SAN DIEGO — Once he was a dominant and respected presence on the San Diego Superior Court--known for his hard work, confident manner and booming voice.
But on Thursday, former Superior Court Judge Michael Greer--now sick, disgraced and described in court papers as suicidal--stood before a federal judge and struggled to take responsibility for "this incredible disaster" that led him to plead guilty to taking bribes from a flamboyant trial attorney.
In the end, U.S. District Judge Edward Rafeedie sentenced Greer, 63, to three years probation, accepting a recommendation from federal prosecutors to spare him from a prison sentence.
Prosecutors agreed to make such a recommendation in exchange for Greer's testimony on fraud and racketeering charges against attorney Patrick Frega and former Superior Court Judges G. Dennis Adams and James Malkus.
On Wednesday, Rafeedie sentenced Frega and Adams to 41 months in prison and Malkus to 33 months. Rafeedie said he doubted that prosecutors could have convicted Frega, Adams and Malkus without Greer's testimony, which he described as "frank, honest and powerful."
At his sentencing Thursday, Greer said: "Early on I recognized Mr. Frega for what he was, but I did not have the courage to put an end to the problem before any further damage occurred. There has not been a day in the last several years that the horror I created is not on my mind and eating away at my insides."
In pleading guilty, Greer admitted helping Frega win cases by providing inside information, devising legal strategies and steering the cases to "friendly" judges.
Before his resignation in 1993 amid an investigation by the state Commission on Judicial Performance, Greer was one of the preeminent judges on the local bench and one of the few to enjoy a statewide reputation. In the weeks before his 1996 indictment, he attempted suicide by slashing his wrists.
A graduate of UCLA Law School, Greer had a civil practice and was active in Democratic politics, including the presidential campaign of Robert F. Kennedy, before former Gov. Edmund G. "Jerry" Brown Jr. named him to the bench, where he served for 17 years.
At a time when court systems in other counties were becoming gridlocked, Greer devised a "fast track" method to keep the San Diego courts from being stymied by too many lawsuits and too few judges. He was able to persuade warring parties to settle high-stakes civil litigation without going to trial.
He successfully pressured the governor to help bail out an overworked legal system. He lectured law students and helped reporters understand legal procedure and complexities.
And after his peers elected him presiding judge, he had even greater power to force settlements on reluctant civil litigants or to direct a case to the judge of his choosing.
Greer admitted misusing that power in exchange for $75,000 worth of bribes from Frega. Assistant U.S. Atty. Phillip L.B. Halpern said Greer's testimony "revealed the dirty little secrets that had plagued this town for a long time."
Rafeedie said that in his sentencing, he was swayed by warnings from Greer's doctors that he might not survive a prison term. Greer suffers from heart problems, depression, diabetes, ulcers, prostate trouble, skin cancer and high cholesterol.
"I don't want to impose a death sentence on the man--his condition is fragile enough," Rafeedie said.
During the judicial corruption trial, Greer testified that he struck up a friendship with Frega that soon ripened into an "uncle-nephew" relationship. Frega was soon lavishing gifts on him and his family: computers, car repairs, vacation getaways, membership in an athletic club and other items.
Greer testified that at first, he was able to convince himself that he was not doing anything wrong. But he said that when he drove a Mercedes given to him by Frega, he had a "sick feeling" and knew he had been corrupted.
Rafeedie said he hoped the public's faith in the local courts has not been undermined.
"I think this is an aberration in this district because I believe judges in the San Diego Superior Court are honest and honorable people," Rafeedie said. "One of my fears about this kind of case is that people will say: 'This is par for the course.' People should not judge all members of the bar and bench by this case."
Greer told Rafeedie that the case has left him with mountainous debt, that he and his wife are being forced to sell their home to pay creditors and that he feels "exiled" from his profession.
"People have to understand that Judge Greer is basically a ruined human being," said Robert Brewer, Greer's lawyer.