James Nelson, a longtime Los Angeles Municipal Court judge whose career included high-profile preliminary hearings involving Richard Ramirez, the serial killer known as the Night Stalker, and Cathy Evelyn Smith, who was charged in the death of comic John Belushi, has died. He was 83.
Nelson died Feb. 26 in his sleep after a family gathering at his home in Pasadena, said his wife, Dorothy, a senior judge on the U.S. 9th Circuit Court of Appeals. He had a stroke and underwent bypass surgery a couple years ago.
In 1985, Nelson ruled that Smith must stand trial on a second-degree murder charge in the 1982 drug overdose death of Belushi, the former “Saturday Night Live” star. Smith pleaded no contest to involuntary manslaughter and other charges. She was paroled from state prison in 1988.
In 1986, Nelson ruled that Ramirez must stand trial on 14 murder counts and several other charges. Ramirez was found guilty in 1989 of 13 murders and is on death row at San Quentin State Prison.
James Frank Nelson was born May 19, 1927, in Los Angeles. He joined the Navy in 1945 before his graduation from Hamilton High School. He came back in uniform for his graduation, Dorothy Nelson said, then the Navy sent him to Stanford University as part of officer training.
Nelson transferred to UCLA in 1946 to attend school with his future wife. They met while working at a YMCA camp in Culver City. He served in the Navy Reserve after graduating from UCLA with a bachelor’s degree in 1950.
Nelson received his law degree from Loyola University in 1953. Dorothy Nelson said her husband attended Loyola because classes were held in the mornings and he could work at a law firm in the afternoon while she attended UCLA law school. They married in 1950.
Nelson was a Los Angeles County deputy district attorney from 1954 to 1957. He was appointed to the Municipal Court by Gov. Ronald Reagan in 1968. Nelson retired in 1989 but worked as a Superior Court judge until 1993.
The Nelsons also were longtime national officers of the Bahai faith, which stresses social equality and universal brotherhood. James Nelson served nearly two decades as chairman of the National Spiritual Assembly of the Bahais of the United States.
In addition to his wife, Nelson is survived by their daughter, Lorna, of Pasadena; son, Frank, of Arcadia; and one grandchild.
A memorial service will be held at 2 p.m. March 26 at the Pasadena Convention Center’s ballroom.