing when a public defender spoke up in his defense, saying Grim must have had some kind of dire emergency. She cooled down. When Grim showed up the next day, he claimed he had been stuck in traffic in San Jose. The judge fined Grim. "I made it painful," she says.
Marie-Victoire said that although Grim was developing a reputation for unreliability, he had talent. "He was a good trial lawyer once you got him in court. He was a good questioner, he was good with jurors."
Former deputy PD Inouye remembers when Grim defended a client charged with stabbing a man in the head during a street fight--a case that looked like "a dead-bang loser" for any defense lawyer.
The prosecution's chief witness, Inouye recalls, was an "intelligent, articulate, highly educated woman" who lived above the crime scene. She testified that she'd heard the fight and opened her blinds just as Grim's client committed the stabbing. "I believe she thought she was telling the truth," Inouye says.
Grim cross-examined the witness slowly. "He is not bombastic, he is not overly aggressive," Inouye says, remembering the exchange. "He educates the jury. The witness wasn't defensive, but she wanted to let everyone know that some little guy in half glasses wasn't going to trip her up.
"[Grim] says, 'The curtain you have is quite heavy, isn't it?
' The woman said yes.
" 'And that's because there's a very, very bright streetlight directly outside your window, right?
Yes, she answered.
" 'And when you heard the yelling and jumped out of bed and pulled open the curtain that light was right in front of you?
" 'And your room was very dark, correct?
" 'And you looked into the light and it blinded you, didn't it?
"There was a lengthy pause," Inouye recalls. "The courtroom was totally quiet."
The woman hesitated, and then said yes.
"It was astounding for me to watch." Inouye says. "It imprinted in my mind, because I was a young lawyer, a product of the 1960s. I thought you were supposed to yell and scream."
Grim doesn't remember the case, and Inouye can't recall its outcome. But it was Grim at his best--a level of lawyering that he could not maintain. Soon he was driving the audacious blue Rolls-Royce, and rumors swirled that he had obtained it from a drug-dealing client who was short on cash.
I have asked Grim repeatedly about that rumor in the four years I have known him. Finally, he admitted accepting the Rolls for payment. But the client was not, he insisted, a drug dealer--just someone in over his head trying to satisfy a debt.
Getting straight answers from Grim is a challenge. Though he dodged telling me about the car, he then offered that a former client once ran a marijuana growing operation down the hall from his office--right across Bryant Street from police headquarters.
Grim does not like to discuss his personal life. He is divorced, with nine children by five different women. The appearance of his office (there are numerous stashes of groceries and medicines in the back along with a blanket-covered cot)--and the fact that he often wanders the rooms in a bathrobe--suggest it is his primary domicile.
As his career began to unravel, Grim was missing more than court dates and filing deadlines. To hear him tell it, he had too many clients and the inability to say no. "I wish I'd been more aggressive in limiting my workload," he says. "It all makes me look like a flake." But in complaints filed with the State Bar, Grim's clients began laying out a troubling pattern.
According to State Bar records, Grim repeatedly told clients he'd filed cases for them when he hadn't. One instance involved a poor woman, unfamiliar with the legal system, who hired him to appeal her son's rape conviction. The San Francisco woman testified at Grim's disciplinary trial that for seven years he maintained that the appeal was pending, even though her son's appellate rights had long expired because Grim never filed an opening brief. When she eventually confronted him, Grim broke down, admitting the truth and rationalizing his deceit. She said he told her, "You were hurting so bad, and I didn't want to hurt you more!"
Still, he somehow convinced the woman to pay him another $3,000 to prepare her son for a parole hearing--even though she found out later he wouldn't be eligible for another six years. When the woman again confronted Grim, he claimed that he'd tried to visit her son in prison but was turned away because he didn't have a valid ID: His driver's license had expired.
Even though the State Bar's Judge Brott found the woman's claim credible, Grim denies any wrongdoing. "I told her the appeal had no merit," he says.
Another complaint against Grim came from the 20-year-old wife of a client he was defending in 1991 against murder and drug charges in Tuolumne County. The woman was living in a house trailer, where Grim began staying during trial preparation. He was 63.
