Ito Readies Himself for Glare of Media Spotlight : Courts: Judge’s last brush with fame came in Charles Keating case. Jurist is seen as smart and unflappable.
Los Angeles Superior Court Judge Lance A. Ito is about to become the most watched jurist in U.S. history.
Although millions will soon be observing him as he presides over the O.J. Simpson murder trial, this will not be Ito’s first brush with a celebrated case--he presided over the 1992 trial of multimillionaire swindler Charles H. Keating Jr.
That experience taught him several maxims to live by in such cases:
Rule 1: “Be cautious, be careful and when in doubt, keep your mouth shut.”
Rule 2: “When tempted to say something, take a deep breath and refer to Rule 1.”
Rule 3: “The sirens of mythology pale in comparison to the allure of seeing yourself on CNN. The results, however, can be about the same.”
On Friday, Ito adhered strictly to Rule 1 in regard to the Simpson trial: “I can’t say anything about the case. The less I say the better.”
He did acknowledge that his life was about to change, though. An hour after his appointment was announced before a worldwide television audience, Ito said in an interview: “It feels like I’ve had 12 cups of coffee and I’ve only had one.”
Which is not to say that Ito, 43, is jittery. Court watchers say they have no doubts that Ito, named 1992 trial judge of the year by the Los Angeles County Bar Assn., will be able to handle the pressure of the former football star’s double murder trial.
“Lance is prepared, intelligent, thoughtful and unflappable,” Los Angeles defense lawyer Gerald Chaleff said.
“He is a judge who controls his courtroom in a fair way. I expect each side will get ample opportunity to express their opinions, but the trial will move along at a good pace,” said Chaleff, past president of the county bar association.
Pepperdine University law professor Janet E. Kerr called Ito an excellent choice for the Simpson case. She served as Ito’s court-appointed expert on complex securities law issues when he presided over the prosecution of Keating.
“I have the highest respect for him,” Kerr said. “I found him extremely fair-minded and brilliant.”
His appointment was something of a surprise because Supervising Criminal Court Judge Cecil J. Mills had said the case would go to one of nine judges now presiding over so-called long cause cases. Ito is handling the criminal court’s heavy master calendar and will have to turn over those duties to another judge, court observers said.
Ito’s work on the Keating case and numerous others was praised by prosecutors and defense attorneys. In April, 1992, Ito sentenced Keating to a 10-year state prison term after a jury convicted him on 17 counts of state securities fraud after the failure of Keating’s Lincoln Savings & Loan, which cost hundreds of investors their life savings.
Until Friday, that was Ito’s major moment in the limelight--his most challenging case during seven years as a judge. “There were good lawyers, hot topics and a subject area I was not familiar with,” Ito said in an interview Friday. “It was hotly contested, with a lot of media and new challenges each and every day.”
Although declining to discuss his newest case, he spoke briefly about his life, his experiences as a prosecutor and judge, and his career goals.
A Los Angeles native, Ito grew up in the city’s Silver Lake neighborhood. His parents, who met in a Japanese American internment camp in Wyoming during World War II, were both public schoolteachers. Ito attended Ivanhoe Elementary School, Thomas Starr King Junior High and John Marshall High School.
He majored in political science at UCLA, graduating cum laude in 1972. Ito worked his way through school, managing student parking lots, according to Robert D. Rose, a San Diego lawyer who lived on the same floor as Ito in a UCLA dormitory.
Rose said Ito was organized, thoughtful and a dedicated prankster. Stunts attributed to him ranged from putting firecrackers in clothes dryers to switching furniture between dorms. “He had a very pronounced mischievous streak,” the attorney said.
The pranks continued through Ito’s years at UC Berkeley’s Boalt Hall School of Law, where he graduated in 1975, and into his years at the district attorney’s office, which he joined in 1977 after two years of private practice.
James Bascue, Ito’s former boss in the district attorney’s hard-core gang unit, recalled one of those incidents during a 1992 interview. Bascue said he walked into his office one morning before an important meeting to find several pigeons that Ito and some co-conspirators had put there the night before.
“I was running around trying to catch the pigeons and clean up the mess before the meeting,” said Bascue, now also a Superior Court judge. “It was not the kind of stuff that was hurtful. But it was good for morale.”
