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A Man of Independent Means

By Lois Romano
Washington Post Staff Writer
Monday, September 29, 1997; Page D01

DENVER—Michael Tigar was a legend in legal circles at age 26, well before he would take on some of the highest-profile cases of his generation, representing the likes of Angela Davis and the Chicago Seven, John Connally and John Demjanjuk, and today, in a federal courtroom here, accused Oklahoma City bomber Terry Nichols.

Three decades before he eagerly agreed to represent Nichols, a man who Tigar suggests was targeted for prosecution because of his political beliefs, the lawyer faced his own public political crisis, one that would come to drive his career, and ultimately this case.

The story:

Fresh from Berkeley law school, where he graduated first in his class and was law review editor, Tigar was heading east in a Volkswagen bus with his young family to accept a clerkship with Supreme Court Justice William J. Brennan when something went terribly wrong. He received word that Brennan was having second thoughts because of Tigar's high-profile leftist activities as both an undergraduate and law student at the University of California.

An early leader of the '60s protest movement, Tigar had openly opposed the House Un-American Activities Committee, attended a leftist youth conference in Helsinki, articulated support for the Cuban revolution and demonstrated against segregation.

It was an era when such actions were considered by many to be anti-American, and Brennan felt the heat. Under what he would later call a "deluge" of pressure from the right and from J. Edgar Hoover to withdraw the job offer, Brennan asked Tigar's permission to release a list of his political activities. Tigar adamantly refused. And so, on a hot Washington day in 1966, Brennan axed the stunned fledgling lawyer who had $10 to his name and a wife and two children.

"One of the things he asked me was `Did you attend a Communist Party training camp in Paterson, New Jersey?' " recalled Tigar during a recent interview, still clearly astonished by the question. "I said, `Sir, I have never been to Paterson, New Jersey.'

"There is really only one place for that kind of story to start," he says pointedly. "The leap that the government wants to take in so many cases -- a leap across this line between dissent and disloyalty -- is something I have been interested in for many years."

It is not entirely odd then that Michael Tigar, the embodiment of '60s leftist idealism, will today begin jury selection for Nichols, a far-right government-hater, who has been charged with conspiring to blow up the Alfred P. Murrah Federal Building and causing the deaths of 168 innocent people.

"I don't want to make it look like some personal thing, but look at the way in which the government wants to tell us that we ought to be afraid of people who have certain ideas. Look back at how silly it seemed 30 years ago. . . . It is that same lunacy, that same fear. Those who do not understand history are condemned to repeat it."

Legal Eagle

The late renowned Washington lawyer Edward Bennett Williams, for whom Tigar (pronounced "tiger") worked intermittently in the '60s and '70s, used to tell people that he wished he could walk behind his protege with a basket to catch his discarded ideas.

Indeed, at times Tigar's raw knowledge seems intimidating. He is a gourmet cook who fluently quotes 18th-century poetry and the Bible, has published books, plays and scores of articles, teaches law classes in France (in French) and routinely causes his colleagues to squirm in court with citations of obscure case law. When he received a prestigious human rights award for his 15 years of work on the case of Orlando Letelier and Ronni Moffitt, the former Chilean Marxist official and his aide killed in a 1977 Washington car bombing, Tigar delivered the acceptance speech in Spanish -- in a Chilean dialect.

"Having Michael Tigar as a law partner in the '70s was like having the first Lexis/Nexis machine," says longtime friend Sam Buffone, a Washington lawyer who practiced with Tigar.

Considered one of the more theatrical lawyers in the country, Tigar, 56, is a large, lumbering figure, with a shock of dark bangs hugging his forehead, grand shaggy eyebrows, and long trousers that commence high above his waist. When he stands to speak -- whether in a cavernous federal courtroom or his modest temporary office at the Denver law firm of Haddon, Morgan & Foreman -- the room suddenly seems so much smaller.

His detractors, most of whom know him only from a distance (and refuse to speak on the record), see an egocentric, self-righteous show horse who does everything with a bit too much flourish and passion -- from his popular law lectures at the University of Texas School of Law (he holds the Joseph D. Jamail Centennial Chair) to his love life (he's been married four times).

But those closest to him, those who have practiced with him and against him, paint a picture of a brilliant, generous and principled lawyer who must be convinced he is on the moral high ground before he takes a case.

When an 11-year-old Michael told his father that he wanted to be a lawyer, Charles Tigar presented him with Irving Stone's "Clarence Darrow for the Defense," instructing his only son that "this is the kind of lawyer you should be. He was for the people." Tigar says he has tried to follow Darrow's commitment to the underdog. Although he can (and does) command upward of $500 an hour from private clients, his resume brims with lower-paying court-appointed cases and pro bono clients. Over the years he has dipped into his pocket to set up several law school scholarship funds at his alma mater and UT, from which he has taken a leave to work on the Nichols case.

