Serving a 124-year sentence on rape and drug charges, Andrew Luster testified Wednesday that he was misled by tragically bad legal advice.
Luster, the great-grandson of cosmetics giant Max Factor, said attorney Richard G. Sherman repeatedly urged him to flee to Mexico during his trial. The legal system in Ventura County, where he was being tried in 2002 and 2003, was stacked against him, Sherman allegedly said, and in prison, the wealthy, handsome Luster would likely be murdered.
Sherman and investigator Bill Pavlik called Luster "dead man walking," he said as a judge heard his and his attorneys' plea to set aside his conviction or reduce his extraordinarily long sentence.
"I was traumatized," he said. "I was completely scared out of my wits."
Luster fled to Mexico in 2003 while out on bail. He was convicted in absentia, was apprehended in Mexico and ended up at Mule Creek State Prison in Ione, Calif.
Luster was convicted on 86 counts involving three women he had given GHB, a powerful anesthetic known as a date-rape drug. At his trial, jurors saw the videotapes he made of himself committing sexual acts on the unconscious women at his beachfront Mussel Shoals home up the coast from Ventura.Now 49, Luster was granted this week's hearing by a state appellate court decision last April. The court ordered Ventura County Superior Court to consider Luster's claims of incompetence by his legal team.
Luster's attorneys claim their client was not properly advised how serious his sentence could be. They also say that Sherman cashed in on his client's plight by planting the idea of flight and then charging him a hefty fee to orchestrate it.
Before his preliminary hearing, Luster received an offer of a possible plea bargain from prosecutors. Friends, family members and one of his attorneys at the time, James Blatt, urged him to seriously consider it, he said on the witness stand Wednesday.
Luster would have served a prison term of eight to 12 years. In retrospect, he said, it was a deal he shouldn't have refused.
-- Steve Chawkins
Photo: Andrew Luster is led out of the U.S. Customs building at LAX in 2003. Credit: Gina Ferazzi / Los Angeles Times