‘I’m Blunt,’ Says Judge Who Outraged Feminists
In a world where euphemisms often render language and truth meaningless, Judge Gilbert C. Alston sees himself as a kind of last outpost of blunt, unvarnished talk.
His refusal to sugar-coat or soften his language, even when it’s for public consumption, has brought Alston his share of notoriety during six years on the Pasadena Superior Court bench. More recently, it has incited a protest over his decision two weeks ago to dismiss charges against a man accused of raping and sodomizing a prostitute.
In granting his own motion for a finding of not guilty, Alston characterized the case as a “breach of contract between a whore and trick.”
Decision Widely Condemned
The legal reasoning behind the April 18 decision has been widely condemned by law school professors and women’s rights groups throughout Southern California. Several organization directors have publicly called for Alston’s removal. At least two filed complaints last week with the state Commission on Judicial Performance asking that the watchdog agency investigate Alston’s conduct in the case and take appropriate disciplinary action.
Surprised by the reaction, Alston remains unchastened.
“I’m always attacked for my use of words that are perceived as wrong,” said the 55-year-old judge. “I’m blunt. I deliberately avoid being tactful in certain situations.
“One of the problems of our society is that we’re so wedded to euphemisms that you can’t call a janitor a janitor anymore. You have to call him a building inspector.
“I don’t believe in spoon-feeding the truth. The biggest euphemism we have today is the phrase substance abuser. They’re not substance abusers. They’re goddamned dope addicts. And put the ‘goddamned’ in there.”
Asked if he regretted referring to the prostitute as a “whore” in open court, Alston rose from his desk and reached for the dictionary on the book shelf.
Perfectly Good Word
“ Whore is a perfectly good English word,” he said. “I’m not going to apologize for using it.”
Alston’s finding of not guilty in the rape and sodomy case against Daniel Zabuski, 25, of Alhambra came over the strong objections of the district attorney’s office. Deputy Dist. Atty. JoAnne Barton, who prosecuted Zabuski, said Alston displayed bias against the prostitute throughout the proceedings, constantly referring to the 30-year-old woman as a “whore” during private deliberations with attorneys and allowing Zabuski’s attorney to ask questions about her personal life.
Several jurors said they believed the prostitute, who testified in court that she was paid $30 to perform oral sex, but that Zabuski became violent when he was not satisfied and raped and sodomized her. They said they were angered by Alston’s decision to take the case away from them and offended by his brusque language.
Prosecutors admit that the case could have gone either way and that Alston’s dismissal of the charges would have generated little protest had it not been for his comments to the press after the trial.
Prostitutes Not Protected
In an interview with The Times after his decision, Alston said the law did not afford prostitutes protection against rape or sodomy if they had agreed to and were paid for a “lesser” act such as oral copulation. He said a man could force a woman prostitute to engage in sexual intercourse and sodomy without being criminally liable as long as he did not physically injure her.
The decision was attacked by several legal experts who said the law clearly holds that a prostitute can agree to one sexual act without implicitly consenting to all sexual acts.
“Experts can disagree if they want, but I’m the one who has to make the decision based on the facts before me,” Alston said in a second interview with The Times last week. “An act of prostitution is an act of prostitution.
“My critics are trying to distinguish between oral copulation and sexual intercourse. But both are contracts for illegal services and the courts are not in the business of interpreting illegal contracts. The Penal Code simply does not distinguish between degrees of prostitution.”
Call for Judge’s Removal
In calling for Alston’s removal, women’s rights groups have criticized the judge for treating a sexual-abuse case as a matter of contract law. They said the judge’s reasoning embraces the notion that a woman must be severely battered, mutilated or killed before sexual assault charges can be upheld.
“The implication of the judge’s remarks is that not all women are entitled to the protection of the law from acts of rape and sodomy,” said Gloria Allred, the feminist attorney who heads the Los Angeles-based Women’s Equal Rights Legal Defense and Education Fund.
“The judge has, in effect, declared to all rapists that it is open season on prostitutes,” Allred said. Such legal interpretation “opens the door to an investigation into the behavior, morals and sexual histories of every rape victim who files charges.”
On Monday, Allred mailed a formal complaint to the state Commission on Judicial Performance in San Francisco asking that an investigation be opened into Alston’s conduct in the case. A spokesman for the commission would not comment on the possibility of an investigation.
Allred has asked Los Angeles County Dist. Atty. Ira Reiner to adopt a policy of disqualifying Alston from cases in which the victims are female.
Decision ‘Morally Wrong’
Schuyler Sprowles, a spokesman for Reiner, called Alston’s decision “deplorable” from both moral and legal standpoints. But Sprowles said Alston had not yet demonstrated a “consistent bias” against the prosecution, something Reiner would require before disqualifying Alston from cases.
Rochelle Coffey, director of the Pasadena Rape Hotline, has also filed a formal complaint against Alston with the state judicial performance commission. Coffey said the Zabuski case has captured the attention of a large segment of the community. She said the subject has come up repeatedly at the group’s speaking engagements in the past two weeks.
