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Newsmaker profile: Attorney Ilan Funke-Bilu

dmiddlecamp@thetribunenews.com

Ilan Funke-Bilu’s face grew red and his voice rang out across the courtroom. The two-hour closing argument came at the end of the 2010 trial of a man who had been charged with involuntary manslaughter for shooting his wife.

Funke-Bilu thundered away, calling the shooting an accident, saying his client mishandled the gun and committed no crime. Funke-Bilu’s large frame, his New York accent and the gravity of the stakes captivated the jury.

“No one can place more guilt on my client than my client has already put on himself,” he said.His efforts were enough to persuade nine jurors to acquit. The other three in the jury voted on guilt, and the case was eventually dismissed.

The fervency Funke-Bilu displays in the courtroom — ever ready with a joke — contrasts sharply from the boy who’d once hide behind his mother’s skirt as a child in Israel and New York City.

“A lot of people would be surprised to hear that I was shy,” he said. “But I was.”

The 60-year-old attorney shucked a boyhood timid streak to become a feisty, humorous, skilled lawyer who has handled some of the county’s most riveting and public cases since he started practicing law in San Luis Obispo in 1979.

In one month in his first year practicing law, he earned only $280, more than a third of which went to office rent.

Now he charges $500 an hour and is one of the most sought-after local attorneys.

“Ilan is a personality,” said Raymond Allen, a defense attorney in San Luis Obispo. “I think his name sets him apart automatically, but his larger-than-life persona in court has made him iconic — like Morro Rock or the Mission.”

Allen — who chairs the criminal defense section of the local bar association — said he sometimes attends Funke-Bilu’s court hearings just to watch him in action.

“I am impressed by his obvious passion for his cases and clients,” Allen said. “He can literally shake with emotion during his arguments.”

Family and background

The vitality and intensity of New York City where Funke-Bilu grew up is part of his makeup.

And his tendency to speak his mind and hold his own in an argument, as New Yorkers are known to do, suits him well in a courtroom.

Once told by a Texan that people from the Lone Star State like to sugarcoat things, Funke-Bilu responded, “I’m from New York. People there like to say ‘(expletive) you.’ ”

Funke-Bilu said he has early memories of Israel, where he lived until he was 8, but his formative years were spent in the Bronx and Queens. Still, his home country is a strong part of his heritage.

“Israel will always be a part of me,” Funke-Bilu said.

He might have been a shy child, but early on he signaled a strong will. When he was 6 years old in Israel, a boy struck him with a jump rope. Funke-Bilu picked up a stick and hit the boy back.

“My response was to want to hit him back, but he used the jump rope, so instead of using my hands I found a stick and whacked him back and opened up a cut on his head,” Funke-Bilu said.

The boys ran to their mothers, and the two women disputed who was to blame.

“The boy later also moved to Queens like my family did, and we actually were quite friendly with each other later on,” Funke-Bilu said.

Funke-Bilu spoke Hebrew as his first language and didn’t become a U.S. citizen until he was 15 — seven years after moving to New York.

His parents owned a luncheonette and a “shmatte” business (shmatte is a Yiddish word for inexpensive clothing), where Funke-Bilu worked as a salesman, which afforded him time to get to know “all about female apparel.”

“New York exposed me to so much,” Funke-Bilu said. “I need to go back once a year. I need the juice. It’s a very exciting place. But it drains you. That’s why I’ll live the rest of my life here in San Luis Obispo County.”

Start as a SLO lawyer

While working in his parents’ clothing store was far from the law, Funke-Bilu was encouraged by his mother, Miriam Bilu, to become a lawyer.

As part of his work in the family business, he’d write notes on behalf of the store, such as complaints about substandard products.

“She thought I was a good letter writer,” he said of his mother.

He followed her advice, honing his skills as a student at Western State University College of Law in Orange County in the 1970s.

He could have attended night law school in New York, but he moved to California partly because he had a family friend who worked at Western State.

Funke-Bilu moved to San Luis Obispo after graduating from law school in 1977 so his ex-wife, Melissa Funke, could attend Cal Poly.

But despite his natural persuasiveness, it took him “three and a half” attempts to pass the bar exam. He passed half of the exam on his third attempt and the other half on his fourth.

While waiting for his license, Funke-Bilu worked as a car salesman in San Luis Obispo.

