Several loud knocks on the door woke Judge Harry Pregerson in the middle of the night. A lawyer was there, asking him to put a 24-hour hold on an execution.
Pregerson called San Quentin Prison, where Robert Alton Harris was already strapped in the gas chamber.
“I said, ‘This is Judge Pregerson, and I am granting a stay,’” the U.S. 9th Circuit Court of Appeals judge said. “Then I heard someone at the other end mentioning my name, and I heard some profanity.”
Only in the morning did Pregerson learn that he was the fourth 9th Circuit judge that night to try to stop the 1992 execution. Each attempt before his had been overturned by the U.S. Supreme Court. The high court also lifted Pregerson’s stay and ordered the 9th Circuit to issue no more. Harris was executed as planned.
Pregerson’s interference at the last hour infuriated conservatives and prosecutors, but Pregerson took it in stride. Conservatives had been hammering him since his confirmation hearing, where he said he would put his conscience before the law if necessary.
Now 92, Pregerson is ending active service on the court after 50 years of being a Los Angeles-based judge, a decision he said he made with “very mixed feelings.” His departure creates a new opening on the 9th Circuit, and on “senior status” he will still hear cases but no longer preside over hearings or sit on large panels that review other 9th Circuit cases.
“You know, at 92 you are not 82,” the judge said in an interview, explaining his decision. “You slow down a bit and need a little more rest.”
His wife, Bernardine, said old war wounds are finally hindering him. He now uses two ski poles when he walks.
Their son, Dean Pregerson, a federal district judge in Los Angeles, also has decided to take senior status. He will leave active bench service in January, when he turns 65.
“I thought it would be a good time for the old man to retire before the son retires,” the elder Pregerson said. “Anyway, I have so many things I am involved in.”
Pregerson has long been a civic force in Los Angeles. He has helped start five homeless shelters in Los Angeles and supported many others across the country. A former Marine severely wounded in World War II, Pregerson has worked with veterans and the Salvation Army to try to end homelessness for vets. A public square, a freeway interchange and a child care center in L.A. bear his name.
As a teenager, his daughter, Katie, nicknamed him “the rescue machine.” A lawyer in later years called him “a thug for the Lord,” relentless in his efforts to help others, from the janitor in the courthouse to the son of a friend of a friend experiencing trouble.
Pregerson himself said he viewed the bench as a way to help people.
“I can’t think of anything more important than to try to help as many people as you can,” said the Woodland Hills resident and Carter appointee. “That is a big motivator for me. Sometimes the law is not very compassionate — you know that.”
Pregerson’s willingness to follow his conscience often provoked criticism.
He was one of three 9th Circuit judges expected to follow a U.S. Supreme Court decision in 2003 upholding California’s tough three-strikes sentencing law. Judge Stephen Reinhardt, also a liberal Carter appointee, voted to dismiss inmates’ three-strikes appeals but wrote separately to say he was doing so only under “compulsion” from the Supreme Court.
Pregerson went further than Reinhardt. He dissented. He wrote that “in good conscience,” he could not go along with the harsh sentences.
“Harry does exactly what he thinks is right,” Reinhardt said. “Certain things he won’t vote for no matter what because he thinks they are not consistent with the Constitution.”
In immigration cases, Pregerson “won’t break up a family and deport one member,” Reinhardt said. “He just won’t do that. Everybody accepts it, saying, ‘Well, you know Harry.’”
Prosecutors often privately complain about Pregerson.
“Judge Pregerson has been a reliable and reliably wrong vote to overturn death sentences in nearly every capital case he has sat on,” said Kent Scheidegger, legal director of the pro-death penalty Criminal Justice Legal Foundation.
He called the judge’s departure from active status “good news for the victims of crime and the cause of justice.”
Pregerson began his career on the bench in 1965 as a Los Angeles Municipal Court judge. He was promoted to the Superior Court a year later and to the federal district court in 1967. He has been on the 9th Circuit for 36 years.
Two years ago this month, David Pregerson, 23, Dean’s son and Harry’s grandson, was killed in a hit-and-run while walking in Pacific Palisades. He was left in a bed of ivy, and many hours passed before someone discovered him. He later died in a hospital.
The Pregersons implored the driver to come forth and offered a $50,000 reward. It took police four months to make an arrest.
Dean Pregerson declined to say whether the loss influenced his decision to take senior status. “This time of the year is hard for us,” he said.
The elder Pregerson said: “You never get over these things. He was an incredible kid. He had this great understanding of life and of people, and he had an incredible imagination.
“I am going through my office and I see something he wrote down 10 years ago, and it is so moving and humorous. Or I will open up a drawer, and there is this picture of a little kid smiling at me.”
Pregerson said he has shared conversations with many people reeling from grief. A woman who lost two children in a car accident in which she was driving told him that she refused to ask, “Why me?” Instead she asked, “Why not me?”
“My father, who spent a lot of time in the trenches during the first World War, said life is like a battlefield,” Pregerson said. “You never know when you are going to get hit.”
Pregerson’s entire family has embraced his efforts to help the homeless. Bernardine, his wife of 68 years and a microbiology professor, their children, Dean Pregerson and Dr. Katie Rodan, and their families join him at Thanksgiving to serve meals to the homeless. His grandson, Bradley Pregerson, a deputy Los Angeles city attorney, spends weekends at one of the sites.
The 9th Circuit judge also has been a force for the homeless, overturning a Los Angeles ordinance that banned them from living in vehicles. He rejected any suggestion that his work with the homeless might have biased him.
“You know, maybe I look at the human side,” he said. “These are very sharing, very kind and very peaceful people who go out of their way to take care of each other. Some have problems with alcohol and drugs, you know, probably brought about to deaden their misery.”
He said he has no regrets about any of his decisions on the bench.
“You are only here for a short time, and you got to do the best you can and figure it is going to go on forever,” the judge said.