Cameron Talley’s dad was a Baptist preacher and his brother was a public defender.
He is a cancer survivor who sometimes smokes two packs of Marlboro Lights a day. He dropped out of high school because of attention deficit disorder, yet returned to college in his 20s and graduated from UC San Diego magna cum laude. He once was a promising amateur boxer who became a horse racing stable hand and occasionally slept in tack rooms when he had no other place to sleep.
He has been through two bankruptcies and two divorces. And he has more tattoos than most circus performers.
So he is not the first guy you would think would become a successful prosecutor who is very good at what he does: sending bad guys to prison.
But for the past seven years, Talley, a tall, thin man with a shaved head and pronounced ears, has been a member of the Orange County District Attorney’s homicide prosecution team. It’s where the best trial lawyers are found, where the pressure to win convictions is the most intense and where the stakes are the highest for those accused.
Talley, 52, tried 24 murder cases during his tenure on the homicide panel, winning 23 guilty verdicts for either first- or second-degree murder and one for manslaughter. One killer – Jason Russell Richardson, who shot to death the manager of the Home Depot in Tustin – was sent to death row.
Now, during an era when most trial prosecutors cling to the homicide team until they are promoted to management, Talley has asked for and received a transfer – to the major fraud unit. His new assignment begins this month. He will be replaced on the homicide team by veteran prosecutor Jim Mendelson, a former Marine Corps fighter pilot.
“It’s time to move on, amigo,” his common greeting to those he knows. “Life is a cornucopia, and there is so much to do,” Talley said. “I want to suck the marrow out of the bones of life, as Thoreau said. This one is done; it’s checked off. It’s time for the next chapter.”
So ends the homicide trial career of one of the most colorful prosecutors in Orange County, a lawyer who by his own admission shoots from the hip, is a little bit disorganized and is technologically challenged.
While other top prosecutors long ago went to PowerPoint presentations for opening statements and closing arguments, Talley is known for using poster boards with crime scene photos that he ceremoniously pulls out of stacks on the floor and hoists onto easels. Some colleagues say this is part of his Columbo-like charm that the jurors so love.
Former prosecutor Dave Brent, who was Talley’s supervisor for years, called him “one of the most intellectually brilliant yet still down-to-earth people” he’s ever known.
“Cameron has the gift of connecting with a jury on a very basic level,” Brent said. “Many of his cases were quite difficult, yet Cameron would win these cases by sheer force of will.”
Talley also gets high marks for his sympathetic treatment of all people in the justice system, especially the victims, said fellow homicide prosecutor Larry Yellin. “He cares deeply about his cases, and he cares deeply about his victims,” Yellin said.
AJ Egan, widow of Tom Egan, the manager of the Home Depot who was murdered by Jason Richardson in 2007, agrees.
“Cameron encouraged me and supported me through this difficult time of my life,” she said. “He fought hard and succeeded.”
Defense attorney George Peters, who battled Talley during two death penalty trials in the Home Depot case, said Talley is extremely effective in trial because of his unusual upbringing and nontraditional lifestyle as a young adult.
As the son of a Baptist preacher, Talley has an amazing ability to communicate with jurors, Peters said, “especially bringing an eloquent sense of righteousness to his side.”
“He has traveled the world and did a lot of different and unusual things before coming into the law,” Peters added. “That gives him an eclectic and sympathetic view of human nature.”
Veteran defense attorney Gary Pohlson, who opposed Talley in 2011 in the trial of a gang member who shot a girl in the back during a gang killing in a Cypress bar, said Talley “can relate to people of all economic levels and backgrounds because of his life experiences as a youth.”
“He’s also as competitive as any prosecutor I’ve ever seen,” Pohlson said.
Cameron Talley was born in 1959, the second youngest of seven children born to Charles O. Talley and his wife, who raised their clan in urban San Diego. He remembers his early life as chaotic through high school, where a good day was one when he didn’t get beat up.
Talley, who now has a Kojak-style shaved head, said a highlight of his school days came when he won the title of “prettiest hair” in junior high for his flowing blond locks.