“Some people don’t put a lot of stock in the bar examination or think it reflects much on what kind of lawyer they’ll be, and I’m one of them,” Funke-Bilu said. “I thought I’d be a good lawyer and when I didn’t pass, I said ‘(expletive) you’ to the bar people and took it again and again until I did.”

Early career cases

Early in his career, his legal work included cases that public defenders passed his way because of conflicts of interest.

Conflict-of-interest cases arise in various circumstances, such as when multiple defendants are charged with a crime and may need to testify against each other as part of a defense.

Over the next several years, he built his reputation as a fierce advocate for defendants, garnering attention along the way.

“I always tell my clients there is no such thing as a slam dunk case for the prosecution,” Funke-Bilu said. “You never know what a jury will do.”

Three high-profile cases in the 1980s and 1990s highlighted his skill and captured headlines in local newspapers and sound bites on television.

In 1986, he won an acquittal in the murder case of Tony Phillips, who fired a shot from a sawed-off shotgun that struck Fred Niedringhaus in the stomach. Phillips said Niedringhaus punched him, and then the gun went off.

“I remember that case very well,” Funke-Bilu said. “I remember that Niedgringhaus looked like Rasputin, the mad monk, with long black hair and these dark, intense eyes.”

Six years later in 1992, Cal Poly volleyball star Kimberly Kaaiai was acquitted in an assault case he defended.

The case about a turbulent lesbian relationship between teammates captured the fascination of the public.

Kaaiai was arrested after a shooting with a .22-caliber pistol that severed a nerve in Michelle Hansen’s back and left her without use of one of her legs. The incident came amid an altercation, his client said.

Later in the 1990s, Funke-Bilu won an $800,000 judgment (reduced by a judge from a $1 million jury verdict) against Unocal for an Avila Beach hotel owner in an oil contamination spill that she claimed scared customers away from her business.

“I think what Unocal did was reprehensible,” Funke-Bilu said at the time. “It bothers me what they’ve done to the land.”

While high-profile cases with good results can help a lawyer’s career, Funke-Bilu said that they also can garner criticism and scrutiny from the public and other lawyers. Some attorneys shy away or refer those cases to others.

“I don’t necessarily seek high-profile cases, but I don’t look at them as a negative,” Funke-Bilu said. “You have to be careful being in the spotlight because you always have to remember it’s about your client and not about you.”

As defense attorneys are prompt to recognize Funke-Bilu’s skill, courtroom opponents such as Santa Barbara County Chief Deputy District Attorney Stephen Foley also called him an adept attorney.

Foley and Funke-Bilu opposed each other in a murder trial that resulted in a 2009 conviction for the Lompoc man, Kristopher Michael Blehm, whom Funke-Bilu represented. But despite the conviction, Foley called Funke-Bilu a tough opponent.

“Ilan is a formidable foe with a great a sense of humor,” Foley said. “At times he can be too quick to accuse the prosecutor of wrongdoing, but he’s also quick to apologize for his rush to judgment.”

His approach

When Funke-Bilu first meets with prospective clients — regardless of the details of the allegations or the horrific images documented in a case — he gauges whether he trusts and likes the person.

“If the relationship is solid, it drives me to do the best for my client,” Funke-Bilu said.

While Funke-Bilu said he understands that in the criminal justice system people don’t always tell the truth, he says that applies to many walks of life.

“It’s difficult for clients to be honest with lawyers as it is with everybody in life,” Funke-Bilu said. “Shades of dishonesty permeate our lives in so many ways — whether that means white lies, omissions or other half-truths. It’s rare to come across anyone in life who’s brutally honest.”

Many of his clients, he added, are good people who may have had “bad things happen to them.”

“As a defense lawyer, I’m not a judge on whether somebody is a criminal or not,” Funke-Bilu said. “I represent my clients to the best of my abilities and have a lot of faith in the U.S. Constitution about their rights.”

A recent case showed this dictum in action. Funke-Bilu defended Steven Smith — the San Miguel man convicted of attempted voluntary manslaughter for shooting his pregnant girlfriend. Funke-Bilu called him “a good person with some deeply serious psychological issues.”

Smith was sentenced to 12 years in prison. He could have received a life sentence.

“It’s hard for people to grasp, from the outside, how a good-looking guy, who seems to have it all together, could have this happen to him,” Funke-Bilu said. “That doesn’t diminish the fact that he’s one of the most solid people I know. I’m gratified that I was able to help save him from spending the rest of his life in prison.”

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