Dennis Riordan ’74
Dennis Riordan is one of California’s leading criminal appellate lawyers, perhaps most noted for his work on the infamous case of the "San Quentin Six" representing Johnny Spain, one of six radical Black Panthers accused of murdering three prison guards. After a fourteen year appeal, Spain’s murder conviction was overturned and he was released. Riordan has been listed among “Best Lawyers in America,” “Top Ten Lawyers” in the San Francisco Chronicle, and “Lawyers of the Year” and “California’s Most Respected Lawyers” in California Lawyer. He was honored with the Skip Glenn Award for Outstanding Advocacy from the California Attorneys for Criminal Justice and the Merit Award from the Bar Association of San Francisco. Riordan was appointed to the California Task Force on Jury Instructions and named a member of the Board of Governors, California Attorneys for Criminal Justice. He was also a delegate to the California Bar conference of Delegates.
As a law student, Riordan was a Root-Tilden Scholar and an Arthur Garfield Hays Civil Liberties Fellow. He was inducted into the Order of the Coif and received the American Jurisprudence Award twice: for Contracts and for Criminal Procedure. Riordan began his legal career in Wisconsin, as a clerk for the Honorable James E. Doyle, United States District Court. He then moved to San Francisco to join Garry, Dreyfus, McTernan, Brotsky, Herndon and Pesonen. In 1976, he became a deputy state public defender in San Francisco and after four years, returned to the private sector and co-founded Riordan & Horgan. He has remained in San Francisco ever since.
Riordan held two Fulbright Scholarships, one at the University of Alicante in Spain, and a second in Madrid and Barcelona. He taught at the University of San Francisco Law School as Adjunct Professor of Appellate Advocacy, and served as Deputy State Public Defender at the State Public Defender’s Office in San Francisco.
Riordan’s judicial opinions are copiously published, and his prolific output of legal papers and opinion pieces cover a range of subjects including the death penalty, human and civil rights here and abroad, trial and jury procedures, and abortion. His writings appear in books and newspapers including: Criminal Defense Techniques (Matthew Bender, 1979); Jurywork: Systematic Techniques (Clark Boardman, 1983); Political and Civil Rights in the United States (4 th Edition, 1976); The San Francisco Recorder, The Los Angeles Times, California Lawyer, Los Angeles Daily Journal, Oakland Tribune, and Sacramento Bee.
Riordan is a member of the California State Bar, the New York State Bar, and the Bar of the United States Supreme Court: First, Second, Fifth, Ninth, Tenth Circuit Court of Appeals.
Interview with Alumnus/Alumna of the Month
Dennis Riordan ’74
What is your area of specialization and how did you come to practice in this area?
Appeals and writs, primarily although not exclusively criminal. I have tried a handful of criminal cases in state and federal courts, including murder prosecutions. I began my career assisting on an enormous murder trial, which at that time was the longest running trial in California. When my client was convicted, I decided to take his appeal, which took me fourteen years to win—by then I was an appellate specialist.
You are sometimes referred to as “The Last Hope.” What does this mean?
It was a name dreamed up by the San Francisco Chronicle when they put me on a “Top Ten” list. I guess it’s a reference to the fact that by the time the client gets to me, he or she is already in very big trouble.
How do you withstand the pressure of your work when the difference between a win and a loss could mean someone’s life?
You think about that as little as possible. When you lose at one stage of the litigation, you immediately start working on the next. Of course, the point can come when you’ve got nowhere else to go. I’ve had to tell clients sentenced to life without parole that there are no more options, but none of my capital cases has ever reached the final stretch… yet.
What do you look for when you are deciding whether or not to take on a case?
Money is always a plus, but the biggest draw is a sense that a case can be won. With an average losing percentage of 95% in state and federal criminal appeals, nothing gets the blood flowing like the thought that in this case you might prevail. Of course, in order to have a shot at winning a criminal appeal, the law must be solidly on your side, which is also a pretty good reason to take a case where that holds true. An awful lot of error gets papered over in all those affirmances, so a chance to win equates with a very unfair trial below. I’ve never won an appeal in which I had any real doubt that justice favored my position.
