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Category: crime

Controversial British judge James Pickles dies at 85

James Pickles, an outspoken and controversial judge who didn't shy from insulting Britain's legal establishment, has died. He was 85.

Pickles, who had been ill for some time, died Saturday at his home in Halifax, northern England, his family said Wednesday.

Pickles, who was appointed a circuit judge in 1976, survived on the bench despite describing the lord chancellor, England's top law officer, of being a "brooding quixotic dictator" and calling another senior jurist a "dinosaur."

"I am the human face of the judiciary, unlike the majority who adopt a Trappist-like silence," said Pickles, who after retiring vented his opinions as a newspaper columnist and wrote a raunchy novel.

He once famously asked in court, "Who are the Beatles?"

In 1985, Pickles accused the lord chancellor, England's senior judge, of being a "brooding quixotic dictator" born with a golden spoon in his mouth. Pickles survived demands for his resignation, and the episode led to a relaxation of rules which had forbidden judges from making comments on public issues.

Pickles was embroiled in controversy in 1990 when he sentenced a young mother to prison with her child, saying he wanted to discourage women from becoming pregnant to avoid jail.

"I don't say you deliberately became pregnant to avoid prison. But I have to consider that others might," he said, sentencing the woman to six months in prison.

She was released by an appeals court after two weeks.

Pickles responded by calling a news conference in a pub, where he described the senior appeals judge, Lord Lane, as "a dinosaur living in the wrong age."

The woman, a supermarket checkout clerk, had allowed friends to go through without paying. Pickles did not sentence the friends to jail.

Pickles retired in 1991, and became a columnist for the Sun, Britain's biggest mass-market daily tabloid. He later moved to the Daily Sport, a paper featuring soft porn and fanciful headlines such as "Hitler Was a Woman," "Aliens Turned Our Son into a Fish Finger" and "Donkey Robs Bank."

While still a judge in 1987, Pickles authored "Straight From the Bench," a book in which he advocated legalized prostitution and described pornography as something "most men have some interest in."

"Judge for Yourself," published in 1992, was a further defense of his legal career. The following year he turned to sexy fiction in "Off the Record."

Pickles' wife, Sheila, died in 1995. He is survived by two sons and daughters Carolyn Pickles, a British-based actress, and Christina Pickles, based in the United States, who appeared as the mother of Ross and Monica Geller in "Friends."

-- Associated Press

John Du Pont, heir to chemical fortune, dies in prison at 72

Chemical-fortune heir John Du Pont, who killed an Olympic gold-medal-winning wrestler at his palatial estate in 1996, has died in a Pennsylvania prison. He was 72.

Du Pont was found unresponsive in his cell Thursday morning at Laurel Highlands state prison near Somerset, Pa., according to state prisons spokeswoman Susan McNaughton. He was pronounced dead a short time later at a local hospital.

Du Pont fancied himself a patron to wrestlers and built a world-class training facility at his estate in Newtown Square, outside Philadelphia.

In 1996, he shot and killed wrestler David Schultz and then barricaded himself in his home for two days. He was found guilty but mentally ill and was sentenced to 13 to 30 years in jail.

McNaughton says Du Pont recently had been ill, but she didn't elaborate.

-- Associated Press

One year ago: Alice McGrath

Alice McGrath played a key role in the defense of young Mexican Americans who were wrongly convicted in the 1942 Sleepy Lagoon trial.

McGrath initially wrote summaries of the trial for attorney George Shibley, who was defending 22 Mexican Americans charged with killing a Mexican farmworker.

The defendants were called "zoot suit gangsters" by the press after the long coats and pegged pants that were popular among Mexican Americans.

McGrath became the executive director of the Sleepy Lagoon Defense Committee, which worked for an appeal after they were convicted, including 12 for murder.

Her story became part of "Zoot Suit," the play by Luis Valdez that became a movie in 1981. Valdez called her "one of the heroines of the 20th century."

The convictions were overturned in 1944.

McGrath died a year ago at age 92. Her news obituary appeared in The Times on Nov. 29, 2009.

--Keith Thursby

Photo: Alice McGrath. Credit: Los Angeles Times

Laurie Bembenek, former police officer and Playboy bunny convicted of murder, dies at 52

Laurie Laurie Bembenek, a former Milwaukee police officer and Playboy Club bunny who gained national notoriety after she was convicted of murder and then escaped from prison, has died. She was 52.

