Jurist's Script a Plea for Understanding

Times Staff Writer

An outraged father fatally shot the convicted murderer of his daughter and 16 other young women Wednesday night in an open courtroom, moments after watching Judge Kenneth Hoffman dismiss all charges against the killer. The judge had said he was freeing the man because police had fabricated a warrant to obtain crucial evidence against him.

Explaining himself just before the violence began, Hoffman told a hushed crowd that "a judge cannot pick and choose to fashion the law to reach an end he presumably may desire." It was the make-believe conclusion of "Penalty Phase," a TV drama starring Peter Strauss that CBS aired Wednesday night. But the conflict between the legal principles and public emotion it portrayed was real.

The script was written by Gale Patrick Hickman, who has served for nine years as a judge in the juvenile division of Orange County Superior Court; it was his first screenplay.

The New York Times praised the "rare clarity" of Hickman's story about a judge in Oregon who is legally obligated to dismiss all charges against a mass murderer on discovering that police concocted a warrant.

After concluding a real trial in his courtroom in Orange on Thursday, Hickman reveled in his seemingly charmed Hollywood success. ("I have a friend who said she knew a producer, and she really did. The producer liked it. Peter Strauss liked it a lot, and CBS liked it.")

He also described his script as a plea for public understanding of life on the bench.

He said he wasn't writing about Rose Elizabeth Bird, the recently ousted California chief justice, or any other specific people or incidents outside his imagination. But the fictional Judge Hoffman is up for reelection, and his creator says he meant to explore the issues that surround such elections in general.

"Rose Bird is a symptom of an attack on the judiciary in the state of California over the past five to 10 years," said Hickman, 44, a former deputy public defender. "I wrote this to show what it is like to be a real-life judge, with a real-life wife, real-life kids. You have a history. You have skeletons. You have citizens' groups who give you nightmares at night. You're up for reelection.

"Judicial elections are absurd--people don't know what they're voting for. I want people to know what goes on when people are voting a certain way because a small group of people got on the phones and pressed a few buttons and got a few law-and-order jingles together."

Outspoken for a Judge

If Hickman seems outspoken for a sitting judge, let the record reflect that he does not have to contend with public elections. He is appointed. In his words, "it would be hard getting rid of me. But please don't write that because then (judicial activists) will say, 'Let's throw him out!' "

In fact, while he acts as a judge in virtually every respect, he is technically called a commissioner. Generally, the most severe penalty he imposes is the confinement of a juvenile offender to the age of 21 in a California Youth Authority facility.

On Thursday he heard a case of a teen-ager charged with complicity in a $1-million cocaine deal. Presiding without a jury, Hickman found the boy guilty.

Hickman usually presides over one of several courtrooms in a temporary building that resembles a trailer, which the county uses to cope with a space problem. The setting is a far cry from the Perry Mason-like courtroom where Peter Strauss played Hickman's dramatized vision of himself. Strauss' character, for all his torment, is ultimately restrained on the bench. And this seems very much like the tone set by Hickman.

'Compelling Movie'

There weren't even any newspaper reporters following Hickman's cases the day after the New York Times praised his drama as "one of the more compelling movies of the season." But he says that doesn't bother him.

"Kiddie Court," as Juvenile Court is sometimes called, is not typically a steppingstone to judicial glory. But this divorced father of two sons says it's enough for him. He says he is happy to "have the movie off my back" and has no plans to change his life style to match his Hollywood credit.

He drives a Volvo with a bad cough, the sort a valet at Nicky Blair's would park in the back of the lot. He offers up homey details, like the fact that some characters were named for friends and relatives (Hoffman's sons, Zach and Jason, are named for Hickman's). But Hickman looks a lot like Larry Hagman when he smiles, and the "aw shucks" tone and aura of contentment are deceptive.

Applied for Appointments

He admits having applied for appointments to a regular judgeship both during the administration of former Gov. Edmund G. Brown Jr. and with the administration of Gov. George Deukmejian, although he insists his failure to get those jobs did not shape his cynicism about politics. (Juvenile division commissioners are appointed by the Superior Court.) And he was bitten by the writing bug too long ago to be considered an absolute novice.

He said he went to UCLA on a football scholarship, played on the school's team and planned to teach high school physical education. But he met a woman in his junior year who persuaded him to enroll in philosophy and English courses. He graduated in 1965, went to law school and read fiction constantly.

"I had this nagging back here," he said, pointing to the back of his head. "It nagged and nagged. I would write little slips and bits of novels. I didn't finish anything."

He practiced law and became a deputy public defender in Orange County. He married, committed long hours to coaching his sons in football and soccer. He got divorced. He remarried. He always read.

Incomplete Person

"But it was still there--nag, nag, nag," he said. "The nagging told me I was an incomplete person." Concluding he might not have a novelist's skills, he re-examined a copy of Syd Field's "The Foundations of Screenwriting" in his library and started writing. It was January, 1985. He wrote in his chambers, at a desk where law books share space these days with almost every "How to" book about writing ever written, not to mention "Othello," "Leaves of Grass" and "The Sound and the Fury." In May, he finished. "Of the three best moments in my life, one was the day my first son was born; the second was the day my second son was born, and the third was the day I finished putting all the white-out on the last page and drove up to Los Angeles to the Writer's Guild and registered my script."

He also showed it to a lawyer friend who knew Tamara Asseyev, the producer of "Norma Rae" and other movies.

"A friend of his who I grew up with in Pasadena called me and said she had this script," Asseyev said. "I picked it up and couldn't put it down."

Asseyev said the original script underwent only a few minor changes. In an industry in which writers often are treated with limited respect, Hickman seems to have been spoiled. He said director Tony Richardson and actor Strauss consulted him at almost every turn.

Expert in the Field

"I was the man in the black robes," said Hickman. "I was an expert in my field, so they trusted me." Imitating Richardson's British accent, Hickman said: "Tony would sometimes say, 'Run it through the typewriter one more time,' as if I had a magic typewriter. So, I'd try to pump some more conflict into it."

When it played for a national audience Wednesday, Hickman was sitting at home with his wife. No big party. Not even champagne, he said. "A quiet and private moment," he called it. "If I never make it with another screenplay, I think I could live with it," he said.

But a little later, he disclosed that he has completed a second script and started a third. The finished one is based on his life story, with a football focus, and the work-in-progress is about nuclear war.

Does he predict continued success? "All I can do is write what's inside of me," he said. "If I don't care deeply about the subject, there really isn't any point."

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