Thursday, August 16, 2001
Legendary Criminal Defense Lawyer Paul Caruso Dies at 81
By KENNETH OFGANG, Staff Writer/Appellate Courts
Paul Caruso, one of the best known attorneys in Los Angeles, has died.
Caruso, who was 81, died Tuesday night of natural causes after leading “a full, rich life,” his son, attorney P. Carey Caruso, said yesterday.
The senior Caruso had been in ill health for several months. He retired from full-time law practice in 1997 after a colorful career that lasted more than four decades.
“Heaven is better off and the world has sustained a great loss,” former Italian-American Lawyers Association President August “Gene” Carloni said. “He was a legend as a Marine, as a family man, as an attorney; a principled and charitable man.”
Funeral services will be private, Carey Caruso said, but a memorial open to the public will be held at Casa Italiana, 1051 N. Broadway, from 4 to 6 p.m. on Sunday.
Paul Caruso was admitted to practice in August 1953 following graduation from Washington, D.C.’s Columbus University School of Law, now the Columbus School of Law of Catholic University of America. He didn’t have to take the bar exam, his son recalled, being one of the last California lawyers to avail himself of the veteran’s waiver that was available in those days.
He began his legal education at what is now Loyola Law School, but enrolled at Columbus after rejoining the U.S. Marine Corps, in which he had served during World War II.
He retired from service with the rank of major. Caruso became well-known, early on in practice, for his representation of well-known sports and entertainment figures, a number of whom became close friends. He named his first son after the late “Days of Our Lives” star MacDonald Carey, a Marine buddy.
His first high-visibility client, Carey Caruso noted, was Art Aragon, a professional boxer who was one of the area’s most prominent sports figures in the days before the Dodgers, Angels, Lakers and Kings came to town. Caruso not only provided “The Golden Boy,” as Aragon was dubbed, with legal services, he managed his career, Carey Caruso said.
Before O.J. Simpson, Aragon—later a Van Nuys bail bondsman—was the highest-profile local athlete charged with a serious crime. He was accused of fixing a fight.
There were “20 television cameras and about 50 members of the press” waiting for Caruso when he first went to the Hall of Justice to discuss the case with then-District Attorney William McKesson, he recalled in a MetNews interview four years ago.
Aragon was convicted, and Caruso was crushed, his son recalled. But his spirits were boosted by a phone call from legendary criminal defense lawyer Jerry Giesler, Carey Caruso recalled, who encouraged him to continue “the good fight.”
Caruso—who later won the Criminal Courts Bar Association award named for Giesler after winning four murder cases in a year—did continue to fight, and won a reversal. The Court of Appeal ruled that Aragon didn’t get a fair trial, citing among other things Judge Herbert V. Walker’s interference with Caruso’s cross-examination and his “statements to Aragon’s counsel which verged on ridicule and which strongly indicated his leaning in favor of the prosecution.”
Aragon was not retried.
Caruso later represented war hero and actor Audie Murphy on a charge of trying to kill a Burbank dog trainer whom Murphy claimed brutalized the dog and made advances towards Murphy’s girlfriend. Caruso persuaded the jury that Murphy, credited with killing 282 German soldiers in one day, couldn’t have possibly fired four times at the alleged victim and missed.
Other famous Caruso clients included actors James Mason, Zsa Zsa Gabor, Jane Russell, Brenda Vaccaro, and Kirk and Michael Douglas, and pro football players Bob Waterfield, Vince Ferragamo, and Elroy “Crazy Legs” Hirsch.
Many of those clients became family friends, and several came to live at Caruso’s home for various periods of time. They gave his five children “a better education than they ever got in school,” Caruso once said.
One of those houseguests, he recalled, was running back Cookie Gilchrist, a star of the old American Football League, who stayed at the Caruso home for awhile after retiring from the sport and after Hall of Famer Jim Brown “threw him through a glass window” after an argument.
Another was Leona Gage, who was stripped of the Miss America title when it was discovered she had been married and had children. But Caruso kicked her out of the house, he once told an interviewer, after he found she’d had an overnight male visitor.
Caruso received entreaties from publishers interested in writing a book on his career, his son said. But they all backed off when he made clear he wasn’t going to spill any secrets about his clients, living or dead.
“He didn’t believe the privilege died with the client,” Carey Caruso commented. “The privilege died with him, last night.”
Paul Caruso’s legend wasn’t built “on legal acumen,” his son said, but on personality. People were naturally drawn to him, and vice-versa, his son and other lawyers said.
In an era that many lawyers said was less contentious in terms of the relations between defense lawyers and prosecutors, he was respected on both sides of the courtroom.
“Paul Caruso was one of the great gentlemen in the law,” Richard Hirsch, a prosecutor when he first met Caruso and now a leading defense lawyer, said. “He was the kind of person you could trust,” even as an adversary, Hirsch commented.
He had a knack for persuading juries, prominent criminal defense attorney Harland Braun, once a Caruso law clerk and later a prosecutor, said. Caruso, he commented, was “an intense litigator” with “an incredible ability to marshal facts.”
Another ex-Caruso-clerk who went on to achieve prominence as a trial lawyer, Larry Feldman, said his onetime mentor “was inspirational.” Caruso, he said, “loved being a lawyer, and loved relating to juries.”
He was also good to the people who worked for him, Feldman said.
“He made you feel like an important part of his family,” the attorney remarked. “He was one of the most gracious people I ever met.”
Torrance attorney Michael Pontrelli, the first president of IALA and a friend for 40 years, called Caruso “the most unique person you’d want to meet, both personally and professionally” as well as “one of the most important lawyers in Los Angeles in the last 40 years.”
IALA past president Phil Bartenetti called Caruso “the heart and soul” of the organization, whose first meeting was held in Caruso’s home. He recalled being amazed by the array of media personalities and athletes Caruso represented, many of whom found themselves in court testifying as character witnesses for other Caruso clients.
That tactic worked for Caruso, Bartenetti said, recalling how Caruso persuaded a federal judge to give ex-New York Yankee Gerry Priddy a suspended sentence for trying to hijack a steamship. Several witnesses, including popular local broadcaster Dick Whittinghill, told the judge about what a good person Priddy was and how personal hardships had affected him, Bartenetti remembered.
Whittinghill was only one of several members of the media Caruso represented, and he freely acknowledged that he discounted his fees for them. Long before lawyers were allowed to advertise, television and radio commentator Tom Duggan was constantly referring on the air to “my attorney, Paul Caruso.”
Caruso is survived by his second wife, Gloria Caruso, and by five children from his first marriage. His first wife, Lucille Caruso, died in 1980.
Besides Carey Caruso, he is survived by two sons—Deputy Alternate Public Defender Vito Caruso and businessman Douglas Caruso—and two daughters, Lucy Ball, the wife of attorney James Ball, and Gina Jobling, who is married to attorney Thomas Jobling.
The family asked that memorial donations be made to Viking Charities, 425 S. Beverly Drive, Beverly Hills 90212, or to the Italian-American Lawyers Association, 5455 Wilshire Blvd., Suite 1706, Los Angeles 90036.
Copyright 2001, Metropolitan News Company