Tony Serra

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Tony Serra
Tony Serra 2018.jpg
Tony Serra in 2018
J. Tony Serra

(1934-12-30) December 30, 1934 (age 84)
NationalityUnited States
EducationStanford University, B.A.
University of California, Berkeley, J.D.

J. Tony Serra (born December 30, 1934) is an American civil rights lawyer, activist and tax resister from San Francisco.

Early life and education[edit]

A San Francisco native, Serra was raised in the Outer Sunset district. His father Anthony was an immigrant from Mallorca who worked in a jelly bean factory, and his mother Gladys was from Los Angeles.[1]

Serra received a Bachelor of Arts degree in philosophy from Stanford University and a Juris Doctor degree from Boalt Hall at the University of California, Berkeley. While at law school, Serra was a contributor to the California Law Review.


In 1970, Serra successfully defended Black Panther leader Huey Newton in a murder trial.

In 1983, Serra won an acquittal for Chol Soo Lee, a Korean American immigrant in San Francisco who had been convicted of murder in 1973 and sentenced to life imprisonment.

He has also represented individuals from groups as diverse and politically charged as the White Panthers, Hells Angels, Good Earth, and New World Liberation Front (NWLF). Some of these individuals include Brownie Mary, Dennis Peron, Hooty Croy, Ellie Nesler, and Symbionese Liberation Army members Sara Jane Olson, [2], Russell Little and Michael Bortin.

Courtroom sketch of Tony Serra

In 2004, Serra won an acquittal during a retrial on murder charges for co-defendant Rick Tabish in the death of casino mogul Ted Binion.[3]

Serra won the Trial Lawyer of the Year award in 2003 (by the organization Trial Lawyers for Public Justice), for his successful litigation of Judi Bari against the FBI.[4]

In 2015, he defended Chinatown crime boss Raymond "Shrimp Boy" Chow. [5][1]

Tax resistance[edit]

Serra has been in trouble with the law several times for failure to pay income taxes. He refused to pay taxes in protest of the War in Iraq, based on his conviction that the Bush administration was leading the country in the wrong direction and that he would therefore not contribute any money to fund what he saw as Bush's corrupt politics.[citation needed] On July 29, 2005, he was sentenced to 10 months in federal prison, to be served at Lompoc, and ordered to pay $100,000 in restitution for a misdemeanor conviction of willful failure to pay taxes.[6] Serra was released from the federal camp in Lompoc, California, in mid-February 2007, reporting immediately to a San Francisco halfway house. He was released from federal custody, and the halfway house, on March 13, 2007, after serving out his sentence [1]. Along with three other attorneys, Serra filed a class-action lawsuit seeking minimum wages for himself and other inmates, citing slave wages as unconstitutional.[7]

Personal life and family[edit]

Serra has taken a vow of poverty and is known for living a frugal lifestyle and driving a run-down car.[8] He does not have a cell phone, a bank account or a credit card.[5] In a disciplinary hearing before the State Bar of California, Serra stated, " "I took an informal vow of poverty. I vowed that I would never take profit from the practice of law, that I would not buy anything new, that I would recycle everything, that I would own no properties - no stocks or bonds, no images of prosperity. I still drive an old junk of a car. I still barely make the rent each month; I have accumulated nothing by way of savings, and I live from hand to mouth."[9]

All income from his cases is distributed to other lawyers except for a very small portion that he uses to pay rent and gas.[citation needed]

Serra has five children with Mary Edna Dineen, who raised them in a home that he called a "sprawling shack" in Bolinas, California.[10]

Tony has two younger brothers: Richard Serra, a prominent sculptor, and Rudy Serra, also a noted artist.[11] Richard paid for the college educations of Tony's five children.

In popular culture[edit]

The 1989 film True Believer was loosely based on the 1982-83 retrial of Chol Soo Lee. The film's main character, Eddie Dodd, played by James Woods, is based on Serra.