Which case has been the most rewarding for you as an appellate lawyer, and why?
There’s no one answer to that question. The fourteen year appeal I mentioned above led to my finally freeing John Spain, who had been convicted of participating with prison author George Jackson in a famous escape attempt from San Quentin in 1971, in which George Jackson was killed. By the time we won, John and I had become really close friends, so the victory was truly sweet.
I did an appeal in the Wedtech cases for the former president of the San Francisco Bar, Bob Wallach, in which I served as co-counsel to Robert Bork. Our politics were and are light years apart, but he’s a brilliant lawyer. We worked well together, and it was fascinating to hear stories about circles I’ll never travel in.
I’ve done a series of appeals with Mike Tigar, who also had a co-defendant in the Wedtech cases. Michael’s simply the best appellate lawyer I know, and he can tell a joke too. The night before the Ninth Circuit argument in the “Sanctuary” prosecutions of religious workers who had aided Central American refugees, we prepared by taking a long walk where Michael recited, brogue and all, the entirety of a play he had written about Irish lawyers.
I’ve got a case now where my client, Damien Echols, has been sentenced to death in Arkansas in a case known as “West Memphis Three.” He is factually innocent, so it will wind up being either my most significant triumph if we prevail, or a loss I’ll never recover from if we don’t.
Who are your role models in the legal profession?
Certainly Mike Tigar is one, but I practice in an entire community of defense lawyers for whom I have enormous respect and admiration.
What is the most challenging aspect of your job?
It’s simply the fact that you can do wonderful work on a case and lose to an opponent whose effort is indifferent at best, often when an impartial application of the law would dictate a ruling in your favor. That’s where your colleagues come in. They’re the ones who recognize superior work, even in pursuit of a losing cause. It’s their approval that keeps one going.
Early in your career you became involved in the infamous ‘San Quentin Six’ trials. I read that you volunteered your services for free and used your unemployment payments to pay your rent. Where did that level of conviction come from and what made you take that on and stick with it throughout the lengthy appeals process?
This is John Spain’s case that I alluded to above. I lost the appeal in state court, and then went on to win it on federal habeas corpus only to be summarily reversed by the Supreme Court in Spain v. Rushen. It took several more years to win it a second time on federal habeas on the issue of John being chained at trial. That result held up. Why stick to it? It was a case with big issues and a wonderful client. Artists strive for great paintings; lawyers, at least in my view, aspire to win great cases. This was a great case.
The 1000th person was recently executed in the United States since the reinstatement of capital punishment in 1976. The United States continues to be one of the top executing nations in the world and is out of step with the majority of its global allies on this issue. Do you foresee a time when this country abolishes capital punishment?
Not for a long time. We’ve got lots of violent crime in this country, and now that crime stories have attained the status of entertainment, they’ll always be a sensational killing around which to whip up support for executions. I am encouraged; however, that opposition to the death penalty is on the rise. Much of the credit for that goes to the work of the Innocence Projects around the country.
How do you balance work and life?
I know and admire people who pursue this line of work with complete and selfless commitment, but I can’t claim that level of devotion. I took time off to do two Fulbright fellowships in Spain, where I learned a lot about the Spanish constitution and even more about Riojas, which I am still studying today. I won’t go to my grave wishing I had attended my daughter Lisa’s volleyball games because I rarely missed one. One reason I’ve only tried a few cases is that raising a kid as a half-time single parent was easier on an appellate lawyer’s schedule; I’ve started to do more trial work now that she’s gone off to college. I usually exercise every day, and do a lot of reading on the treadmill.
What advice would you give to current students?
There’s no safe, secure path to being a successful litigator. If that’s what you want, at some point you’ll have to take a risk, generally passing up position or money to strike out on your own. The payoff is that you get to practice law, not watch somebody else do it. The first time I walked into a courtroom after being admitted to the bar was to argue a Ninth Circuit appeal, and I tried a month long felony trial in Texas before I had ever done a preliminary hearing or a misdemeanor trial. It’s like a reverse somersault off the high board. There’s really no preparation that can make it any easier to do it the first time.