Judge W. Blair Gibbens, who ended many of his sentences with unusual propositions, died Monday in a hospital in Santa Monica, the city where for nearly 10 years he brought both drama and laughter to an otherwise mundane traffic court.
“The Traffic Judge,” who once ordered Patricia Lawford, President John F. Kennedy’s sister, to view the remains of crashed cars and visit children hospitalized in traffic accidents after she became involved in a minor accident herself, was 86. He had retired in 1970.
Beginning with his appointment to the traffic bench in 1961, Gibbens became known for his innovative sentences. He would order offenders to sweep streets, visit cemeteries or view films featuring highway carnage. One woman in a group of 100 fainted when shown a film that Gibbens had imported from the Traffic Officers Assn. of Ohio.
On other occasions, he would offer motorists a choice between displaying a bumper sticker (“Traffic Violator, Santa Monica Municipal Court”) on their car for the period of their probation, or going to jail.
For several months in the late 1960s, the stickers were highly visible in the beach city while the City Jail remained relatively empty.
Perhaps his most highly publicized tactic to discourage traffic offenders came in 1962, when he moved a flower-draped coffin into his courtroom and tapped it for emphasis as he meted out sentences.
At other times, he would assign drivers cited for running stop signs to become crosswalk guards near schools or send them to watch embalming procedures at mortuaries.
His antics were both praised for their innovation and condemned for their histrionics.
“I don’t feel a courtroom should be converted into a horror scene,” said William McKesson, Los Angeles County district attorney in 1962.
Born in West Virginia, Gibbens was a World War I veteran who graduated from USC and entered law practice in Santa Monica in 1923. He was appointed to the bench in 1961.
His survivors include two daughters and seven grandchildren.
One of his lesser known but imaginative decrees came in 1963 when he sentenced Morris S. Jepsen, a wealthy Santa Monica resident and avid fisherman, to catch 50 pounds of fish in 30 days and donate it to the Salvation Army.
Jepsen, who had made an illegal turn, evidently did not bear the judge any grudges. He agreed to be an honorary pallbearer at Gibbens’ funeral Wednesday afternoon.