"What I found unexpectedly in him was his utter generosity -- in terms of both credit and time," said Michael Dane, the federal public defender in Cleveland who worked with Tigar in the Demjanjuk case. "It's easy to say this is a guy who seeks the spotlight . . . who wants to be heard from for reasons that have little or nothing to do with a case. It is simply not true."

The case of Demjanjuk -- the accused Nazi war criminal deported to Israel but eventually exonerated amid charges the U.S. government long knew he was not "Ivan the Terrible" -- reflects a recurring theme in Tigar's career: government abuse of power.

And it is that theme, he says, that drew him to the Nichols case.

Oklahoma lawyers weren't exactly lining up to represent Nichols in April 1995. In fact, U.S. District Judge David Russell of Oklahoma City was starting to lose sleep over whom to appoint. The full force of the government's resources were being thrown at the case, and Russell wanted a lead attorney who could master the legal complexities -- from the new anti-terrorism law to the expanded federal death penalty statute.

In short, he wanted a heavy hitter, and Tigar saw in the case issues that had long mattered to him.

"I thought the FBI had moved too quickly to scoop Terry Nichols up and announce that they had solved the case," says Tigar. "The FBI's behavior in this case is the same sort of behavior we've seen in a lot of cases. . . . They just don't think there are any rules."

He further believed that the case against Nichols was a prototypical example of how the government could twist someone's political views to fit its own end. Nichols made no secret of his distaste for the government, once renouncing his citizenship and later shouting from the back of the room at a bankruptcy hearing that the judge had no jurisdiction over him. "It was clear that the government was going to ask the public and the jurors to leap from some understanding -- perhaps distorted -- of Terry's supposed political views to the conclusion that he would therefore be willing to engage in violence," says Tigar. (Prosecutors declined to comment on Tigar's remarks.)

Tigar says his client is innocent, essentially because Nichols was not in Oklahoma City on the day of the blast. Nevertheless, the government maintains that Nichols is as culpable as his former Army buddy Timothy McVeigh -- convicted and sentenced to death in June -- because he helped plan and execute the deadliest act of domestic terrorism in U.S. history.

Tigar won't say how he plans to separate Nichols, 42, from the conspiracy. But he does seem to appreciate one of the failings of the McVeigh defense: Jurors later said they never understood the motives and mind-set of the defendant.

"This case is about whether Terry Lynn Nichols knew that somebody was going to blow up the building and kill a lot of people, and whether knowing that, he specifically intended to help bring that about," he says. "It turns so critically on the mental elements. You have to open up the windows of the mind, and to open the windows of the mind we have to tell you something about Terry Nichols."

Which, of course, prompts the obvious question: Will we be hearing from Terry Nichols? "Yes, we might be hearing from him," says Tigar.

Domesticated Tigar

Friends and family describe Michael Tigar as the kind of guy who can never do anything casually. Larry Lucchino, the president and minority owner of the San Diego Padres, who practiced law with him 25 years ago at Williams & Connolly, recalls phoning Tigar one evening back then for some recipe advice for a dinner party.

"Forty-five minutes later, we were still in the middle of some elaborate French recipe," says Lucchino. "It was a bit more than I needed to know."

"Oh yes," recalls Tigar today, without missing a beat. "It was chicken with a Basque sauce."

Tigar's mother, Elizabeth, said in an interview that her son's intensity, love of books and activism came naturally. "He was 10 or 11 when he volunteered me to work for Adlai Stevenson's campaign," she says. But he clearly had some home influences. Tigar's late father was a union official, and his mother a liberal who would take her son and daughter shopping in Los Angeles' barrios on weekends so they could experience life beyond their "lily-white community."

Elizabeth Tigar remembers that her son was always at the top of his class academically and frequently elected to the class leadership as he grew up in Glendale, Calif. But she doesn't "remember him doing much dating at all."

Tigar married for the first time in college, a union that produced two children: Jon, now a criminal lawyer in San Francisco; and Katherine McQueen, a doctor in Houston. He has a third child from a later marriage, Elizabeth, 13, whom he flies home to see in Austin every weekend.

Jon Tigar declined to be interviewed. But McQueen spoke effusively of Tigar's devotion to his children. "He was there for me 100 percent," says McQueen, who was 5 when her parents split up. "I am one of my dad's greatest fans. I would never marry him, though."