His version of events goes like this: Shortly after they met, the woman showed him dozens of photographs of herself giving birth to her two children. "Even in childbirth," Grim recounts on his website, "she was very attractive and she knew it." He found it strange that she would show him something so personal and intimate, but he deemed that she was vital to her husband's defense so he said nothing. "I had to keep her on the team," he wrote.
Then one night, he awoke to find her in bed with him. The sex that followed, Grim testified in State Bar Court, occurred without his consent--a claim Judge Brott called "preposterous." On his website, Grim writes, "I should have jumped out of bed and left. I didn't. I intended to get up. It was cold. ... She began to do provocative things to me. ... I felt excited and extremely nice." When it was over they agreed it would not reoccur, and that was the "full extent" of the sexual relationship.
Yet according to Judge Brott's summary of facts, the woman testified "that she and [Grim] repeatedly engaged in sexual acts before, during, and after [her husband's] trial." She "became pregnant and had an abortion ... [Grim] paid the hospital bill." Grim also had admitted to a sexual relationship in answers to interrogatories from a civil suit the woman and her husband brought against him, Brott noted.
Grim continues to claim that there was only one sexual encounter, which occurred against his will. He also says he was never convinced the woman was pregnant, believing she extorted money from him.
The woman's husband was convicted. To pay Grim, the couple had agreed to quitclaim some land to him, which the attorney would then sell and take a reasonable fee. But Tuolumne County seized the property as drug proceeds under civil forfeiture statutes. At hearings on the seizure proceedings, Grim represented both the couple and himself, never suggesting that they seek separate counsel since they had a competing interest in the property. The client and his wife "were not sophisticated people," and Grim clearly took advantage of them, Judge Brott wrote in his summary.
Grim eventually succeeded in beating back the civil forfeiture and sold the property. Some of the proceeds were supposed to pay for his appeal of the murder conviction. But according to his disciplinary records, Grim never filed an opening brief and didn't inform his client of this until the deadline had passed.
By 1997 Grim faced disciplinary charges in both the San Francisco and Tuolumne County matters; previously he had been given two private reprovals for failing to inform clients of important developments in their cases. Brott found Grim culpable of multiple counts of misconduct but determined that the prosecution had failed to make a compelling case for disbarment. Grim's suspension order was signed by Chief Justice George, his old adversary in the Tahl
"I think I was a target," Grim told me recently. "I made the mistake of thinking the State Bar would treat me fairly."
After his suspension ended, Grim limped back into practice. He says he decided he would operate differently, taking no retainers and asking clients to pay him incrementally as he worked.
Former deputy PD Inouye says that in essence, Grim began to run a small "alternate public defender's office with a sliding scale." Down-and-out clients--people like Lester Hogan--still looked for the blue Rolls-Royce on Bryant Street.
In the Chauncey Bailey murder case, one of the first things Grim did was to give the media recordings of police statements and jail phone calls made by his client Devaughndre Broussard and others. By late 2007 the San Francisco Chronicle
was crediting Grim as the source for at least one conversation it reported between police and Your Black Muslim Bakery leader Yusuf Bey IV.
Eventually, Grim admitted to Alameda County Superior Court Judge Morris Jacobson in open session that he had given hundreds of pages of police reports he obtained through discovery to reporters, including me. (Prior to Grim's admission, the consortium of journalists I work with--the Chauncey Bailey Project--had not attributed the documentation to anyone by name.) Judge Jacobson called Grim's actions "deplorable behavior," but he imposed no sanctions.
Other than cross-examining a few witnesses during Broussard's preliminary hearing in November 2007 on the murder charge, Grim apparently did little work on the case. He tried to file one document--a Pitchess
motion seeking records involving a cop who had written an affidavit for a search warrant--but instead of sending it to the police department, where it should have gone, he sent it to the prosecutor's office. He didn't hire an investigator and he didn't apply for court appointment, which would have assured him modest compensation.
Broussard initially denied to detectives that he'd killed Bailey. Still, he was their lead suspect, having tossed the murder weapon out of his bedroom window as officers stormed the bakery compound. (Bey was quick to tell police that Broussard had admitted the killing to him, but Bey denied any involvement himself.)
