Court Report

Max Factor Heir Andrew Luster: My Lawyer Made Me Do It

In new court papers, an heir to the Max Factor fortune claims a ‘crooked’ lawyer told him to flee to Mexico during his rape trial. Will a judge buy it? Diane Dimond reveals the details.

02.09.13 9:45 AM ET

Andrew Luster, the handsome heir to a vast cosmetics fortune, was convicted in 2003 of doping and raping three women and videotaping his crimes. With a sentence of 124 years in prison, the sordid case has gone down in the annals of California legal history.

Now, the 49-year-old grandson of makeup king Max Factor has resorted to a long-shot bid to get out of prison—and he’s blaming the whole thing on his lawyers.

The core of Luster’s legal argument, according to recently filed court documents, will be that he was the victim of half a dozen incompetent, unethical and “crooked” lawyers who gave him horrible advice from the get-go. The defense maintains that all of Luster’s lawyers were in it for the money and the fame they thought the high-profile case would bring them. It was, after all, one of the first trials in the state of California to address GHB, the depressant drug used on each of Luster’s victims.

“Andrew is like a Baby Huey, not the brightest guy,” says a person close to his current legal case. “But he doesn’t deserve the life sentence he got.”

Luster has a dicey reputation to contend with. In the years before his arrest, the heir was an unemployed playboy who lived as a “surf-loving, trust-fund-draining playboy” at a beachfront home in Mussel Shoals. Just four days into the December 2002 trial, he famously skipped town, fleeing to Mexico. Judge Ken Riley ordered the trial to continue without the defendant, and the jury found Luster guilty of all but one of the 87 charges against him. At sentencing, Riley lowered the boom on the still-absent Luster, ordering that once he was caught he was to be held in prison for 124 years and pay a $1 million fine.

Six months later, in June 2003, Luster was found casually eating a burrito at an outdoor taco stand in Mexico’s Puerto Vallarta—by TV bounty hunter Duane “Dog” Chapman and his A&E camera crew. The fugitive, notorious by that point, was transported back to the States and imprisoned; he currently resides at the Mule State Prison outside Sacramento.

Luster will die behind bars unless his new defense team is successful. A key argument in the attempt to get him out of a life in prison is that Luster deserves another opportunity to take a 12-year plea deal that his new team claims was once offered by prosecutors. According to the court documents filed, one of his lawyers at the time urged Luster to take the deal, but a second lawyer convinced him he could beat the charges at trial by maintaining the women had given prior consent to the drugs and sex. Today, Luster admits he was given a clear-cut choice, but says he received “ineffective counsel” about the alleged plea deal.

Meanwhile, the Ventura County prosecutor’s office says no 12-year deal ever existed. “We will be arguing that we never offered that,” assistant district attorney Michelle Conois told The Daily Beast. “I hope to show that Mr. Luster is right where he needs to be.” (Most legal experts would agree that a rejected plea deal is legally moot at this point, anyway—after a deal is rejected, it’s off the table and a defendant takes his or her chances.)

Luster also claims in court documents that it wasn’t his idea to flee the United States, thus causing the rest of the trial and sentencing to go against him. Rather, he says, it was his unscrupulous criminal defense lawyer, the late Richard G. Sherman, who coerced him to run. Luster contends in the filing that Sherman actually devised and choreographed his secret dash to Mexico, even providing a driver who took him across the border and then to a lawyer friend’s home in Guadalajara, where he stayed hidden for several months. Before the trip, Luster says, the driver dropped him at a bank so he could transfer $200,000 to pay for the privilege of being whisked out of the country. Luster says he only went along with the “Sherman plan” because the lawyer convinced him the trial was going badly, that he was sure to be found guilty, and that once in prison famous defendants are always marked for death.

Sherman, who passed away in April 2011, lived long enough to hear Luster’s claims. Before he died, he told the Los Angeles Times, "The charges are absurd, absolutely untrue."

It’s somewhat astonishing that Luster would get a second chance at all—fugitives from justice automatically waive their rights to future appeals. The state court of appeals ordered the Feb. 19 hearing based on a 235-page petition for writ of habeas corpus offered by Luster’s latest lead defense attorney, David Nick. Such a writ is a routine legal device used by convicts to gain the court’s attention; a vast majority of them are routinely heard and quickly denied.

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But this writ feels different. First, it has been scheduled for a two- to four-week-long hearing. And the petition reads like the blueprint for a Hollywood movie, rich with larger-than-life characters operating on the edge of legality and conspiracies worthy of a John Grisham novel. Many of the plot twists begin and end with Sherman.

The petition begins with a shocking claim not often articulated by one attorney against another—at least not publicly: “If O.J. Simpson had the ‘Dream Team’ of criminal defense lawyers,” Nick writes,” Andrew Luster most certainly had the ‘Nightmare Gang. The newspaper headline should have read, Max Factor Heir Induced to Flee Because His Crooked Lawyer Told Him He Would Be Killed if He Did Not.”

Besides Luster’s claim that his lawyers offered him ineffective counsel, the writ also focuses on what the defense team calls the over-sentencing of their client by Judge Riley. The petition maintains the judge imposed the maximum sentence after relying on erroneous information that GHB was a “federally controlled substance” when Luster, two of his girlfriends, and another woman used it prior to their videotaped sexcapades.

To rebut that point, Conois says, the prosecution will argue that the laws Luster was charged with didn’t require him to have used a “controlled substance” on his sex victims, only some sort of anesthetic. GHB is anaesthetic in nature.

There are also hints in the petition that Nick will argue that Judge Riley was so harsh at the 2003 sentencing because he was still angry and embarrassed that a defendant whose bail he had agreed to reduce from $10 million to $1 million, allowing Luster to be free during trial, would flee the jurisdiction. (Because of these accusations, the entire county bench has been disqualified from the case; retired L.A. judge Kathryne Stoltz will step in for the hearing.)

Sure to take up the bulk of the weeks-long proceedings will be the alleged behavior of Sherman. This part of the petitioner's storyline is sure to captivate screenwriters, as Sherman’s questionable legal career has long been the stuff of Hollywood legend. Most famously, in 1987 the Superior Court of Los Angeles ordered Sherman to pay an abandoned client nearly $800,000.

The petition lays out even more alleged schemes of Sherman. Sherman, the papers say, descended on Luster in prison, right after his capture, and tricked him into transferring ownership of his Mussel Shoals beachfront home for a mere $1,000. Luster says he believed his antiques and other possessions would be sold, with the proceeds going to his two young children. That never happened, and Luster declared bankruptcy while sitting in prison. On more than one occasion, Elizabeth Luster, the convict’s widowed mother, says Sherman came to her to say her son was in grave danger in prison and for $25,000 dollars he could “insure his protection.”

The Luster petition calls Sherman a “con-man who used his bar card as a license to steal—and this case makes plain that he was extraordinarily adroit at his craft.”

Conois, who will represent the state at the upcoming hearing, suggests the defendant won’t get far foisting blame on others, how matter how devious he paints them. “I don’t think [Luster] can prove that his flight was anything other than his own decision,” she says. “Mr. Luster made his choices and now he’s trying to say others are to blame.”