As a dour deputy coroner tersely described the fatal stab-and-slash wounds inflicted on a 32-year-old schoolteacher, spectators at the preliminary hearing of accused Night Stalker Richard Ramirez leaned forward last week to absorb the grisly details.
Los Angeles Municipal Judge James F. Nelson, however, peering in another direction, was tapping on an electronic keyboard on the bench before him. It wasn't that Nelson was ignoring the gruesome testimony. Rather, he was entering notes about the most primitive behavior of man into one of mankind's more sophisticated pieces of machinery--a portable computer.
Nelson, who has been assigned to two extremely high-profile preliminary hearings in the last year--those of Cathy Evelyn Smith, charged with second-degree murder in the drug overdose death of comic John Belushi, and now Ramirez--is a pioneer in the use of computers on the bench.
"I started (using) this in 1980, and I've been hacking at it ever since," the heavy-jowled Pasadena resident explained. "I write down exhibits . . . and every once in a while, I'll write a statement or comment.
"I find it greatly helpful to be able to organize thoughts in some way."
Nelson, 58, is virtually the only Los Angeles jurist to employ such technology. "In a long case, I can't imagine how I ever did without it."
Nelson, appointed to the Municipal Court by then-Gov. Ronald Reagan in 1968, is an out-of-the-ordinary judge in several respects:
- He is half of a two-judge couple, married for more than 30 years to Dorothy Wright Nelson, one-time dean of the USC Law Center who is currently a judge on the U.S. 9th Circuit Court of Appeals.
- Along with his wife, the couple are longtime national officers of the Baha'i faith. Nelson serves as chairman of the National Spiritual Assembly of the small sect, which stresses universal brotherhood.
- He is a co-founder (also along with his wife) and president of the board of directors of the Pasadena-based Community Dispute Resolution Center, an organization designed to ease the burden on the court system. "We've got too many things in the courts," Nelson said in a recent interview. "We've (judges) got things that we ought not to be doing. . . ."
The center, he explained, employs lay volunteers to settle, out of court, such nagging problems as neighborhood disputes, school truancy and labor-management tiffs.
"The strict rules of evidence, the artificiality of the judicial process, aren't used here. It's just people talking with people in the presence of somebody who is a trained mediator," Nelson said. "The beauty about this method of settlement is that people who have come together and have been able to talk out their differences . . . are much less likely to be at each other's throats again."
Called Innovative, Disciplined
Nelson, who will eventually decide whether Ramirez must stand trial on charges of 14 murders and 54 other felonies, is described by his colleagues as an innovative, disciplined jurist who works hard at his job and also at getting along with others.
Deputy Dist. Atty. Michael Montagna, a former prosecutor in the Smith case, calls Nelson "a genuinely nice person" and "an excellent judge, top-flight . . . the best Municipal judge I know of."
But while Nelson appears to be generally well-respected, some question the depth of his legal acumen.
For example, in the Smith hearing last year, defense attorneys questioned the consistency of his rulings. "Although I believe he did what he thought was appropriate," defense counsel Howard L. Weitzman said, "I think he was wrong."
While Smith awaits trial, Weitzman is appealing a ruling by Nelson that allowed limited, but damaging, portions of taped interviews of Smith by National Enquirer reporters to be used as evidence. The evidence was admissible, Nelson ruled, even though he acknowledged believing the bulk of the tapes was "unreliable."
Some lawyers, moreover, maintain that if Nelson were an above-average legal scholar, he would surely have been elevated to a higher court by now.
'Speaks for Itself'
"He's a competent Municipal Court jurist, and he has been for a long time, which speaks for itself," declared one lawyer who recently appeared before Nelson.
A Westside native and a 1953 graduate of Loyola University School of Law, Nelson said he does not lie awake at night worrying about a promotion.
"It's not something about which I care deeply," he said. "Dorothy and I are committed and involved in any number of activities, all of which are satisfying, including this one. I mean this is not the world's worst job. It certainly gives you more contact with people (than upper-level courts)."
In 1972, Nelson ran for a Superior Court judgeship, but his campaign had a severe, self-imposed impediment. Nelson refused to accept any contributions because, as he put it, "taking money from people encourages them to think they are entitled to favors or at least it gives that impression to other people."