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Judge Lester Accepts Penn Case Challenge : Sense of Humor Has Carried Part Indian, a Product of Detroit's Ghetto, to the Top

January 25, 1987|JIM SCHACHTER | Times Staff Writer

San Diego County Superior Court Judge J. Morgan Lester is a man of many personas.

He is "Lester the Jester," the deadpan, self-mocking, David Brenner look-alike whose quick wit has stung many a lawyer.

He is "Golden Owl," the one-quarter Iroquois Indian who has woven his ambition and talent with his heritage and let the result carry him from the district attorney's office to the Vista Municipal Court and then to the Superior Court bench.

He is the child of the Detroit ghetto, the boy who was neither a "greaser" nor a "Princeton" but learned to survive between them on the streets.

And, according to co-workers and lawyers who know him best, Lester is a diligent, astute, politically attuned judge who surprised no one when he agreed to come to downtown San Diego to preside in the retrial of accused police killer Sagon Penn.

"I kid him all the time," said Judge David Moon Jr., Lester's tennis partner and colleague on the Vista Superior Court bench: "It's hard to be humble when you're so great."

Prosecutors and defense attorney Milton J. Silverman selected Lester, 48, from a list of three judges to preside in the second trial for Penn, the Southeast San Diego man who shot and killed one police officer and wounded another and a civilian in a March, 1985, confrontation that opened a wide fissure between law enforcement and the black community.

In a recent interview, Lester acknowledged that the case was bound to be among the most memorable in his career as a judge, which began when he ousted a liberal incumbent from the Vista Municipal Court in a 1978 election highlighted by his opponent's bad luck in getting caught--three times--tearing down Lester's campaign posters.

"I recognize, of course, the case is going to be a challenge," Lester said. "But on the other hand, I'm willing to do it."

Asked if he considered the assignment a plum or a punishment, the judge--whose dark, almost black eyes peer out above the high cheekbones of a thin, angular face--quoted a maharishi whose self-development tapes he sometimes listens to while driving on the freeway.

The attractiveness of the job, Lester said, depends on one's "vantage point." And from his perspective, the Penn case is attractive.

"It goes a long way toward one using whatever you've amassed over the years in ability and judicial acumen, to use it to your highest level--to use the Army cliche, to 'Be all that you can be,' " said Lester, who was elevated to the Superior Court by Gov. George Deukmejian in one of his first judicial appointments in 1983.

"I would not be the type to have said no," he said, "and if I'd said no, I don't think I would have been proud of myself."

Lester learned a lot of lessons about pride as a poor kid growing up in the 1940s and '50s in a ghetto neighborhood near Cooley High School in Detroit.

"Most of the people who went to the high school I went to either were hoodlums in gangs or they were college preparatory," he recalled--the greasers versus the Princetons. "I fit kind of in the middle. I had medium hair, I wasn't in a gang, but I didn't have the money to be Ivy League."

Gang activity in the area was so violent that Cooley High's night football games were postponed for awhile and basketball games were canceled altogether. Gang members once beat Lester up, though police had a high-visibility, heavy-handed presence in the neighborhood.

"They were in an era of a little more physical applications than we have today," Lester said. "The rules were a little different in the courts and on the street. If you knew what the rules were, you stayed out of trouble. If you didn't, you paid."

As an adult, Lester said, he has visited California's urban poverty pockets--areas such as West Oakland, the Fillmore district of San Francisco, Watts and Logan Heights--and he says they don't compare with the combat zone around Cooley High.

"I laugh at people in California who talk about ghettos," Lester said in an interview a few days before the opening of the Penn retrial--the case of a young black man who shot two white police officers in Southeast San Diego and claims one of the officers' racist comments instigated the attack.

"If those people think that's a ghetto, they need to go to Detroit or Chicago or Philadelphia or parts of New York," Lester said. "I haven't seen in California what those cities have to offer if we want to define ghetto ."

Lester said he cannot consider the Penn trial his biggest case as a judge. That distinction belongs to the case of William Marshall, a black ex-Marine convicted of murdering an Oceanside shopkeeper in 1979.

The trial, which Lester conducted as a municipal judge on special assignment to the Superior Court, involved the first major challenge to the Vista court's virtually all-white juries. At an appellate court's urging, Lester moved the trial to San Diego, where defense lawyers argued there was a better chance of seating blacks on the jury.

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