Fresno attorney Laura Guzman Magill J.D. ’93 will be buried in a 1920s hand-beaded jacket and red boots designed by Bob Mackie that she bought off the Internet. Her coffin will be upholstered in teal leather to match the furniture in her living room. In addition to photographs of her life, mourners will see her collection of shoes and the dresses she made out of recycled material for Trashique, the annual Fresno Art Museum fundraiser. Mrs. Guzman Magill, whose love of fashion was secondary to her love of God and her desire to help the accused, died Dec. 27 after a long and unconventional battle with breast cancer. She was 48. Friends say Mrs. Guzman Magill was the brains behind the husband-wife criminal law firm that represented such clients as convicted rapist Spencer Scarber, the Buchanan High butt-drag wrestler who got expelled and the students who got kicked out of Central High for cutting down two trees. While Charles Magill made his pitch to school boards and juries, his wife sat at the defense table plotting strategies or writing her next motion on her laptop. And when a board or judge ruled against them, she wasn’t shy about appealing."She marched to a different beat," Fresno defense attorney Michael Aed said. "She never let a client get convicted without a fight." Case in point: Scarber, who contended he didn’t get a fair trial. In legal documents, Mrs. Guzman Magill and her husband accused Sheriff Margaret Mims of withholding evidence and revealed an old romantic relationship between Scarber’s father, a former assistant chief of the California Highway Patrol, and Elizabeth Egan before she became Fresno County’s district attorney. Aed said the legal community took note of Mrs. Guzman Magill’s ability to find an obscure document that linked Mims to the case. Judge Edward Sarkisian Jr. upheld Scarber’s conviction on Dec. 19. "You hear lawyers promise that they will turn over every stone," Aed said. But, "Laura was one of the few that really did it." With her death, Aed said, "we all lose, because who is going to take her place?"
Within months of their birth, Laura and her twin, Linda, were adopted by P. "Guz" Guzman Jr. and his wife, Paula, who owned National Hardware Supply on Blackstone Avenue in Pinedale. Mrs. Guzman Magill’s love of law and fashion came from her mother, a Fresno State English professor, who encouraged her children to engage in public speaking and debate. She also taught them how to sew. "Laura loved colors and fabric, especially leather," Magill said, noting his wife made her own dresses, shirts, pants and jackets. "If she had her druthers, she would have been a fashion designer." But her Catholic upbringing and quest for social justice pulled her toward law, he said. After graduating from Bullard High School in 1983, Laura Guzman earned a political science degree from Pepperdine University and a law degree from Santa Clara University. She began her career in the Bay Area in 1995 before returning to Fresno two years later. She worked briefly for the Fresno County District Attorney’s Office, but was let go. "She wasn’t a company person," Magill said. "She wanted to do her own thing." In 2000 she married Magill. At the time, she had two daughters, Petra and Sierra, and he had two boys, Gary and Zechariah. Together, they have one son, Matthew. Magill said his wife had success as a trial lawyer: in 2000 she represented a defendant in the Mongolian Boys Society gang-rape trial. Seven people were convicted of rape in Fresno County Superior Court. Her client, Lao Yang, was found not guilty of 12 counts; the jury deadlocked on two rape counts. But it’s the high-profile cases she and her husband lost that will seal her legacy, her husband said. Magill said his wife hated zero-tolerance school policies. "In her mind, there was nothing worse than children being persecuted by school officials," he said. In 2010, they represented five students who were expelled for a senior prank: they cut down two trees at the Central High School East Campus. Because the students had no prior history of being disobedient, Mrs. Guzman Magill got a court order to reinstate them, her husband said. And when school officials stopped them from entering campus, she called police. School officials countered with their own judge’s order, and the case ended up in a long legal battle with the students ultimately getting expelled. Magill, however, said his wife didn’t see it as a loss: "Central wanted to show they were tough, but Laura sent a message that they can’t bully people around." The couple also lost the Buchanan butt-drag case. They defended wrestler Preston Hill, who was expelled in 2011 after being accused of sexually assaulting a teammate during practice. Magill said Hill was doing a wrestling maneuver called the butt-drag that coaches had taught him. In a 3-2 vote, the Fresno County Office of Education board upheld Clovis Unified School District’s decision to expel Hill during his senior year. They then lost Hill’s appeal in court. Because they had appealed, Hill’s expulsion was temporarily stayed, giving Hill time to transfer to another school district. He received his high school diploma, Magill said. "That was all engineered by Laura," Magill said. In her spare time, Mrs. Guzman Magill was a mock trial coach at Central and Bullard and took kids to Christian camp. She also reached out to community groups, charging them nothing for legal advice. "She answered my emails and gave me advice for free," said Fresno activist Gloria Hernandez, who fights for the rights of farm laborers. She said other lawyers charged $250 an hour consultation fee. "Our community is going to miss her," Hernandez said.
Mrs. Guzman Magill’s fight with breast cancer ended her life, but she didn’t go without a fight. In a July 2011 "Valley Voices" column for The Bee, she wrote about her unconventional victory over Stage II-III breast cancer: "What a great year to be diagnosed with cancer." She said she wasn’t trying be sarcastic or flippant; she wanted to tout an alternative method of fighting cancer: "cryoablated," which destroys the cancerous tumor by freezing it. She avoided the traditional method of chemotherapy, surgery and radiation. "We are in the 21st century with 21st century technology," she wrote. "Ancient bloodletting, or chemotherapy and radiation, is just that: ancient." But in a follow-up column in August this year, Mrs. Guzman Magill said the cancer had returned "four short months" after the first column was published. She decided to undergo chemotherapy. In November, the cancer worsened and reached her liver, her husband said. But she didn’t give up. She flew to Johns Hopkins Hospital in Maryland, but doctors there said it was too late because the cancer had gotten into her bones, Magill said. Mrs. Guzman Magill made her last court appearance in the Scarber case. She was in a wheelchair and hooked up to oxygen. On Dec. 23 she was admitted to Community Regional Medical Center with blood clots in her lungs. The day after Christmas, Magill took his wife home to die among family. She will be buried in a private service Saturday at St. Peter’s Cemetery in Fresno next to her father, who died in August at the age of 90. "The passion she had for everything she did was amazing," said stepson Zechariah Magill, 20. He then recalled getting in trouble at Central High, where he was senior class president. He had driven his father’s car to school and campus police found a knife in it. School officials suspended him and threatened to expel him. "My stepmom came to school with a video camera and filmed them as as they searched my dad’s car," Zechariah Magill said. "S
he then told them she would take them to court if they expelled me." In preparing for battle, Guzman Magill got into "Full-Metal Jacket" mode, her husband said. She got 10 people to write letters on Zechariah’s behalf and presented them to school officials. The plan worked: Zechariah was able to graduate with his class and give his speech. "It was a great feeling," he said. "Like so many people she helped in court, I knew she had my back and I could count on her."
Born: May 10, 1965 Died: Dec. 27, 2013 Career: Fresno criminal defense lawyer Survivors: husband, Charles Magill; children, Gary, Zechariah, Petra, Sierra, and Matthew; mother, Paula Guzman; sisters, Lisa Guzman and Linda Guzman Ellenberger.