PROFILE / Robert Sanger: Offering his best defense

Posted by

February 8, 2004 PROFILE / Robert Sanger: Offering his best defense Jackson attorney has been staunch death penalty foe By DAWN HOBBS NEWS-PRESS STAFF WRITER The throng of media and fans at Michael Jackson’s arraignment last month focused on the king of pop and his big-name attorney Mark Geragos — not a Santa Barbara attorney on the defense team who could pass for an older Kelsey Grammer. But Robert Sanger, 55, has made waves of his own in the legal community. He’s a front-runner in the drive to abolish the death penalty, having recently published an analysis that legislators are studying. And, he recently convinced a judge to declare the jury pool selection process unconstitutional in Santa Barbara County because Latinos are underrepresented. While the ruling is under appeal, more than 25 cases are on hold. Although Mr. Geragos is in the limelight as the Jackson case moves through the Santa Barbara County courts, Mr. Sanger could well be a key player on the defense team. His knowledge of the jury selection process may be valuable. More importantly, he represented Mr. Jackson in other cases over the last decade, including the 1993 child molestation case that crumbled when the entertainer settled with the accuser’s family. A gag order issued on Jan. 16 at Mr. Jackson’s arraignment bars the attorneys from discussing the case, but in a recent interview in his downtown office, Mr. Sanger talked a little about himself and some of his other cases. He’s the father of a 10-year-old girl and three adult children, and grandfather of two. On the weekends, he rides horses and plays golf at Glen Annie with his family. Once a scratch golfer who considered going pro, he maintains a respectable four handicap and has teed off with the profesionals and volunteered with the Russ Morrison youth golf program in Santa Barbara. The 6-foot-1 attorney is an enthusiastic storyteller and an avid reader, mostly of philosophy, biographies and history. And he’s so intrigued by etymology that he’s collected more than 100 dictionaries — including a 1650 Latin dictionary his wife and law partner, Catherine Swysen, found for him in Belgium and a Webster’s dictionary from 1860. “I like to look up a word to see how it’s been treated historically. Words really change over time.” In the courtroom, Mr. Sanger is meticulous and unbending. Criminal defense attorney Steve Balash described him as an “intellectual known for bringing interesting legal issues into the courtroom,” but said prosecutors are frequently irritated by him. “Bob will never concede a legal point and really fights for his clients. The DAs get frustrated by that and make unkind remarks about him being bombastic. But that’s what Bob does — he holds their feet to the fire, and I can’t blame him for that.” Local prosecutors wouldn’t talk about Mr. Sanger, saying they were instructed by higher-ups not to comment. But among some, he has the reputation of being pompous. A Ventura County judge who faced him as a prosecutor seems to appreciate his style more. “He aggressively defends his client, yet you can talk with him about issues as opposing counsel and he’s very straightforward,” said Judge Charles Campbell. In his 30-year career, Mr. Sanger has handled more than 100 cases. One of his more noteworthy local clients was Dennis Boyd Miller, convicted in the 1982 triple homicide of well-known sculptor Giovanni Schoeman and business associates Cornelis Moll and Kimberly Roberts. Mr. Miller got a life prison term, avoiding the death penalty. “There was standing room only in the courtroom and media lined up in the hallways for that case,” Mr. Sanger recalled. “But you do what’s in the best interest for your client and don’t worry about looking over your shoulder at the camera.” Mr. Sanger filed documentation in that case that led to a population cap at the County Jail and later a detoxification center and early release program. Even today, he’s a mainstay on what has evolved into a jail overcrowding task force. He regularly gets phone calls from three clients on death row whose cases he picked up after they were sentenced. One is a 1979 Long Beach case, another from 1981 in San Bernardino. Locally, he took over as lawyer for Ryan Hoyt after Mr. Hoyt was convicted of murdering 15-year-old Nicholas Markowitz. If someone is a danger to society, they should be in prison, Mr. Sanger said. But it’s an abuse of power and hypocritical, he insists, for the government to kill people for killing someone. “It’s not a matter of war, it’s not a matter of self-defense — it’s a matter of caging someone and killing them in cold blood. It’s morally wrong. We should be teaching the sanctity of life.” He says research shows that the death penalty is not uniformly applied — it is used more often in cases involving lower-income minorities. Mr. Sanger, who is a member of the Death