The film inspired a spin-off series, Eddie Dodd, which ran for six episodes in 1991 on ABC; Dodd was played by Treat Williams.[12]

A biography of Serra, Lust for Justice: The Radical Life & Law of J. Tony Serra, written by courtroom artist Paulette Frankl with a foreword by criminal defense attorney Gerry Spence, was released in October 2010.[13]

High-profile cases[edit]


  • Runner up, "Best Lawyer in America," American Lawyer magazine, 1982
  • Drug Policy Foundation Achievement in the Field of Law, 1992
  • Boalt Hall "Alumnus of the Year, 1993;
  • Charles Garry Award, 1994;
  • ACLU Benjamin Dreyfus Civil Liberties Award, 1997;
  • California Attorneys for Criminal Justice, 2000, "Ten Best Criminal Defense Attorneys of the Century;"
  • McFetridge-American Inn of court, Co-Awardee "2003 Trial Lawyer of the Year";
  • Trial Lawyers for Public Justice,"Certificate of Honor, December 1, 2005;"
  • Criminal Trial Lawyers Association of Northern California,"2005 Gideon Equal Justice Award;"
  • 2008 NORML Lester Grinspoon Award,"For Outstanding Achievement in the Field of Marijuana Law Reform"


  1. ^ a b Whiting, Sam (July 23, 2014). "Tony Serra a tireless courtroom 'Verbal Warrior': At 79, longtime S.F. attorney going strong as he prepares to defend alleged mobster Raymond 'Shrimp Boy' Chow". San Francisco Chronicle. Retrieved October 12, 2018.
  2. ^ O'Neill, Ann W. (May 11, 2000). "Olson's Latest Lawyer No Stranger to Fame. - Trial: Radical J. Tony Serra calls himself a 'true believer.' Others say he's the nation's best trial attorney". Los Angeles Times. Retrieved October 12, 2018.
  3. ^ Puit, Glenn (24 November 2004). "News: Binion Trial Verdict: Reversal of fortunes". Las Vegas Review-Journal. Retrieved 29 July 2012.
  4. ^ "Fourteen Lawyers in Two Exceptional Cases Win 2003 Trial Lawyer of the Year Award: Two California Trial Teams Share Award for Civil Rights Victory in Estate of Judi Bari and Marianas Sweatshop Settlement Protecting Workers' Rights". Trial Lawyers for Public Justice. 2003-07-28. Archived from the original on 2008-07-25. Retrieved 2012-07-29.
  5. ^ a b Weil, Elizabeth (October 13, 2015). "Shrimp Boy's Day in Court: What happened when one of San Francisco's most notorious underworld bosses tried to go clean". New York Times Magazine. Retrieved October 12, 2018.
  6. ^ Attorney Tony Serra sentenced to prison, San Francisco Chronicle, July 29, 2005
  7. ^ Defense Lawyer Serra Sues Over His Prison Pay, The Recorder, March 22, 2007
  8. ^, "Attorney Tony Serra Guilty Of Failing To Pay Taxes," April 5, 2005 Archived October 7, 2008, at the Wayback Machine
  9. ^ "Attorney Licensee Profile: J Tony Serra #32639, License Status: Active". State Bar of California. Retrieved October 13, 2018.
  10. ^ Chow, Robert (May 3, 1989). "Counterculture's Warrior Lawyer : J. Tony Serra's Specialty Is Outlaws, and He's Made His Reputation Defending Them". Los Angeles Times. Retrieved October 12, 2018.
  11. ^ "San Francisco Magazine, "The Believer Behind Bars," November 2006".
  12. ^ Tucker, Ken (March 22, 1991). "Eddie Dodd (review)". Entertainment Weekly.
  13. ^ Lust for Justice: The Radical Life & Law of J. Tony Serra, released October 22, 2010
  14. ^ Cavanaugh, Andrea (March 19, 2002). "Christie pleads guilty, is freed: Hells Angel leader won't serve more time behind bars". Ventura County Star. Retrieved October 13, 2018.
  15. ^ Elizabeth Weil (October 13, 2015). "Shrimp Boy's Day in Court What happened when one of San Francisco's most notorious underworld bosses tried to go clean". The New York Times Magazine. Retrieved October 14, 2015. For Serra, representing Shrimp Boy is an honor and a privilege. This is the type of case that any politically inclined lawyer — this is your holy grail, he said. This is a government-created crime.
  16. ^ Zamora, Jim Herron (May 17, 2002). "Last words in Earth First trial: Closing arguments present widely different realities". San Francisco Chronicle. Retrieved October 13, 2018.
  17. ^ "Santa Clara: Fired SiPort engineer found guilty of first degree murder in slaying of three bosses".
  18. ^ Ruggiero, Angela (August 13, 2018). "'Refreshed and excited,' Ghost Ship defense attorneys say they look forward to trial". East Bay Times. Retrieved October 13, 2018.

External links[edit]