Bembenek died Saturday at a hospice care center in Portland, Ore., said her attorney, Mary Woehrer. The cause of death was liver failure, she said.

Bembenek was convicted in 1982 of fatally shooting her police detective husband's ex-wife and sentenced to life in prison. She escaped in 1990 and fled to Canada.

Supporters cheered her flight, selling "Run Bambi Run" T-shirts and bumper stickers.

Bembenek was captured but later released after pleading no contest to second-degree murder. Her story was made into a TV movie starring Tatum O'Neal.

-- Associated Press

Photo: Laurie Bembenek in 1992. Credit: Associated Press

[For the record, 2:18 p.m.: An earlier version of this post incorrectly referred to Bembenek as a Playboy Club model.]

Argentine coup leader Emilio Eduardo Massera dies at 85

Massera Argentine coup leader Emilio Eduardo Massera died Monday after suffering for years from a heart condition and dementia that left him too ill to be tried for crimes against humanity. He was 85.

Massera, a former admiral and member of the military junta that toppled President Isabel Peron in 1976, died at the Navy Hospital, a receptionist confirmed. Massera died of a heart attack, according to local television channels. Since suffering a stroke in 2002, he was considered too ill and senile to be prosecuted for stealing the babies of jailed dissidents and other crimes against humanity committed during Argentina's 1976-1983 dictatorship.

Massera, junta President Jorge Videla and other coup leaders took power at a time when Argentina was marked by leftist guerrilla violence and counterattacks by military forces and death squads. Many considered Massera to be the brains behind the junta's "Dirty War" campaign against political opponents, which resulted in nearly 13,000 deaths and disappearances according to official records. Human rights groups put the toll closer to 30,000.

Following Argentina's return to democracy, Massera was condemned in 1985 to life in prison for three killings, the torture of 12 people and the illegal confinement of 69 others, but President Carlos Menem granted him and other coup leaders amnesty in what he called a gesture of reconciliation.

In 2002, the amnesties that kept Massera and Videla from facing new trials were overturned, but Massera's stroke spared him from the multiple trials Videla and other surviving dictatorship figures now face.

-- Associated Press

Photo: Emilio Massera in 1975. Credit: Associated Press

Burton B. Roberts, model for judge in 'Bonfire of the Vanities,' dies at 88

Burton B. Roberts, the outspoken judge who was the model for the cranky jurist in "The Bonfire of the Vanities," has died in New York City. He was 88.

The Hebrew Home for the Aged in the Bronx said Monday that Roberts, a resident there, died Sunday.

Roberts spent a half-century in public service law as a prosecutor, judge and chief administrative judge in the Bronx.

Roberts was the model for Myron Kovitsky, a rare hero in Tom Wolfe's acclaimed novel "The Bonfire of the Vanities." Both the real and the fictional judges were famous for their tempers and rants from the bench.

But Roberts was also greatly admired for his compassion, his sense of justice and his legal acumen.

"He's one of the great figures in New York," Wolfe has said of Roberts, to whom "Bonfire" is dedicated. "Probably the greatest single figure I've run into."

Roberts' career began as a Manhattan prosecutor in 1949. He became Bronx district attorney in 1968 and a Bronx judge in 1973. He became the county's administrative judge in 1984. The position largely involved staffing, scheduling and assigning cases, but Roberts also occasionally presided over contentious trials and hearings.

One of the most notorious was the 1991 trial of Julio Gonzalez, who killed 87 people by setting fire to an illegal social club called Happy Land. With the courtroom packed full of sobbing, angry relatives — many of them Honduran immigrants — and reporters fighting over scarce seats, Roberts made a daily practice — at top volume — of lecturing lawyers, cutting off rambling witnesses and chewing out journalists for rustling their papers.

It was like a scene right out of "Bonfire."

"That case had to be run in a fashion so that both sides would receive a fair trial," Roberts said. "No histrionics. No emotion run amok. I know how to control the condition of a courtroom. I can be tough when it's important to be tough."

He left the court in 1998 at the mandatory retirement age of 76.

But retirement for the indefatigable Roberts lasted only about as long as other people's vacations. Three weeks after walking out of the courthouse, he walked into a new job in Manhattan at the heavyweight, politically connected law firm of Fischbein Badillo Wagner Harding.

