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No Unanimous Verdict on Judge in Ventura County's Tuffree Trial

Profile: Some say Allan L. Steele is too quick to back prosecutors. Others praise his compassion, intellect and instinct.

September 08, 1996|MACK REED | TIMES STAFF WRITER

The murder trial of social studies teacher Daniel Allan Tuffree is no ordinary case, nor is the bearded jurist presiding over it an average Ventura County judge.

For Tuffree is the first defendant in 25 years to stand trial in Ventura County for killing a police officer.

And Superior Court Judge Allan L. Steele--unlike the majority of Ventura County's judges--has never served as a prosecutor nor even practiced criminal law as a lawyer.

In fact, Steele--a former divorce lawyer who worked his way through law school as a ballroom dance instructor and Borscht Belt joke writer and comedian--has served barely five years on Ventura County's criminal bench.

Seasoned defense attorneys slam the genial Democrat and Ventura resident as being too fond of backing the prosecution on objections and arguments over trial evidence.

But Steele, 67, also has won the respect and admiration of prosecutors, fellow judges and former family law colleagues, who praise his compassion, intellect and instincts about those he judges.

"I think he generally has compassion for people, and he has good insight and a lot of empathy," said Superior Court Judge Lawrence Storch, who has served on Ventura County's criminal and civil benches.

"If he can see a glimmer of hope for somebody in terms of future promise, I think that he'll pick up on it and act accordingly--he might give them a break," Storch said.

Steele refuses to discuss the heaviest case on his calendar these days--the trial of Tuffree for the August 1995 slaying of Simi Valley Policeman Michael Clark.

But it is clear he relishes the job--if not the stress--of judging.

"I think the purpose of any judge is not to be a rubber-stamp for everybody, but to look at each individual case and deal with individuals as individuals," he said. "I sleep well knowing some people are in state prison, and some of them I agonize over."

Steele was appointed on New Year's Eve 1982, the last day of Gov. Jerry Brown's last term. His resume and case history outline a life seasoned by his New York roots and steeped in the law.

*

Born in 1929, Steele grew up in Brooklyn.

He worked as a comedy writer and comic in the Catskills during summers while studying at Brooklyn College and Brooklyn Law School. And during the school year, he taught Arthur Murray instructors how to dance and performed dance exhibitions at El Morocco nightclub in New York City.

After passing the New York state bar, Steele went to work for plaintiffs' personal injury lawyers in 1952--only to resign and move to California five years later after a string of jobs with small firms kept him trapped in pretrial work.

He was admitted to the California bar in 1958, and immediately went to work on trials. But after a tort-law partnership formed in 1963 with three other Ventura County lawyers fell apart in 1971, Steele began to grow weary of personal injury cases.

Civil law was frustrating. Plaintiffs often played amateur attorney, he said, and they ignored his learned professional advice by refusing to settle for less than an amount so high that a Ventura County jury would never grant the award.

So in 1973, Steele switched to handling divorces and family law--a job he found more satisfying.

Steele--who saw his own 20-year marriage to his first wife fall apart in what he once termed "a very ugly divorce"--has said about practicing family law: "There is nothing these people can go through that I haven't experienced."

"When you're doing family law, you're dealing with people who are truly, temporarily, nuts," Steele said recently. "They'll get better, but for the time being, they're crazy. You can't just say, 'Let him have the lamp,' because the way they're acting is not rational, it's pretty emotional from their point of view."

After his divorce, Steele remarried 13 years ago. His wife, Berta Steele, is an independent fund-raising consultant who is working by contract with the Ventura County Community Foundation.

She ran an unsuccessful campaign for the Ventura City Council in 1989, finishing eighth in a field of nine candidates vying for three seats. Berta Steele has one adult child by her first marriage, while her husband has three adult children by his first marriage.

After nearly a dozen years at family law, Steele won an appointment to the Superior Court bench from departing Gov. Brown.

Ventura County Court Commissioner John Pattie--a former family lawyer who now presides over family cases--watched Steele settle in and shine at what many lawyers acknowledge can be truly painful work.

Steele quotes an old adage, which states that in criminal law you see bad people at their best, and in civil law you see good people at their worst.

"I think Allan's always had a desire to be helpful to people," Pattie said. "And I think he found the law a way to do that and not just earn a living.

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