Deputy Dist. Atty. Peter S. Berman, who shared an office with Ito during those years, recalls the pranks, but said no one should have any doubt that Ito was a hard-working, serious prosecutor. He said Ito showed particularly good organizational skills while the two of them successfully prosecuted nine defendants accused of conspiring to murder a witness in the early 1980s: “That was a monster case for anyone, a major production in terms of the amount of physical evidence, transcripts, informants.”
Sergio Robleto, commanding officer of the LAPD’s South Bureau homicide unit, who worked on the case, said Ito and Berman were called “the dynamic duo” by officers in the gang unit. He said officers often had to roust the attorneys from bed in the middle of the night to help obtain search warrants. “They kept us out of trouble and helped guide us.”
Ito was very detail-oriented, Robleto said. “All those attorneys, prosecution or defense, better do their homework before they try to b.s. him.”
During one of those early morning rousts--at 4 a.m., to be precise--Ito met his wife, Margaret York, then an LAPD detective, at the scene of a murder. York, who heads the Police Department’s bunco-forgery unit and is the highest-ranking woman on the force, was one of the models for the television series “Cagney & Lacey,” according to a friend of the couple.
Subsequently, Ito was assigned to the complaints unit, the organized crime and intelligence division, and then the special trials unit. In 1986, in his last major case before becoming a judge, he successfully prosecuted Brandon Tholmer, the prime suspect in the murders of more than a score of elderly Los Angeles women. After a lengthy trial, Tholmer was found guilty of four of the five murders with which he was charged, and sentenced to life without the possibility of parole.
The next year, Republican Dist. Atty. Robert Philibosian persuaded Gov. George Deukmejian to pick Ito for a Municipal Court judgeship despite the fact that Ito is a Democrat: “I knew Deukmejian was looking for people who shared his common-sense, law-and-order profile. I thought Lance was particularly well suited in that regard.”
Two years later, Deukmejian elevated Ito to the Superior Court bench.
Although the Keating case was his longest trial, Ito, as the master calendar judge in the criminal courts for more than a year, has had a piece of other noteworthy cases. They include the pandering case of accused madam to the stars Heidi Fleiss, the riot-related assault case against Damian Monroe Williams and the pending murder case against gangsta rapper Snoop Doggy Dogg.
Although Ito has a background as a prosecutor, he drew high marks for fairness from several defense lawyers, including Thomas A. Stanley, who represented a man who contended he shot his neighbor in self-defense after he was severely beaten in a fight. The district attorney asked for first-degree murder, but after a three-week trial the jury found the man guilty of voluntary manslaughter.
Ito sentenced the man to 16 years in state prison. “I thought he was very fair,” Stanley said. “He is a very good judge in terms of the amount of respect he gives everyone in the case--lawyers, defendants, jurors. He was absolutely on top of the law and I certainly would try another case in front of him without reservation.”
A lover of classical music, a camera buff, a long-distance runner and a connoisseur of good coffee, Ito lives in Pasadena with his wife, two dogs and a cat.
He is being considered for a seat on the state Court of Appeal. If that appointment does not come soon, Ito said, he would like to move to the Juvenile Court bench in the near future.
“There’s a lot more to be accomplished there,” Ito said. “In criminal court, you’re dealing with adults who have lifestyles and patterns that are established. With juveniles, you have the ability to intervene. You have the potential to make a positive change in people’s lives. That’s not always the case in adult criminal cases.”
Times staff writer James S. Granelli contributed to this story.
Profile: Lance A. Ito
* Born: Aug. 2, 1950
* Residence: Pasadena
* Education: Bachelor of arts degree from UCLA, cum laude, in political science, 1972. Law doctorate from UC Berkeley’s Boalt Hall School of Law, 1975.
* Career highlights: Associate, Irsfeld, Irsfeld & Younger, Los Angeles, 1975-1977; deputy district attorney, Los Angeles, 1977-1987; Los Angeles Municipal Court judge, 1987-1989; Superior Court judge, July 1989-present. Trial Judge of the Year, 1992.
* Interests: Classical music, running.
* Family: Married to Margaret York, chief of LAPD’s bunco-forgery division.
* Quote: “In criminal court, you’re dealing with adults who have lifestyles and patterns that are established. With juveniles, you have the ability to intervene. You have the potential to make a positive change in people’s lives. That’s not always the case in adult criminal cases.”
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