Serial Tiller

When it comes to ripping people off, John Tiller and the Civil Rights Legal Defense Team just keep going and going

"Mr. Tiller, let me say this: I think that part of the reason that your recordkeeping may have been so sloppy is that you were just so busy defrauding people that you just got a little bit ahead of yourself," the judge said before sending him to prison for more than four years. "I hope that you find another line of work because, at some point -- you know, I think you got kind of a break today -- but at some point, this is going to catch up with you again."

Burt sued Tiller but dropped the suit on the eve of trial, saying he couldn't afford any more legal bills.

"It would cost me a lot of time and money to pursue the case, even pro se, and what would a judgment against that crook be worth?" Burt wrote in a letter to U.S. District Court Judge George F. Gunn. "I think the Court owes me a notice of prison release in advance, so we may engage in a real out-of-court settlement in which the court or anyone else would not be involved."

Roy Tompkins
It was during his time in Leavenworth that John Tiller says he realized inmates needed legal help: "I saw people beaten, I saw people abused, I saw people set up, I saw everything."
It was during his time in Leavenworth that John Tiller says he realized inmates needed legal help: "I saw people beaten, I saw people abused, I saw people set up, I saw everything."

Burt never got the chance.

He died of a heart attack the same day he received a letter notifying him that Tiller had been released, according to Burt's niece and nephew. He was 79.

"That's a lie," Tiller says, his eyes narrowed. "Of course they'd say that. That's really making me mad now. The feds don't send a letter to people when you're being released -- only the state does that. Why don't you check that one?"

Fair enough.

Since 1984, the federal Bureau of Prisons has been notifying victims when criminals are released. A bureau spokesman in Washington, D.C., says he's not permitted to discuss specific cases but under board policy, any victim who requests notification is supposed to get a letter.


A hint of Tiller's legal smarts came during his imprisonment in Leavenworth, Kansas, when he sued the federal government, claiming that prosecutors had miscalculated his sentence.

Tiller packed a file folder with motions, but he didn't get far -- not with a record as long as his. In court documents, Rosen, the assistant U.S. attorney, says Tiller had 27 felony convictions. "I know that was a point that I was shocked on: How does a white-collar defendant have so many convictions?" recalls Rosen, who defended the government against Tiller's civil case. "It was a surprise to me, and that's why I put it into the record."

After mailing scores of fruitless pleas to the court, Tiller abruptly dropped the case in December 1996, apologizing to Rosen and the judge for wasting their time. By then, he'd found a new profession.

"When I was in prison, I saw -- you know I was in the state and federal -- I saw people beaten, I saw people abused, I saw people set up, I saw everything," Tiller says. "And I earned my paralegal certificate while I was in there. I did nothing but study every day.

"It was college, being in the federal system."

Tiller no doubt noticed that inmates are desperate for legal help. Perhaps he also noticed that the system usually doesn't listen to them when they complain. After he was released in 1999, Tiller set up the Civil Rights Legal Defense Team. That's when he turned to Allen Harris. It was a curious choice.

Six years earlier, Tiller had pegged Harris as a lousy lawyer. When his probation was revoked, Tiller sought Harris' dismissal as his counsel on the grounds that he was involved in criminal activity and had conflicts of interest -- as with his conspiracy claims, Tiller didn't include any details. Harris had also initially represented him in his botched bankruptcy filing, and Tiller in court documents blames Harris for screwing up the case by filing faulty motions. He said the differences between him and Harris were "irreconcilable."

Harris isn't necessarily an awful lawyer. Last year, he won an acquittal for a client accused of assaulting guards at the St. Louis County jail ["Hard Luck, Hard Time," Riverfront Times, March 28, 2001]. But Harris' disciplinary record shows that he was less than top-notch. In 1994, he was reprimanded by the state Supreme Court for not fully informing a client of a settlement offer in a lawsuit and for failing to respond to charges against him, which resulted in his temporary disbarment.

Harris got his law license back after he answered the charges, explaining that he was suffering from depression and other emotional problems that required psychiatric help. The Supreme Court ordered him to submit to monitoring of his practice by the Office of the Chief Disciplinary Counsel for two years and to provide the office with evidence that his mental problems had been solved.

But Harris ignored orders from the Office of the Chief Disciplinary Counsel to provide proof that he had taken required courses in law-practice management. Nor did he submit quarterly reports from his psychiatrist. He finally submitted required records in September 1998, nearly two years late and only after more than a year of making excuses. The Office of the Chief Disciplinary Counsel formally admonished him for noncompliance. "Only through constant prodding by this office did you complete the conditions," wrote John E. Howe, chief disciplinary counsel, in the letter of admonishment.

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