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Judge in Stalker Case Brings High Tech to His Court

Times Staff Writer

As a dour deputy coroner tersely described the fatal stab-and-slash wounds inflicted on a 32-year-old schoolteacher, spectators at the preliminary hearing of accused Night Stalker Richard Ramirez leaned forward last week to absorb the grisly details.

Los Angeles Municipal Judge James F. Nelson, however, peering in another direction, was tapping on an electronic keyboard on the bench before him. It wasn’t that Nelson was ignoring the gruesome testimony. Rather, he was entering notes about the most primitive behavior of man into one of mankind’s more sophisticated pieces of machinery--a portable computer.

Nelson, who has been assigned to two extremely high-profile preliminary hearings in the last year--those of Cathy Evelyn Smith, charged with second-degree murder in the drug overdose death of comic John Belushi, and now Ramirez--is a pioneer in the use of computers on the bench.

“I started (using) this in 1980, and I’ve been hacking at it ever since,” the heavy-jowled Pasadena resident explained. “I write down exhibits . . . and every once in a while, I’ll write a statement or comment.

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“I find it greatly helpful to be able to organize thoughts in some way.”

Nelson, 58, is virtually the only Los Angeles jurist to employ such technology. “In a long case, I can’t imagine how I ever did without it.”

Nelson, appointed to the Municipal Court by then-Gov. Ronald Reagan in 1968, is an out-of-the-ordinary judge in several respects:

- He is half of a two-judge couple, married for more than 30 years to Dorothy Wright Nelson, one-time dean of the USC Law Center who is currently a judge on the U.S. 9th Circuit Court of Appeals.

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- Along with his wife, the couple are longtime national officers of the Baha’i faith. Nelson serves as chairman of the National Spiritual Assembly of the small sect, which stresses universal brotherhood.

- He is a co-founder (also along with his wife) and president of the board of directors of the Pasadena-based Community Dispute Resolution Center, an organization designed to ease the burden on the court system. “We’ve got too many things in the courts,” Nelson said in a recent interview. “We’ve (judges) got things that we ought not to be doing. . . .”

The center, he explained, employs lay volunteers to settle, out of court, such nagging problems as neighborhood disputes, school truancy and labor-management tiffs.

“The strict rules of evidence, the artificiality of the judicial process, aren’t used here. It’s just people talking with people in the presence of somebody who is a trained mediator,” Nelson said. “The beauty about this method of settlement is that people who have come together and have been able to talk out their differences . . . are much less likely to be at each other’s throats again.”

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Called Innovative, Disciplined

Nelson, who will eventually decide whether Ramirez must stand trial on charges of 14 murders and 54 other felonies, is described by his colleagues as an innovative, disciplined jurist who works hard at his job and also at getting along with others.

Deputy Dist. Atty. Michael Montagna, a former prosecutor in the Smith case, calls Nelson “a genuinely nice person” and “an excellent judge, top-flight . . . the best Municipal judge I know of.”

But while Nelson appears to be generally well-respected, some question the depth of his legal acumen.

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For example, in the Smith hearing last year, defense attorneys questioned the consistency of his rulings. “Although I believe he did what he thought was appropriate,” defense counsel Howard L. Weitzman said, “I think he was wrong.”

While Smith awaits trial, Weitzman is appealing a ruling by Nelson that allowed limited, but damaging, portions of taped interviews of Smith by National Enquirer reporters to be used as evidence. The evidence was admissible, Nelson ruled, even though he acknowledged believing the bulk of the tapes was “unreliable.”

Some lawyers, moreover, maintain that if Nelson were an above-average legal scholar, he would surely have been elevated to a higher court by now.

‘Speaks for Itself’

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“He’s a competent Municipal Court jurist, and he has been for a long time, which speaks for itself,” declared one lawyer who recently appeared before Nelson.

A Westside native and a 1953 graduate of Loyola University School of Law, Nelson said he does not lie awake at night worrying about a promotion.