It was the first time he had ever worked in the private sector. Yet within a year, he had turned his legal smarts into an incredible legal coup: He masterminded a successful effort to move from the Bronx to Albany the trial of four police officers charged in the notorious killing of Amadou Diallo, an unarmed African immigrant.

Roberts, working for the defense, argued that pretrial publicity made it impossible for the cops to get a fair trial in the very courthouse where he himself had worked for decades.

An appeals court agreed and took the exceedingly rare step of granting the change of venue from a mostly minority county to a mostly white county.

"If ever a case warranted this extreme remedy, this is it," Roberts said.

The officers eventually were acquitted.

Roberts held degrees from Cornell University School of Law and New York University School of Law. He served in the Army in Europe for two years during World War II.

He is survived by his wife, Gerhild. The couple had no children.

-- Associated Press


James F. Neal, who prosecuted Jimmy Hoffa and defended Exxon, dies at 81

Neal James F. Neal, who successfully prosecuted Jimmy Hoffa and key Watergate figures and later defended such prominent clients as Exxon Corp. after the Exxon Valdez oil spill, has died. He was 81.

Neal died Thursday night at a Nashville hospital after battling cancer for several months, said his law partner, Aubrey Harwell.

In 1964, Neal successfully prosecuted Teamsters President Jimmy Hoffa on jury-tampering charges in Chattanooga, Tenn.

Neal was the special Watergate prosecutor who in 1974 won the convictions of onetime Richard Nixon aides H.R. Haldeman, John Ehrlichman and Atty. Gen. John Mitchell.

He was working as a special assistant to then-U.S. Atty. Gen. Robert Kennedy when he secured the government's first conviction against Hoffa -- sending him to prison. Four previous government efforts to convict Hoffa had failed.

In private practice, Neal successfully defended Ford Motor Co. against reckless-homicide charges in Indiana after the gas tank of a 1973 Ford Pinto exploded, killing the car's driver.

A year later, in 1981, he also successfully defended Dr. George Nichopoulos of Memphis, Tenn., against charges that he over-prescribed drugs to Elvis Presley.

After actor Vic Morrow and two others died in 1982 during the filming of the movie "The Twilight Zone," Neal successfully defended director John Landis against charges of voluntary manslaughter in 1987.

He was hired in 1990 to represent Exxon Corp., which was charged with polluting the Alaska shoreline with the Exxon Valdez oil tanker spill.

Neal, who grew up on a farm in Tennessee, was a graduate of the University of Wyoming and Vanderbilt University School of Law in Nashville. He received a law degree from Georgetown University in Washington.

He was U.S. attorney for middle Tennessee from 1964 to 1966. Neal then entered private practice and in 1973 was called to Washington to become chief trial lawyer for the Watergate special prosecutor's office.

In 1982, he was chief counsel to a special Senate committee that investigated the federal government's Abscam bribery allegations.

Neal was very animated, slapping people on the back and calling them "pal." But in the courtroom, he fixed a steely gaze. Though intensely competitive, he expressed a liking for many he met in court.

He said in a 1981 Associated Press interview, "Jurors are people. I like people. All kinds of people."

-- Associated Press

Photo: James F. Neal. Credit: Associated Press

One year ago: Susan Atkins

Susan-atkins Susan Atkins, a follower of the infamous Charles Manson, was involved in one of history's most shocking crimes and was California's longest-serving female inmate. She died one year ago after serving 38 years of a life sentence she began in 1971.

Atkins was convicted of slaying eight people, seven of whom were killed on a two-night rampage in the Hollywood Hills by Atkins and her fellow Manson followers in 1969. The other victim was murdered by Atkins in a dispute over money shortly before the other killings.

Among the victims were actress Sharon Tate -- the pregnant wife of director Roman Polanski -- who was stabbed 16 times and hanged (the nearly full-term fetus died with her), Hollywood hairstylist Jay Sebring and coffee heiress Abigail Folger.

"She was the scariest of the Manson girls," said Stephen Kay, a former Los Angeles County deputy district attorney who helped prosecute the case and argued against Atkins' release at her parole hearings. "She was very violent."

In June 2008, while she was suffering from brain cancer, Atkins appealed to prison and parole officials for compassionate release, but the state parole board denied the request. A year later, on Sept. 2, she was wheeled into another parole hearing on a hospital gurney, but was turned down for the final time.

