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No Statute of Limitations on Justice

TIMES STAFF WRITER

Day in, day out, the nation’s jurists don their long, black robes and solemnly dispense justice from an elevated perch. Now and then, James J. McCartney says, they make mistakes.

He should know. Judge McCartney made one himself.

It happened about 15 years ago, when McCartney was a judge in San Bernardino Municipal Court. A young man appeared before him, accused of possessing a knife with a foot-long blade.

Because the defendant could offer no explanation for carrying the knife when he was stopped by police for a traffic violation, McCartney summarily convicted him of a misdemeanor weapons charge.

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McCartney is 68 and retired, living in the small San Joaquin Valley city of Hanford. But his golden years have been tarnished by an unsettling thought: He’s convinced he blundered in that case years ago, and he wants to make things right.

There’s a problem, however: McCartney can’t recall the defendant’s name, and has thus been unable to track the man through court records or other conventional means.

So this week, the former jurist took a highly unusual step: He placed an advertisement in the San Bernardino Sun, hoping it will catch the eye of the mystery defendant.

“GUILTY CONVICTION MAY BE SET ASIDE,” reads the ad, which cost McCartney $500. It also lists the judge’s home telephone number and invites the one-time knife-bearer to give a call, “NO CHARGE AT ALL.”

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McCartney realizes the ad is a long shot. But if the man calls, the former judge plans to file for a writ of error coram nobis --admitting that his ruling is faulty and asking another court to erase the conviction.

“Every judge makes mistakes in the pressure of his or her judicial duties,” McCartney said in a telephone interview Wednesday. “Why? Because all judges are very human like everyone else.”

The weapons offense was not a serious one, saddling the defendant with only a small fine and six months probation. But McCartney wants the conviction set aside “because a record can impair a person’s employment and career opportunities throughout his life. . . . I feel bad about that.”

McCartney said the error dawned on him several months ago, when a television program involving young men and weapons reawakened his memory of the case.

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“I went over it again in my mind, did some research,” McCartney said. “I determined he was innocent because the knife was not deployed” and the man was under no legal obligation to explain his possession of it, he said.

A former San Bernardino County prosecutor, McCartney was elected a municipal judge in 1970. Feisty and controversial, he served until 1976, when he lost a reelection bid after being censured for judicial misconduct.

The state Commission on Judicial Qualifications, citing “displays of anger, improper language and bullying in his relations” with lawyers and others, recommended McCartney be removed from the bench. But the California Supreme Court ruled that the judge had many redeeming qualities and limited discipline to a formal censure.

So far, McCartney said, his ad has drawn two queries. One came from a woman praising his honesty in going public with his error. The second call was from a former police officer.

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“He admitted that he had made some arrests that he later felt were unfair,” McCartney said. “We had an interesting conversation.”


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