“I’ve never seen this kind of broad response to a community issue before,” Coffey said. “We’ve been getting calls and letters from all kinds of people. A lot of them don’t think prostitution is right but they feel prostitutes must be protected just like everyone else.”
In many ways, Alston is an unlikely lightning rod for the fury of feminists. After his first wife died in 1967 at the age of 32, Alston raised his 8-year-old daughter and his 5-year-old son as a single parent. His decision to leave private law practice and take a position as the first commissioner of the Pasadena Municipal Court in 1971 was motivated by a desire to spend more time with his children.
Struggling Single Parent
“I was struggling being a single parent when it finally occurred to me that if I was going to work regular hours and raise my kids properly, I would have to go on the bench,” he said. “It was either that or watch them become clients of this system.
“I look at them now and what they’ve become in their lives and I know I made the right decision,” said Alston, who married his second wife in 1972. “It may not have been profitable, but it has been good.”
Alston’s daughter, who is now 27, works as a trust officer at a Beverly Hills bank. His son, 24, is a police officer in San Bernardino. Both children tease their father about his seeming penchant for controversy.
Last year, two sheriff’s deputies reported seeing Alston pull out a hammer and bash the wing window of a county truck that was parked too closely behind his car. When Alston could not move the truck, he sped off across the courthouse lawn. He later paid $12.50 to repair the window.
‘Golden Hammer Award’
A plaque with a gold-painted hammer hangs on the wall of his chambers. Titled the “Golden Hammer Award,” it is a gift from his daughter.
The plaque reads:
There once was a judge named Gil.
He was thought of by some as a
One small window he smashed.
Even paid up in cash.
But his chances for pardon are nil.
Barricade your windows. Here
comes Da Judge.
Prosecutors who appear in his courtroom regularly regard Alston as something of a enigma. First appointed to the bench by then-Gov. Ronald Reagan and elevated to the Superior Court by former Gov. Edmund G. Brown Jr., Alston was the first Pasadena judge to sentence a man--a rapist-murderer--to death. He is also the court’s only black jurist.
The district attorney’s office views him as too liberal in several areas, particularly in cases dealing with nonviolent offenders. Several prosecutors complained that Alston granted far too many unwarranted defense motions to dismiss criminal charges before a case reached the jury.
‘He Has Blind Spots’
“He’s personable and very bright,” said Larry Wolfe, a deputy district attorney for 14 years. “But he’s a terrible judge because he has these blind spots, like sex crimes.”
“There are some days that he does things that are unbelievable and others days that he’s excellent,” said prosecutor Susan Wondries. “The two could be on the same day.”
But Deputy Dist. Atty. Penny Schneider called Alston an excellent judge who--unlike many of his colleagues who routinely come down on the side of the district attorney’s office--requires prosecutors to meet a high but fair burden of proof.
“He’s not afraid of making a controversial decision and he doesn’t vacillate,” Schneider said. “If we haven’t proven our position, he has no qualms about coming down on the side of the defense.
‘Makes a Good Judge’
“That’s what makes a good judge a good judge. I felt that at all times he treated all the parties fairly. He’s been nothing but an absolute gentleman to me.”
Alston, a graduate of USC Law School, is amused by attempts to categorize him in political terms. He says his diverse beliefs and interests outside the law defy an easy label.
A former Air Force fighter pilot, Alston arrived in Korea two weeks after the war there had ended. He remains an avid flyer and supporter of the Air Force, serving as a minority recruiter for the Air Force Academy and a civilian adviser for the local Reserve Officers’ Training Corps.
“Every Saturday, I take three ROTC cadets for a ride in my Grumman Tiger,” Alston said. “It’s a way of keeping my own skills current and introducing young kids to one of the greatest motivating factors in my life, aviation and the Air Force.”
Alston is comfortable talking about such technical aspects of national defense as the combined throw weight of the U.S. nuclear arsenal and the aerodynamic advantages of one jet fighter over another. Even though he supports a strong defense, Alston is critical of President Reagan’s Star Wars program and what he calls widespread fraud in the defense contracting industry.
In his office, he displays a poster of nuclear warheads, some labeled U.S. and some labeled U.S.S.R., with an inscription, “End the race or end the race.”
“I’m black and I’m a Democrat but that won’t help you much in figuring out where I stand on various issues,” he said. “I like to confound my critics.”
When told that some of his detractors consider him arrogant, Alston again reached for his dictionary.
“ ‘Arrogant,’ it says, ‘exaggerating or disposed to exaggerate one’s own worth or importance in an overbearing manner.’ I don’t fit that description in any way. My problem is if I think I’m right, I don’t bite my tongue.
“I can’t make decisions based on whether Gloria Allred or the Pasadena Rape Hotline is going to agree with me.”
Alston said it is unfortunate that his critics see the Zabuski case as a feminist issue. He estimated that fully one-third of all prostitutes are male and said his ruling would have been the same no matter what sexes were involved. He theorized that many of his critics, including local newspapers, were motivated partly out of racism.
“Unfortunately, when you’re a member of a minority group, it’s one of those things you can never totally overlook,” he said. “I’m a black judge in Pasadena and the feeling is that I’m in a position that should be filled by someone who is white and Gentile.”
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