Saturday, 25 May 2024

Friends, colleagues remember veteran defense attorney

LOWER LAKE – One of Lake County's best known criminal defense attorneys has died.

Stephen Tulanian, a one-time candidate for judge who was known for taking on some of the toughest criminal defense cases in the local courts, died suddenly on May 2. He was 58 years old.

Tulanian's untimely death left friends and fellow attorneys stunned.

Steve Elias, who has worked as a co-counsel with Tulanian, said he had seen him on Friday night during a get-together with friends at Tulanian's Lower Lake home.

Elias said Tulanian, who he said seemed like “the healthiest guy alive,” was his usual energetic, vital self on Friday, so his death the next day was a shock. Lake County News has not been able to confirm his exact cause of death.

Lakeport attorney J. David Markham is handling Tulanian's cases, according to a message left for those who call Tulanian's Lower Lake office.

Supervisor Rob Brown, who owns a bail bonds business, was friends with Tulanian.

Tulanian was fierce in his defense of clients, and anyone going against him in court had to be on their game, said Brown. “Both sides had a lot of respect for him.”

Tulanian graduated from the University of California, Berkeley, in 1972, going on to get his law degree in 1976 from the University of San Francisco School of law, according to the resume on his Web site.

He went into private law practice in 1977 in Napa County, after achieving an impressive feat – passing the bar exam on the first try.

Tulanian's criminal law practice in Lake County began in 1981.

During his decades of practice his work wasn't limited to the local courts. His Web site states that he appeared in courts in more than 15 Northern California counties, including the United States District Court in San Francisco. His nearly 32 years of practice encompassed more than 200 jury trials, with a focus on criminal cases.

Stephen Carter, who along with wife Angela Carter heads Lake Legal Defense, which handles the county's public defender's contract, said he's known Tulanian since coming here 15 years ago.

“He was a really fine person and a fine lawyer,” said Carter, who noted that he and his wife were saddened by the news because they thought so highly of Tulanian.

Elias called Tulanian a “remarkable trial lawyer” who he used to sit and watch in court out of admiration for his legal technique.

“I never saw anybody as good as him,” said Elias.

Tulanian used those skills to win acquittals in high profile cases, such as the first “Three Strikes” case in Lake County.

But perhaps his most notable victory was in defending Charles “Eddy” Lepp, a marijuana activist who became the first person to be arrested and tried under California's Compassionate Use Act, Proposition 215, which Californian's approved in 1996.

In 1996, the Lake County Narcotic Task Force eradicated 131 mature marijuana plants that Lepp said he had a doctor's recommendation to grow, and charged Lepp with cultivation of marijuana and possession of marijuana for sale, according to a synopsis of the case on Tulanian's Web site.

With Tulanian acting as his defense attorney, Lepp became the first person to be acquitted under the law. Since then Tulanian has been regularly featured in resource lists of the state's medical marijuana defense attorneys.

Lepp, who was at an event on Sunday, could not be reached for comment.

“He was very passionate about marijuana as medicine,” said Elias, calling that stance “a major expression” of Tulanian's politics.

In such a lengthy and varied law practice, defeats are part of the territory, and Tulanian had his share.

In 2000, he ran for judge of Lake County Superior Court's Department 4, losing out to Stephen Hedstrom.

A year later, Tulanian appeared in court to defend a Valencia man in a high-profile murder case.

Tulanian and fellow attorney Judy Conard represented Jeffrey Duvardo, who was accused of killing his elderly parents, Donald and Mary Ann Duvardo of Nice, in March of 1999.

Despite Tulanian's and Conard's expert defense, Duvardo – prosecuted by then-Chief Deputy District Attorney Jon Hopkins – was convicted and sentenced to life in prison without the possibility of parole.

When he wasn't practicing the law, Tulanian had a passion for guitars, said Elias.

“He has an incredible collection of guitars,” said Elias, noting that Tulanian also played music.

Corvettes were another longtime love, although Elias said he hadn't ever been out for a ride with Tulanian in one of his beloved cars.

Carter said Tulanian always had the latest Corvette, and it was a passion he took seriously – going to Corvette driving schools to learn how to get the most out of his cars. He also loved technology and gadgets.

Tulanian had an inquisitive mind and an “excited intellect,” said Carter. “He brought that both to his practice of law and life in general.”

Carter said Tulanian had talked – “off and on” – about retiring. But, like a lot of veteran defense attorneys, he had trouble letting go of his work. Carter said that's because being a defense attorney is a profession in which you can see “on a daily basis the good work you do.”

Unfortunately, he didn't get the chance to retire. But, Brown added, “He liked his job.”

Carter said Tulanian, who was often seen with a friendly smile to match his sense of humor, has been an important figure in the county's legal system.

“He's going to be really missed,” said Carter.

E-mail Elizabeth Larson at This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it..

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