He knows law can be funny business

2012-01-29T00:00:00Z He knows law can be funny businessMonique O. Madan Special To The Arizona Daily Star Arizona Daily Star

Mark Willimann sat with his sad-faced client in a room full of inmates at the Central Arizona Detention Center. On the table in front of them was an indictment for his client's third illegal entry into the U.S., a felony with a possible penalty of 40 years in prison.

With a blue pen, Willimann began to draw.

Mountains, the border, a gate, arrows and soon stick people appeared.

As he pointed to one of the stick figures, he said in an authoritative tone, "This is you."

"And this," he said, raising his voice to an airy octave, "is Border Patrol."

Using the Spanish he learned only a decade ago, Willimann alternated between an authoritative bass and a squeaky falsetto to portray the two sides of the case. The stick man, he said in a deep tone, ignored the gate and then crossed the line guarded by - and here he switched back to a high-pitched voice - the Border Patrol.

Willimann, 50, is a criminal defense lawyer in Tucson specializing in immigration law. He is also a former professional clown who graduated from Ringling Bros. and Barnum & Bailey Clown College in Venice, Fla., in 1982.

After Willimann's explanation, his client nodded and smiled. They hugged and laughed, and Willimann joked to the man that he was too "bonito" - too handsome - to be in jail.

Willimann said that currently he has 65 to 70 clients, most of them undocumented immigrants.

"My clients can't read or write. They are illiterate," he said. "Most lawyers put things in a way that they can't understand. That's why instead of writing it down, I draw the pictures. It's good enough for cavemen, so it's good enough for my clients. It tells a story and puts it in a way that is very simple to understand. Also, I think they think it's funny. They see it as fun. We have fun with it."

Maria Lilia Felix, a state judge for the Pima County Consolidated Court system, said Willimann brings something different to every case.

"He's a clown," Felix said. "He juggled once. Sometimes I tell him to keep it down, but you got to love him. He is very professional and represents his clients as he should."

She paused. "But he's still a clown."

Willimann said he credited Clown College for his approach to his profession.

"If there is anything I learned in Clown College, it's to know your audience," Willimann said. "How many people call lawyers clowns, anyways? At least when my clients call me a clown, I know they are right."

Lawrence Gee, a criminal defense lawyer, said Willimann always brings good energy into the courtroom.

"I heard he juggled once," Gee said as he laughed. "Everyone knows him. He's a little crazy."

The U.S. Attorney's Office in Tucson said it could not comment about Willimann because its lawyers would be appearing in cases where he was representing clients. During a recent federal court session, however, two prosecutors opposite him playfully rolled their eyes and smirked as Willimann bantered with the judge.

"Prosecutors know all my antics," said Willimann, who was himself a prosecutor for the Yavapai County Attorney's Office from 1996 to 2001.

He described the way he moves around the courtroom: "Sometimes you have to go left to go right, backward to go forward. It's great."

Some prosecutors, he said, "get bent" by his tactics. They stare across the aisle. But the looks don't bother him, he said. He aims to entertain the jury to keep them awake but also believes there's a balance between being serious and being silly.

"I know they don't want to be there - they have kids, medical problems and jobs," Willimann said. "Although I joke, there are boundaries of being credible. I want to be entertaining so that they can pay attention. You know, add some pepper, spice things up."

Willimann graduated with honors from the City University of New York with a bachelor's degree in communications. He earned his law degree from CUNY School of Law at Queens College in the early 1990s. He said he practiced in the U.S. District Court of Arizona and the 9th Circuit Court of Appeals.

His clowning experience helps him communicate with judges, he said.

"The law is up for interpretation. Judges interpret it one way, I just have to convince them to interpret it another way," he said. "It's like magic. It's like I'm performing again."

When other lawyers get "boring," Willimann jokes about bringing a rope to the courthouse to "hang himself," he said.

"The reason I say 'rope' is because it's the only weapon allowed in the courtroom," Willimann said. "No knives or guns in the courthouse."

Before enrolling in clown college, Willimann had been at the University of Houston, where he'd intended to study hotel management. But an improv club diverted him away, he said.

"They told me I was funny," he said. "They told me I should go to Clown College in Florida, so I got my stuff and went."

He said he became "Mr. Who-Ha" - his clown persona - on July 4, 1983, after being inspired by a fireworks display.

"All of us from the circus were in St. Louis watching the fireworks after the show," Willimann said. "It was filled with people. As one rocket went in the air, they said, 'Who-ooo.' As the next one launched, they said, 'Ha-aaa.' That's how I got my name."

Willimann worked for the promotions department of the clown college while performing for the Ringling Bros. and Barnum & Bailey's Circus Fantasy at Disneyland in California. He said that performing in children's hospital wards while traveling was one of the hardest yet most rewarding duties of being a clown.

"You had these 7- or 8-year-olds walking around with IV bottles. Their faces were round from the chemotherapy," Willimann said.

"Those were the toughest audiences. They were too sick to laugh, but they smiled a lot."

Diane Willimann, his wife of 22 years, said having a former clown as a husband was quite handy.

"Whenever we need to change a lightbulb from the high ceiling, Mark puts on his stilts," said Diane, 61, who has a 19-year-old daughter with Willimann. "Not to mention I found my wedding ring in a tub of Land O'Lakes butter. That was my proposal."

Born in Lebanon to an American citizen, Willimann led a global life - living in Saudi Arabia, Indonesia, Pakistan, Hong Kong and New Hampshire. His family settled in New York when he was 7 years old.

In 2001, Willimann moved to Costa Rica for four months to learn Spanish. He is now certified as a Spanish speaker in the federal court system.

"I wanted to better represent my clients," Willimann said. "They are my family, so I learned español."

Willimann said being an entertainer and being an attorney had a similar dynamic. "In the courtroom you use your mouth, as an entertainer you use your magic," he said. "It's the same job, different costume."

"He's a clown. He juggled once. Sometimes I tell him to keep it down, but you got to love him. He is very professional and represents his clients as he should."

Maria Lilia Felix, state judge, commenting on lawyer Mark Willimann

This story was produced as part of The New York Times Student Journalism Institute, held Jan. 2-15 at the University of Arizona School of Journalism in collaboration with the National Association of Hispanic Journalists. More of the students' work is at http://tucson12.nytimes-institute.com/

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