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Nancy Watson, 77; Judge Presided Over Trial of Alphabet Bomber

Times Staff Writer

Nancy Belcher Watson, the pioneering woman Los Angeles County Superior Court judge who presided over the long-delayed murder trial of Alphabet Bomber Muharem Kurbegovic and sentenced him to a maximum life term, has died. She was 77.

Watson, the widow of former Los Angeles County Assessor Philip E. Watson, died Monday of cancer at her home in Rancho Mirage, according to her daughter, Marcia Goodman.

The judge’s unflappable management of the well-publicized 1980 trial illustrated the evenhanded, knowledgeable handling of cases that earned her respect during her 16 years on the bench.

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In her courtroom, Kurbegovic was convicted of placing a bomb at Los Angeles International Airport in 1974 that killed three people and injured 36. He was also convicted of trying to bomb the downtown Greyhound bus terminal and firebombing several local officials’ homes.

His eight-month trial was delayed for many years because he was initially deemed mentally incompetent. But even after he was found to be competent for trial, Kurbegovic, who represented himself in the proceedings, worked to put the courtroom in turmoil. By trial’s end, Deputy Dist. Atty. Dinko Bozanovich had described the volatile Kurbegovic as “the most dangerous man in custody in California today.”

Watson gave the maximum possible sentence: life with the possibility of parole. But she said she intended for him to spend the rest of his life in prison, and parole was not deemed likely. (Kurbegovic is still behind bars, at Pelican Bay State Prison.)

Kurbegovic, who aimed vitriolic comments at Watson throughout the trial, was dubbed the Alphabet Bomber because he said in taped communiques that he intended to set off bombs at locations spelling out the name of the group he headed -- Aliens of America -- “until our name has been written across this nation with blood.” Investigators determined that he had acted alone and that so such group existed.

During the trial, Kurbegovic made outlandish motions for a new trial, claiming for example, “My illness has prevented me from spitting in Judge Nancy Watson’s face every time she so ordered me by her behavior-language to do so.”

But Watson, who termed the trial exhausting, earned the admiration of peers and public alike. In a 1982 article in the Daily Journal, a legal newspaper, lawyers said the trial had shown the judge as she was -- tough, efficient in moving a trial or a case calendar along, well prepared, knowledgeable about the law and very fair.

Watson was born to the law. Her father was noted L.A. trial attorney Frank Belcher, former president of the State Bar of California and the Los Angeles County Bar Assn.

Yet she came from an era, she once said, when “virtually none of the women intended to do anything except get married and have a family.” After graduating from Stanford in 1946, she did exactly that, entering UCLA Law School when she realized she needed money to put her children through college.

Watson earned her law degree in 1959 and joined her father’s firm, Belcher, Henzie & Biegenzahn, concentrating on defending personal injury and other civil cases. Women were still so rare among lawyers that when the Southern California Assn. of Defense Counsel was formed, she was the only woman among several hundred men.

In 1968, Gov. Ronald Reagan appointed her to the Los Angeles Municipal Court, where she handled traffic court, the arraignment calendar and preliminary hearings on felony cases.

Four years later, when Watson observed that Reagan wasn’t elevating women to the higher trial court, she ran against six other candidates for the open Los Angeles County Superior Court seat vacated by retiring Judge Robert H. Patton. At a time when the seldom-noticed judicial offices were becoming more competitive, she bested the 1972 primary field with 38% of the vote to force the only general election judicial runoff. Her opponent was fellow Municipal Judge James P. Nelson.

Watson, coached by her politically savvy husband, edged out Nelson with a mere 50.85% of the vote -- becoming one of only five women among the state’s 471 Superior Court judges. Assigned to handle divorces just as California was enacting no-fault divorce, she became Los Angeles County’s first woman supervising judge of the Family Law Master Calendar Court.

Watson retired from the bench in 1984, two years before her husband died.

She is survived by four children from her first marriage, which ended in divorce: Marcia, of Long Beach, Brian Goodman of Phoenix, Harvey Goodman of Limon, Colo., and Diane Watson of Rancho Mirage; six grandchildren; and 10 great-grandchildren.

Services will be Saturday at 10 a.m. at St. Margaret’s Episcopal Church, 47-535 Highway 74, Palm Desert.

The family has asked that memorial donations be made to the John Wayne Cancer Institute, 2200 Santa Monica Blvd., Santa Monica, CA 90404; or to the Lucy Curci Cancer Center, 39000 Bob Hope Drive, Rancho Mirage, CA 92270.


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