“It’s not something about which I care deeply,” he said. “Dorothy and I are committed and involved in any number of activities, all of which are satisfying, including this one. I mean this is not the world’s worst job. It certainly gives you more contact with people (than upper-level courts).”

In 1972, Nelson ran for a Superior Court judgeship, but his campaign had a severe, self-imposed impediment. Nelson refused to accept any contributions because, as he put it, “taking money from people encourages them to think they are entitled to favors or at least it gives that impression to other people.”

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As a Municipal Court judge, Nelson handles a wide variety of assignments, including civil cases, misdemeanor trials and felony preliminary hearings. His personal computer comes in particularly handy, Nelson said, in civil cases involving “a computation of interest on judgments. I’ve got the thing programmed so it prints out a (dollar) judgment.”

On the bench, Nelson projects a genial, relaxed presence. At times, he seems downright uncomfortable in his bulky black robe, looking more as though he were in a barber’s chair than in a seat of power.

Nelson was assigned to Ramirez’s preliminary hearing at the last moment by Presiding Judge Maxine F. Thomas, who said Nelson would have more time than the previously assigned judge.

A Trying Experience

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Even for a veteran jurist, the hearing has proven a trying experience.

Due to the long list of gory charges, the highly publicized case--now entering its sixth week--is lengthy and complicated. Already, 67 witnesses have testified, and the hearing could continue for another three or four months.

In addition to constant public scrutiny, Nelson must also deal with ongoing bickering between the acerbic veteran prosecutor, Deputy Dist. Atty. P. Philip Halpin, and the relatively inexperienced defense attorneys, Daniel Hernandez and Arturo Hernandez.

Thus far, Nelson appears to be handling the task with equal measures of toughness and tongue-in-cheek humor.

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On one recent occasion, Daniel Hernandez complained that Halpin was being overly curt. Replied the judge with arched eyebrows and a smile: “You should by now be used to Mr. Halpin’s tone of voice. . . . This is simply the way he operates.”

The next day, with matters chugging ahead smoothly, Nelson drew loud laughter by interrupting the proceedings to comment: “I can’t help but notice the first day of spring has produced a sunshiny attitude on the part of counsel.”

If Nelson can crack up the courtroom, he can also crack down when he believes it necessary.

Declaring that all three lawyers had become too contentious, Nelson once caustically commented to Daniel Hernandez: “Unless you are all very anxious to share the same cell, I suggest that you stop using the court record to cast aspersions on each other.”

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‘Very Sobering Thought’

Hernandez proceeded to cut his remarks short, telling reporters later that the prospect of spending the night in such close proximity to Halpin was “a very sobering thought.”

Last week, Nelson lashed out at Halpin, who had questioned whether vital exhibits might get lost because of the manner in which the defense lawyers were handling them.

“Mr. Halpin, look, I don’t like your tone,” Nelson loudly declared, as a bailiff rushed toward the silver-haired prosecutor. “Mr. Halpin, sit in your seat. Now calm down!”

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In recent days, Nelson has appeared intent on moving the proceedings more swiftly, complaining to Daniel Hernandez about his penchant for asking the same questions repeatedly during cross-examination. Nelson has also taken it upon himself to rule several of Hernandez’s questions out-of-order, even when Halpin himself had not objected.

"(The judge) is limiting our questioning by going by the letter of the law,” Hernandez groused. “He’s taken on the role of prosecutor in making objections.”

Still, the defense counsel added: “I think he’s probably the best judge we’ve come in front of in a preliminary hearing. He has a lot of legal insight and integrity.”

Halpin, for his part, refused comment on Nelson except to say, “I think he’s been very patient.”

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Nelson, in an interview, said one of his chief aims as a judge is to provide “a relaxed courtroom where the lawyers, the litigants, the spectators are not tense. . . . Tension destroys the ability to observe accurately and to react appropriately.

“Humor breaks tension better than anything. But in this kind of a case, it presents an unusual difficulty, because this is not a laughing-matter case--and it’s difficult to justify very much yukking.”


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