Indeed, his four marriages are a source of some curiosity among even those who know him well. "I don't think my dad likes uncertainty in anything," surmises McQueen, "so when something is uncertain he has the need to resolve it. When he makes a decision about something, it's very immediate."

Tigar last year married Jane Blanksteen, 42, whom he met when she responded to a job query he had posted on the Internet. A recent graduate of Columbia Law School, Jane Tigar is also a member of the Nichols defense team.

"I'm not going to talk about it," says Tigar when asked about his personal life. "I am a very difficult person and mercurial and at times very dark. I've tried to understand how that is because I don't think that I or anybody else has a license to hurt people. I just try to take responsibility for what I do."

Sweet Vindication

Tigar's run-in with Justice Brennan played no small part in launching his eventful career. But while his peers around the country were romanticizing his plight, Tigar was fretting the practicalities. "It was very frightening," he says. "I thought it was resolved. I had moved halfway across the country and there we were. I hadn't even taken the bar exam and I didn't have any money. That was the most chilling part -- what are we going to do now?"

What he did secure was an interview with Edward Bennett Williams, who promptly asked him to join the then-small but already well-known firm. His association with one of the best trial lawyers in the nation catapulted Tigar into the legal mainstream.

After practicing with Williams for a few years, he briefly returned to California. Newspaper archives from this period overflow with stories about Tigar's brawl with Julius Hoffman, the crusty judge who presided over the Chicago Seven trial. Tigar and several other lawyers who were helping on the case became causes celebres when Hoffman attempted to force them to step in as primary counsel in place of another attorney who had taken ill. They refused, citing a defendant's right to chose counsel, and Hoffman jailed them for contempt. They were quickly released amid cries from civil libertarians.

By 1974, Williams had asked Tigar to return to the firm to help him represent former Texas governor John Connally against charges that he had taken $10,000 in bribes from dairy producers. After Connally was acquitted, he sent Tigar some prize cattle as a thank-you.

When Tigar left Williams & Connolly for good in 1977 to start a practice with Sam Buffone, he discovered that John Connally had given him much more than the cows. The effusive Texan had spread Tigar's name throughout his vast Southwestern state, and it wasn't long before Tigar was deep in Texas business. The move to Austin to teach at the UT law school in the '80s seemed natural. In recent years, Tigar has split his time between teaching and private practice, and has developed a reputation as one of the top federal appellate lawyers.

Many years after their ill-fated encounter, when Tigar was a highly successful lawyer by any standard, he wrote Brennan. "I . . . said there was something I had carried around all these years. . . . I must have seemed like a really arrogant young man and I hope nothing I did at that meeting was offensive."

Tigar says Brennan wrote back and conceded that he may have overreacted -- which is consistent with what Brennan told an interviewer in 1990.

Not long before the justice's death last July, Tigar received in the mail an inscribed photograph. It is the only item he proudly offers to show a reporter during more than three hours of interviews. The inscription reads, "To Michael Tigar, whose tireless striving for justice stretches his arms toward perfection. William Brennan."

Going to Trial

The Nichols trial gets underway today without the intense media interest there was in McVeigh's. This suits Tigar just fine. He has desperately tried to keep his client out of the public glare for two years so that he alone could define Nichols for the jury -- as an earnest, middle-aged father of three who despite his distaste for the federal goverment, was perhaps also an unwitting victim of McVeigh.

Tigar's public comments have been limited, but strategic. When Nichols was indicted in 1995, Tigar held up a sign at a news conference that stated what has remained the core of his defense: "Terry Nichols wasn't there."

He has also insisted there are plausible explanations for some of the government's evidence against Nichols. And he has made it clear that he will force the government to prove exactly what Nichols knew, when he knew it, and if he intended to commit a crime.

"Knowledge alone is not enough to make one a conspirator, because otherwise we would convert the American legal system into one that puts an affirmative obligation on people to rat to the authorities," he says.

Tigar is visibly irritated at the suggestion he might have saved Nichols from a possible death sentence had he cut a deal for his client. "I think the government from the beginning has used the death penalty to scare Terry and us and his family," says Tigar, a vehement opponent of capital punishment.

And so today, Michael Tigar will not be scared off. As he has for the past 30 years, he will voice the themes of fairness and political freedom to a federal jury. But after hearing weeks of the same kind of sorrowful, gut-wrenching testimony from victims and relatives of the dead that proved so effective in McVeigh's trial, a jury might not be moved by all those highbrow moral and intellectual issues that have resonated for Tigar in the past. Michael Tigar knows this all too well.

© Copyright 1997 The Washington Post Company

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© Copyright 1997 The Associated Press

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