Raymond Choate, 85; Presided Over One of Manson’s Murder Trials

By Myrna Oliver Times Staff Writer

Raymond Choate, former Los Angeles County Superior Court judge who presided over one of Charles Manson’s murder trials and campaigned to renovate and expand the Santa Monica courthouse, has died. He was 85.

Choate died Friday at his home in Manhattan Beach of complications after a stroke, said his son, Orange County Superior Court Judge Dennis Choate.

For the record:
12:00 AM, Feb. 03, 2005 For The Record
Los Angeles Times Thursday February 03, 2005 Home Edition Main News Part A Page 2 National Desk 3 inches; 117 words Type of Material: Correction
Choate obituary -- The obituary of Judge Raymond Choate in Wednesday’s California section said that the body of Donald “Shorty” Shea, who was murdered by Charles Manson follower Bruce Davis (over whose trial Choate presided), was never found and that Shea was decapitated. In the early 1980s, another of the Manson family defendants, Steve Grogan, led sheriff’s homicide investigators to the body, which had not been decapitated. The obituary also said the late Los Angeles Times reporter Bill Farr, who refused to reveal the source of a leak in a grand jury case before Choate, was jailed for two months by another judge for the same refusal. Farr was incarcerated for 46 days by the other judge.

In 1971, after Manson and some of his followers had been convicted of the murders of actress Sharon Tate and others, Choate presided over Manson’s trial along with follower Bruce Davis for the murder of musician Gary Hinman and ranch hand Donald “Shorty” Shea.

Manson became so obstreperous that Choate, who was assigned bodyguards throughout the trial, put him in an adjacent lockup area during most of the proceedings. Brought into court at the end of testimony so that Choate could ask whether he wanted to testify in his own defense, Manson lashed out at the judge: “You are the defendant, and it all falls on you.”


Manson, who was subsequently convicted and is now serving a life sentence in San Quentin, told Choate he would rather “cut my head off” than testify. Shea was decapitated and his body never found.

The trial was one of the most colorful in Choate’s long career. He was named to the South Bay Municipal Court in late 1965 by a fellow Democrat, Gov. Pat Brown, and 28 months later was elevated to the Los Angeles County Superior Court by Gov. Ronald Reagan.

During his criminal court tenure, he intervened in a grand jury case in which testimony was leaked and Los Angeles Times reporter Bill Farr was jailed for two months for refusing to reveal his source for the leak. Choate, like the judge before him, was unable to persuade Farr to talk, and jailed him for a weekend.

After several years in the criminal court arena in downtown Los Angeles, including managing trial assignments as supervising judge, Choate moved to the Santa Monica branch, where he also became supervising judge and excelled in trying civil cases and negotiating pretrial settlements.


He campaigned until his retirement in 1987 for county expansion and renovation of the overburdened Santa Monica courthouse, rallying Westside lawyers organizations, mayors and city councils to the cause. In 1981, the county provided three trailers as extra space.

An expert on the death penalty, Choate taught at the California Judges College and with Los Angeles County Superior Court Judge William Keene co-founded the International Academy of Trial Judges.

After retiring, Choate helped open the Los Angeles operations of JAMS, a dispute resolution agency.

Born in Brooklyn as the only child of blue-collar parents, Choate moved to Los Angeles as a toddler. He attended UCLA, served in the Army during World War II and later completed law school at USC.

He served as a deputy public defender in San Pedro for eight years and was in private practice in the Wilmington area, handling probate, domestic relations, personal injury and criminal matters.

Choate is survived by his wife, Jeanette; four children, Dennis, Paula, Clare and David; five grandchildren; and one great-granddaughter.

Services are scheduled for 2 p.m. Saturday at Manhattan Beach Community Church, 303 S. Peck Ave., Manhattan Beach.