He said he had attention deficit disorder in high school and dropped out at 17 to take on a life of jobs waiting tables and washing dishes. Bored, Talley gravitated to the 5th Street Gym, where he began his brief boxing career, perhaps to compensate for being bullied in high school.
“My first dream was to be the welterweight boxing champion of the world,” Talley remembered. That dream ended when a younger, leaner, hungrier fighter pounded him without mercy. Still, he finished his amateur boxing stint with a 9-3 record and lifelong pride in knowing that he was never knocked out. He also remembers when the legendary Archie Moore saw him working out on the big bag and commented, “That white boy hits hard!”
Talley then took his quixotic life to the horse racing tracks, where he began by “walking the hots” – taking racehorses by the reins for a cool-down walk after a training run. For about three years, Talley worked, partied and slept mostly at the tracks, sharing tack rooms with young immigrants from Mexico.
He credits his brother Brooks Talley, a future deputy public defender in Orange County, with turning his life around by continually encouraging him to return to school, first to Grossmont Community College, then to UC San Diego and finally to UC Berkeley School of Law. Talley said he paid for his education on his own and, at age 52, still carries some student debt.
Talley first worked as a civil lawyer with Kirkland & Ellis before signing on in 1993 as a deputy district attorney in Orange County. His successes in the courtroom led to a series of promotions until he landed on the homicide team in 2003.
Along the way, Talley married twice and divorced twice, filed for bankruptcy twice and adopted two children. He took up the guitar and occasionally strummed in a blues band. Talley writes his own poetry and frequently quotes Ernest Hemingway, James Joyce, Greek tragedies and Teddy Roosevelt – in everyday conversations and courtroom arguments.
Talley is fluent in Spanish and teaches in the social ecology department at UC Irvine, where he is wildly popular with his students and was voted professor of the year in 2007. He also became a card-carrying member of the American Civil Liberties Union.
When Talley was in his 40s, he was diagnosed with testicular cancer and had one testicle surgically removed. But he is now cancer free, something he said he ponders while smoking Marlboro Lights on the third-floor landing of the Central Justice Center.
MORE TATS COMING
But even with all that going on, it is his tattoos that draw the most attention and notoriety.
They flow from his arms to his chest and stomach like a multi-themed mural. He got his first ink when he was 22 and added to the collection over the years. He said he got most of the artwork in his late 40s when he was already a trial prosecutor specializing in sending multi-tattooed gang members to prison.
For the most part, his tattoos are covered in trial by long-sleeved shirts and suit coats, but he does not shy way from pointing out his tats to jurors.
The works of art include a phoenix rising from the ashes, a butterfly, horseshoes shaped in a figure eight and numerous biblical references, such as his favorite verse in the Bible – John 11:35 – “Jesus wept.”
His tats, he says, have similar themes: redemption, rebirth and overcoming struggles.
“Tattoos can be just a wonderful reflection of one’s values and personality,” Talley said. “And just as a form of art, they stand alone.”
And yes, he plans on getting more. He said he is going to finish the sleeve on his left arm, then “get my entire back done, perhaps with a George Stubbs painting of the famous racehorse Whistlejacket.”
Talley is proud of his unconventional and sometimes irreverent life and says that despite some major disappointments – such as divorces and bankruptcies – he wouldn’t have it any other way.
“What I can’t live with is sitting there sucking my life’s last breath and saying I didn’t live life to the fullest,” he said. “I have tried to be direct and honest, especially in the courtroom.”
He is also proud of his trial record. “Some people deserve to be punished and severely so,” he said.
But Talley insists he is most proud as a prosecutor of the times when he used discretion to show mercy where it was deserved and offer appropriately lenient sentences, or in some cases dismissals, if the evidence wasn’t there.
“The law and the system grant you a lot of power as a prosecutor,” Talley said. “You never, ever want to be shaving … 20 or 30 years after a case, and while looking at yourself in the mirror and think, ‘Hey, was that guy I convicted innocent? Or if he was guilty, did he really deserve a life sentence?’
“Prison is a terrible place, and to put someone there for a lifetime is essentially to take their life,” Talley added. “You better make damn well sure that someday when the ceremony of your career is over, and you’re just some old guy looking in the mirror, that the answer to that last question is an emphatic ‘yes.'”