The Accidental Jurist

Leonard Peltier. Stephen Miles. Now the witness who might break the Ramsey case. Itís no wonder Lee Hill thinks he needs to pack a pistol.

There is a tense moment. But one of the guards quickly informs the others, "He's a lawyer" -- which Hill seems to hope will not inspire them to shoot him on the spot.

Another guard advises Hill that "only federal law-enforcement officers" are allowed to bring guns into a federal building. But even before the man has finished his lecture, Hill interjects, "I'm a former special assistant U.S. attorney. And I didn't want to leave it in the car."

"Just this once," they tell him, he can lock up his piece. Hill takes the key and walks over to the small lock boxes where he deposits his Glock.

Lee Hill
Lee Hill
Action figures: Steven Seagal and Lee Hill are working on movie and television projects.
Action figures: Steven Seagal and Lee Hill are working on movie and television projects.

Then it's back through the metal detector and he's off and running for the elevator to the fifth floor. He's no sooner off the elevator than he spots his client, a young Honduran man, handcuffed and dressed in a federal prison khaki jumpsuit, being escorted by a U.S. Marshal. "You better get in there," the marshal says, indicating the courtroom and the judge inside. "He already called for you."

Hill dashes through the courtroom doors. It's too late. U.S. District Court Judge Daniel Sparr is gone. So Hill approaches a large, bald, black man who's the assistant U.S. attorney on the case.

Soon they are bullshitting and laughing. It turns out that Hill and the attorney have something in common. Heck, they may even be related. "He's got Choctaw blood. Well, actually he says he's Creole, which is the same thing," Hill says.

It doesn't do him any good now, though. Because he was late, Hill will have to wait until Sparr deals with the next case -- make that cases, as nearly a dozen men in khaki jumpsuits are led to the jury box and told to take a seat. They are all Hispanic, and each, including two who managed to make bond and who appear in street clothes, is accompanied by his court-appointed lawyer. It's a big methamphetamine case, but they don't seem too concerned. There's a lot of laughing and pointing to friends and family members -- many of them young women either pregnant or holding babies -- in the audience.

Hill dryly comments on all the lawyers "sucking at the public tit. If the public only knew." His attention turns to a lawyer sitting behind one of the defendants. He says the guy offered to help and then tried to steal his client, Stephen Miles, when they sued the National Enquirer. He doesn't know whether to report him to the bar association or simply strangle him the next chance he gets.

Today's client is one of the two men who made the news last summer when they were hauled out of their car by Denver police officers and pistol-whipped while a television helicopter and camera crew hovered overhead. An independent review of the officers' behavior by the Arapahoe County district attorney cleared them, but amid public uproar then-chief Tom Sanchez called for the officers to be disciplined.

Meanwhile, Hill, Yoo and Eugene Iredale, a San Diego "terrorist with a briefcase" and old friend who had brought Hill into the case, filed notice that they plan to sue the city and its police department. Today, Hill needs to work out some issues regarding the federal drug charges pending against his client.

His client, Aguedo Garcia-Martinez, Hill says, was just an innocent passenger in a 4Runner. That's his story and Hill is sticking to it.

In 1993, Hill met a woman who was a member of the Pala band of Mission Indians, of which there were several bands, on reservations north of San Diego. The woman invited him to a sweat-lodge ceremony on the reservation.

Hill was surprised at how comfortable he felt when he arrived at the reservation and waited for the ceremony to begin. He was caught off-guard, however, when an older woman asked him, "Are you Indian?"

Hill started to explain that he had some Choctaw blood, but the old woman interrupted and asked again, "Are you Indian?" He didn't have a chance to answer before he was escorted into the sweat lodge and the ceremony began.

Nor did he give it much thought until the woman who'd invited him to the reservation called the next morning. She said that tribal members had stayed up all night arguing over whether he was in denial over his Indian heritage.

The woman's call prompted one by Hill to his parents. He questioned them about his family tree. It was the beginning of a journey to learn not only his own family history, but the history of Native Americans and their treatment by the white culture. It would lead him to stop drinking and to let his hair grow long at the insistence of medicine men who said it was a way to honor their ancestors.

It also began a precedent of using his law degree to champion American Indian causes. The first such opportunity involved a battle on behalf of another band of Mission Indians called the Rincon, who were fighting with the state of California for the right to put video gaming machines on their reservation. He enlisted the aid of Russell Means, one of the founders of the American Indian Movement. With Means, Hill was able to attract media attention to what was supposed to be their legal right to contract with states for legalized gambling on reservations.

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