Penalty Focus committee headed by actor Mike Farrell of TV’s “MASH,” persuaded legislators to re-examine the issue last April. His studies were published in the December issue of the Santa Clara Law Review, and compare the California capital punishment system to that of Illinois. In that state last year, Gov. George Ryan took the historic step of commuting all death sentences to life in prison without parole after several flaws in the system were identified — primarily that innocent people were being put to death. Mr. Sanger says his passion for civil rights stems from growing up in the segregated South. Born in Arlington, Va., he was the son of a World War II and Korean War veteran and a bookkeeper turned full-time mother. “They were people who lived the harder life in the Depression,” he said. He recalled attending segregated schools and drinking from fountains reserved for whites. “My dad was a man of very few words. But one day there was something on television about racism and he said, ‘Boy, that’s wrong,’ ” Mr. Sanger said, emulating his father’s deep voice. “It’s the only thing I ever remember him saying about racism, but it’s stuck with me.” His family moved to Oxnard when he was in junior high. At 16, another defining moment occurred when the Hueneme High student took a field trip to a local courtroom. “There was a police officer on the stand being examined by a DA who was wearing a very nice three-piece suit with banker stripes. He seemed to be very competent and in control of the courtroom,” he recalled. “And then there was the defense attorney. This fellow looked terrible. He had bad posture. The lining of his plaid coat was coming out of the bottom and he was disinterested. I looked at that situation and decided I wanted to wear banker stripes and go in and do the kind of job the district attorney was doing — but I was going to do it representing the defendant.” There were small diversions along the way. He was at UCSB during the late 1960s when the campus was wracked by riots, and he participated in peace rallies. He was accepted into a doctoral program in philosophy in Michigan, but in 1970 he opted instead for the UCLA School of Law. Three years later he opened a private practice in Goleta. Then, 12 years ago he settled into his Carrillo Street office. To this day, he prefers wearing banker stripe suits. He met his wife at an ACLU meeting when he was president of the local chapter and she was a member of the Pro-Choice Coalition. “He asked for volunteers to represent Cuban detainees at the Lompoc prison,” Ms. Swysen recalled. “Castro didn’t want them back and the U.S. didn’t want them out of prison even though they served their sentences. They were on 23-hour lockdown. It was a sad situation. Turned out Bob and I were the only ones doing the hearings.” They started dating a couple months later and married shortly after in 1992. She began as a law clerk and became an associate of the firm a couple years later. Ms. Swysen said that being married to an attorney makes their relationship easier because they understand each other’s long hours. “And working together gives us flexibility for what we need to do with the children,” she said from behind her modern black desk in an office decorated in black and gray. Photographs of her family and of her with Hillary Clinton, Kiefer Sutherland and Mario Cuomo hang on her wall. Ms. Swysen said her husband used to edit the PTA newsletter and attends school activities: “He really has fun with the kids. And he’s so patient. You can really see that when he’s teaching our daughter and me to play golf. He’s so gracious.” Across the hall is her husband’s more traditional office — with a dark wood desk and antique furnishings. Degrees, awards and family photographs hang on his walls. “Even though we work together, we hardly see each other,” Mr. Sanger said. They try to meet for lunch every day at either Playa Azul Cafe or Aldo’s Italian Restaurant. The firm has three attorneys, two law clerks and an investigator. They handle about 60 cases at a time. A firm rule is to put on your jacket before you greet a client in the lobby — to show respect. Respect is a major part of his philosophy in dealing with clients. “Somebody needs to stand up for the dignity of people who are brought into the court system. People always ask how I can represent these people. My answer is, ‘Look, everybody else in the system in the courtroom is there to convict the client — the district attorney, the arresting officer, and most of the judges are former DAs.’ “As a defense lawyer, you stand there and say, ‘Slow down the train. Whatever we do, first of all I want the system and everybody in it to accord my client respect.’ If you do that, there’s a better chance of a fair trial and that justice will prevail in the end…. I feel so strongly about this. It’s the reason why I get up in the morning.” Source:

Leave a Reply