But when Broussard would not confess to detectives after his arrest, they brought in Bey to help badger him for about 20 minutes. Then they left the two men alone in an interview room for 6 minutes--and didn't record their conversation. Broussard promptly confessed, insisting that he had acted alone in killing Bailey because the journalist was going to write "bad things" about Bey and the bakery, which was in bankruptcy proceedings at the time.
One detective later testified that it was his idea to use Bey to "confront" Broussard and force a confession. He also had written, in search warrant affidavits, that he suspected Bey was lying when he denied involvement in Bailey's murder.
Broussard eventually claimed that during his six-minute conversation with Bey, the latter promised him money, a lawyer, and a light sentence if he confessed to the killing as a solo act. Broussard said Bey also told him, as his religious leader, that it was God's will that he protect the bakery.
All of that information was available to Grim by the time his client's preliminary hearing concluded. Yet he filed no motions about the circumstances surrounding Broussard's confession.
Then in early 2008, Grim received a call from a CBS News producer. The magazine show 60 Minutes
was interested in doing a piece about Bailey's murder. Would Grim allow his client to be interviewed by Anderson Cooper? The lawyer said yes.
In February of that year Broussard denied on national television that he killed Bailey, but he said he knew who did--and pledged to reveal that person's identity at trial. Later, Broussard would testify that Grim had counseled him to lie.
"I wouldn't say, 'lie,' " Grim told me when I asked about Broussard's 60 Minutes
assertion and subsequent testimony. "Defense lawyers sometimes tell clients to muddy the waters."
A year passed while Grim waited for the trial, in which he intended to have Broussard testify. But as he sat with his client at a hearing in early 2009, Broussard whispered to him the words Grim must have longed to hear: His client wanted to talk to the prosecutor.
After that, Broussard testified, weeks passed with no word from Grim, and he wanted to fire him.
Then one day in March 2009 Broussard was taken from his cell in Oakland's North County Jail and put on a bus headed for court. He said he figured it was a mistake; he knew he wasn't scheduled for an appearance.
But instead of being delivered to court, Broussard was taken to a jury deliberation room where Grim sat with the deputy district attorney assigned to the case. Broussard was handed a proffer agreement to sign, later testifying that Grim had not consulted him about it before that moment (Grim disputes this). There was a digital recorder on the table.
Police had come to suspect that members of the bakery were responsible for two separate killings a few weeks before Bailey's murder. If Broussard were truthful about Bey's role in Bailey's killing--and told investigators all he knew about the other deaths--he was advised, the prosecutor would let him plea bargain.
"I told them to make me an offer I couldn't refuse, and they did," Grim says. "They wanted to clear the whole thing up."
Eventually, prosecutors said they would recommend a 25-year determinate sentence in exchange for Broussard's testimony.
Alameda County District Attorney Nancy O'Malley, who was chief assistant to District Attorney Tom Orloff when the deal was struck, declined to be interviewed for this story.
In the proffer statement Broussard signed, he admitted to one of the earlier killings--of a homeless man named Odell Roberson who was related to the killer of Bey's older brother. Bey wanted Roberson dead as "eye for an eye" retribution, Broussard said.
Broussard also declared that Bey and another bakery member, Antoine Mackey, bragged that the latter, on Bey's order, had killed a white man named Michael Wills in a tribute to the 1973-74 so-called Zebra murders of random "white devils" in the Bay Area by Black Muslims.
The killing of Bailey was equally cold-blooded. Broussard said Bey had learned that he would be criticized in a story the journalist was preparing about the bakery's financial problems, and he ordered Broussard and Mackey to "take out" the writer. The next morning, Broussard came upon Bailey walking to work and shot him twice with a shotgun--first across his torso and then in his lower abdomen. As Bailey lay dying on the sidewalk, Broussard stood over him and fired a load of double-ought buckshot into his face.
