King Of The Tabloid Case

He's the legal profession's equivalent of a pop star on a breakneck tour. Consider last week. On Sunday, Mark Geragos jetted to Modesto, Calif., to consult with his second most famous client, accused murderer Scott Peterson, before traveling to "an undisclosed location" (that is, Las Vegas) to meet with No. 1, Michael Jackson. By Monday he was in downtown L.A. on other business, reaching a plea bargain in what he called an "impossible" murder case. Tuesday and Wednesday, back in Modesto with Peterson, pausing for media face time. Thursday, Vegas and Jackson, again. Friday, Geragos hopped between various L.A.-area courtrooms, dealing with cases nobody's ever heard of.

Never before in the post-O.J. age of celebrity lawyers, it appears, has a single attorney juggled two of the nation's biggest cases at the same time. Peterson's case, which could last months, is scheduled to go to trial Jan. 26. Santa Barbara District Attorney Tom Sneddon, meanwhile, promises to charge Jackson with "multiple counts" of child molestation by mid-December. Besides that, Geragos says his office is handling more than 75 other criminal cases. Is he overbooked? With a sly smile, he waves off the concern. "I've juggled cases before. It's nothing unusual for me," says the 46-year-old married father of two. Besides, he insists, his two celebrity clients are both "stone-cold innocent."

Despite his bravado, Geragos admits he plans to add lawyers to his current roster of 12. Paul Geragos, Mark's father and the founder of Geragos & Geragos, their law firm, which also includes Mark's brother Matt, acknowledges that his now-famous son is "a legal brand," a familiarity that helps him connect with jurors. For his part, Geragos seems to relish the attention. His only complaint: other high-profile lawyers have been "taking potshots at me on TV... then calling up [the clients and] offering their services for free, trying anything to grab one of these cases."

Geragos first won national television exposure after back-to-back victories for Whitewater defendant Susan McDougal, which included a Little Rock showdown against independent counsel Ken Starr. "He managed a difficult balance of informing the media, not alienating the judge, and educating the jury," says Bill Clinton's lawyer David Kendall. But some prosecutors find him overbearing. "It's smashmouth football when you're in trial with Mark," says John Lynch, a prosecutor in L.A.

Jackson hired Geragos in February when the pop star realized that an upcoming BBC documentary was focusing uncomfortably on his sharing a bed with children. So the defense team had months to investigate the situation before the Santa Barbara County D.A. reportedly learned of the alleged abuse in June. If the case goes forward, one likely target for the defense: prior allegations of sexual assault made by the alleged victim's family. The boy's parents filed a lawsuit in 1999 against JCPenney and Tower Records, in which they claimed store security guards beat the family after an alleged shoplifting episode in West Covina, Calif. (Shoplifting charges were filed but dropped.) In the suit, the family never mentioned sexual assault. But two years after the incident, NEWSWEEK has learned, all four members of the family claimed in depositions that the Tower guard had sexually assaulted the mother during the incident. The companies eventually paid the family a total of $152,500 without admitting guilt. But Michelle Moyer, who represented Tower's parent company, MTS Inc., in the case, told NEWSWEEK that the material "would be very useful to Geragos." Geragos himself wouldn't comment.

But some of his peers see at least one drawback to Geragos's current caseload. Fellow L.A. lawyer and friend Harland Braun, who defended Robert Blake, worries that public revulsion for one client might lead potential jurors to hold it against the other. Geragos isn't stressed--yet. When jurors convicted actress Winona Ryder of stealing several thousands of dollars' worth of merchandise after Geragos pledged to prove there was "no theft," his career didn't seem to falter. Still, this time the cases are bigger, the stakes higher--for the clients and for Geragos. In the fickle world of celebrity lawyering, it's hard to stay king for long.