Samuel Mayerson, Patty Hearst prosecutor who spared her a prison sentence, dies at 96

Samuel Mayerson
Deputy Dist. Atty. Samuel Mayerson talks to reporters in 1975 after the Los Angeles County grand jury returned an 11-count indictment against Patty Hearst and two members of the Symbionese Liberation Army.
(George Brich / Associated Press)

Samuel Mayerson, the L.A. prosecutor who helped win a conviction against newspaper heiress Patty Hearst and then in a stunning display of compassion urged the court to spare her more time behind bars for her crimes, has died at his home in Rancho Palos Verdes.

Later in private practice, Mayerson was at the center of the fantastical Howard Hughes fake will trial, a case so astonishing that the story practically wrote itself as a Hollywood movie script.

For the record:

10:19 a.m. Oct. 10, 2019An earlier version of this article incorrectly said that Mayerson was appointed to the bench by Gov. Pat Brown. He was appointed by Gov. Jerry Brown.

Active as a judge until late in life, Mayerson died Sept. 30 of natural causes, his son, Matthew, said. He was 96.

It was a turbulent time in California when the 19-year-old heiress was kidnapped from her Berkeley apartment in early 1974. A group of self-styled revolutionaries calling themselves the Symbionese Liberation Army claimed responsibility for kidnapping Hearst, whom they viewed as an entitled elitist from a family dripping with money.

For months, Hearst’s whereabouts remained a mystery as her family shelled out millions to her captors in hopes of winning her release.

Finally, in the spring of 1974, the narrative flipped. Now going by the name Tania and sporting a black beret and a vacant gaze, Hearst burst into a San Francisco bank with her captors, waving a sawed-off M1 carbine as she strode menacingly across the floor. Hearst, it seemed, was now an urban terrorist.


Hearst was arrested in the fall of 1975, months after many members of the SLA died in a gun battle with the Los Angeles Police Department, a shootout so furious that the house on East 54th Street where the SLA was staked out burned to the ground.

The Los Angeles half of the Hearst case landed on Mayerson’s desk.

Already convicted of the San Francisco bank robbery and sentenced to seven years in prison, Hearst faced 11 felonies in Los Angeles, including shooting up the streets of Inglewood following a bungled shoplifting attempt at what then was Mel’s Sporting Goods.

Hearst was a complex adversary for Mayerson, a veteran L.A. County deputy district attorney who had seen his share of criminals in the courtroom.

Though charged with a healthy cross-section of crimes, she claimed she had been raped and abused by her captors and joined them on their crime rampage only out of fear of the reprisals they would take out on her or her family. Others saw Hearst as a privileged college student who found adventure or perhaps purpose in the SLA mayhem and then turned to her wealthy parents when she was in deep trouble.

Mayerson exercised empathy in reviewing the case, and — knowing she already faced years in prison — recommended the court give her probation.

“The only thing Miss Hearst’s wealth got her was kidnapped,” Mayerson later told The Times.

Mayerson won much harsher sentences for SLA members Emily and William Harris, who served years in prison for the Los Angeles crimes and the original kidnapping.


As soon as the trials ended, Mayerson retired as a prosecutor and then shoved off to Las Vegas to help represent the Hughes estate’s interest in what seemed a far-fetched claim. At issue was the eccentric billionaire’s will.

A magnesium plant worker named Melvin Dummar claimed in court that he was driving through the Nevada desert in 1967 when he spotted a thin, graying man on the ground, bleeding. Dummar said he helped the man into his Chevy pickup and then dropped him off at the Sands Hotel, as his passenger requested.

Worried the man was broke and likely hungry, Dummar said he rummaged in his pocket and handed him what change he had.

The man, Dummar said he later learned, was Hughes , who was so grateful for his kindness and charity that he left him more than $150 million in his will.

The handwritten will, which Dummar said was delivered to him by one of Hughes’ agents, was ultimately deemed to be a fake and Dummar walked away empty-handed — though hardly forgotten once the film “Melvin and Howard” was released in 1980.

Patty Hearst, shown in handcuffs, is escorted by two women near the inmate entrance of the criminal court building in Los Angeles, on May 28, 1976.
(John Malmin / Los Angeles Times Archive / UCLA)

Mayerson was born Oct. 6, 1922, in Corpus Christi, Texas. His parents had moved from the Bronx and were among the few Jewish families in town. His father was a merchant and later ran a mattress store. Mayerson dreamed of becoming a pilot.

After two years at a community college, Mayerson enlisted after the U.S. entered World War II. Deployed to North Africa, he flew sorties over Tunisia to cover ground troops and later was part of a combat squadron that flew missions over Sardinia and Sicily. He was a flight instructor on the West Coast until the war ended.

After moving to Los Angeles, he graduated from UCLA and earned his law degree from USC, joining the district attorney’s office shortly after passing his bar exam. He was appointed to the bench by Gov. Jerry Brown in 1981 and — after a brief retirement — went back to work as a magistrate in California’s Assigned Judges Program, a position he held until he was 92.

Mayerson gave few interviews and tended not to revel in the attention showered on the criminal cases he oversaw. He was described as “Lincolnesque” by one colleague and simply as “a total gentleman” by another.

Linda Deutsch, a former Associated Press reporter who covered the Hearst trial, recalled that Mayerson was a friend to the press, though he often avoided interviews. “He was very devoted to the law, he did a lot of research on all his cases,” she said.

In addition to his son, Mayerson is survived by a daughter, Julie Mayerson Brown; and four grandchildren, Mickey, Madeline, Samuel and Anna. His wife of more than 60 years, Ruth, died in 2016.