For more on her life, killings and how she got caught up with Manson, read Susan Atkins' obituary by The Times. Also, see a photo gallery of her life in the public eye after the murders.

--Michael Farr

Photo: Susan Atkins in 1969. Credit: Associated Press

One year ago: Christian Poveda

Filmmaker and photojournalist Christian Poveda spent years in El Salvador chronicling the lives of the brutal street gangs, which arose from the ashes of the country's civil war. He ultimately paid for the work with his life, dying one year ago, after being ambushed and shot to death on his way home from work.

Poveda, who came to El Salvador in the 1980s as a photographer covering the civil war, had spent 16 months with members of Mara 18, establishing a relationship, gaining their trust and filming a documentary, which won cinematographic awards internationally. His death came a day after he spoke to The Times about his film.

"My proposal was at least one year of filming, and I explained my plan to them, which essentially was to show the human aspect of the gangs, to show who they are, these youngsters. And that really interested them," Poveda said. "And I was present for everything that might happen, the good things and the bad, and that established a relationship of trust."

That trust was betrayed, however, when new, less politically minded leadership took over the gangs. Shortly before his death, he expressed worry about the gang's growing violence and savagery.

Police said they believed Poveda was killed by Mara 18 gangsters who were part of the new generation he had alluded to, young thugs who either did not know him or, if they did, resented his work.

Read more about Christian Poveda's life and work in The Times.

-- Michael Farr

One year ago: Dominick Dunne

Dominck-dunn Dominick Dunne seemed to have everyone whispering in his ear. The author and Vanity Fair writer, who died one year ago, made a career out of exposing the scandals of the Hollywood elite and zealously crusading against celebrity criminals.

Dunne was called the "Boswell of the bluebloods" and the "Jacqueline Susann of journalism," and he was described by the Cambridge History of Law in America as "one of the nation's premier popular chroniclers of notorious criminal trials and lawsuits involving celebrities."

Former Vanity Fair Editor Tina Brown said he was "the only person writing about high society from inside the aquarium."

Dunne fluidly mixed fact and rumor in his exposés, which were well-laden with anonymous sources. His technique earned him the disdain of many. Robert F. Kennedy Jr., after the murder conviction of his cousin Michael Skakel, said Dunne -- who fought for the conviction -- was "not a journalist. He's a gossip columnist."

Dunne was a television and film producer for two decades until drugs and alcohol ruined him. He had started life over as a writer when his daughter, Dominique, was killed in 1982. The slaying energized his foray into crime and court coverage, which was epitomized by the vigilance with which he advocated for O.J. Simpson's conviction in the murder of Simpson's wife, Nicole, and her friend, Ron Goldman.

Although conviction in the criminal case never came to be, Dunne, while ill, covered Simpson's 2008 armed robbery trial in Las Vegas, which resulted in a pronouncement of guilt -- a verdict that had Dunne awaited for more than a decade.

For more, read Dominick Dunne's obituary by The Times' Elaine Woo.

-- Michael Farr

Photo: Dominick Dunne. Credit: Associated Press

Marilyn Buck, leftist jailed after violent armored car heist of 1981, dies at 62

Marilyn Buck, a violent leftist jailed 25 years for her role in some of the most notorious radical acts of the early 1980s, died Tuesday in Brooklyn. She was 62.

Buck had been paroled July 15 from a federal prison in Fort Worth.

In 1981, Buck was part of group of militants who ambushed a Brink's armored car at a mall north of New York City. A guard and two police officers were killed during the heist.

Buck spent years underground before her capture in 1985.

During that time, she was involved in a bombing campaign that targeted the U.S. Capitol and other government buildings in New York and Washington.

Her death was confirmed Friday by federal probation and parole agencies.

Friends and supporters said the cause was uterine cancer.

-- Associated Press

Memories of bodyguards and Al Capone

Trevor Jensen of the Chicago Tribune writes about the life of George E.Q. Johnson Jr., whose father was the lead federal prosecutor in Chicago in the 1931 conviction of Al Capone.

Johnson's wife, Mary Ann, recalled of her husband's youth: "He'd had a bodyguard throughout the entire time. Even going out on dates, he had a bodyguard."

You can find the story here.

-- Keith Thursby

Photo: Al Capone at a football game in Chicago in 1931. Credit: Associated Press


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