A month after signing the statement, Broussard related the same events to a grand jury impaneled in the basement of an Oakland courthouse. Grim wandered through the lobby, speaking to reporters. His blue Rolls-Royce was parked outside, a parking ticket tucked under one of its windshield wipers.
Grim told me and other reporters that day that his client was "a human being seeking redemption. He has been living in a hell. He's really suffered from this."
The attorney was supposed to be available throughout Broussard's testimony, but he left the courthouse long before his client finished. "I think I'll beat the traffic," he said, and slipped outside.
When he testified at the murder trial of Bey and Mackey this spring, Broussard struggled to keep his versions of the story straight. Over the course of four years, he'd denied killing Bailey; then said he did so alone; then said he didn't kill anyone; then said Bey put him up to two killings that Mackey had helped him with. Defense lawyers Gene Peretti and Gary Sirbu battered him with questions. Grim attended the first few hours of Broussard's testimony and told me he would be back each day that his client was on the stand. He wasn't.
As a witness, Broussard did little to endear himself to jurors. At one point he burst into laughter, turning his head and trying to bury his face in the crook of a shackled arm as he described ordering his earlier victim Roberson to stop running away, then emptied the clip of an AK-47 into him at close range.
Soon, the defense lawyers were playing the unedited version of Broussard's 60 Minutes
interview for the jury, pointing out how earnest and sincere he seemed on camera as he denied killing Bailey. In the video, Grim keeps wandering in and out of view, looking for a place to sit.
Outside of court Peretti, Bey's counsel, told reporters he was so confident jurors wouldn't find Broussard credible that he was going to put on only a token defense; he called one witness, and his client never took the stand. Codefendant Mackey testified that he didn't participate in any killings, telling jurors that Broussard had lied to get revenge for sexual encounters Mackey had with women Broussard was interested in.
During closing arguments in mid-May, Peretti and Sirbu attacked Broussard's credibility and urged jurors to disregard his entire testimony. Without it, they insisted, the state's case would vanish.
Grim says that Broussard's family has never paid him for his work. His representation became, in effect, a pro bono case, one in which he claims his client was well served. He expects a judge to conclude that Broussard fulfilled his obligation to testify truthfully and sentence him to the terms of the agreement. "He's going to get his deal," Grim told me well before the trial concluded.
The verdicts, delivered in early June, seemed to cement Broussard's plea bargain. Bey was convicted of three counts of first degree murder for ordering the killings of Bailey, Roberson, and Wills. Mackey also was convicted of first degree murder, for helping Broussard hunt down and shoot Bailey and for pulling the trigger on Wills himself. Both codefendants face life in prison without parole.
The day of the verdicts I phoned Grim several times for his reaction. He didn't call back, so the next morning I trudged over to Bryant Street, as I had so many times in the past few years. The Rolls-Royce wasn't there, and Grim didn't answer the door. As I was leaving, a man and a woman came up the stairs. They spoke broken English in Eastern European accents, the dark skin under the man's eyes sagging, the woman's head covered in a red scarf. They, too, were looking for Grim, who had been elusive for weeks, they said. The man and I exchanged knowing shrugs.
Hours later, Grim finally answered his cell phone. He was off in court, in another county. The Bey and Mackey verdicts did not surprise him, he said. He had not spoken to his client in some time, but told me he was certain that Broussard had committed "a little bit of fabrication"--about what, he wouldn't say. Nor would he say whether he was referring to trial testimony or earlier statements.
Grim was obviously satisfied with the outcome.
During closing arguments, Peretti said Broussard had "won the lottery" with his deal. But did Grim buy him the ticket? Would Broussard have agreed to turn state's evidence if Grim had waged an aggressive defense? Or if Broussard had held to the "no snitch" code of the street, what would Grim have done then?
On the phone that afternoon Grim said he didn't have time to discuss scenarios. He had a law practice to run, he insisted, and needed to get back to Bryant Street. I thought of the couple looking for him there earlier and had no doubt that he would continue to survive.
Thomas Peele is an investigative reporter for the Bay Area News Group and the Chauncey Bailey Project. His book about Black Muslim beliefs and the murder,
Killing the Messenger, will be published by the Random House imprint Broadway Books in 2012.