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A Trying Case for Respected Jurist

Court: Judge Larry Paul Fidler has presided at many controversial trials. But Sara Jane Olson's guilty plea presents a strange new twist.

November 04, 2001|ANNA GORMAN | TIMES STAFF WRITER

In nearly two decades on the bench, Superior Court Judge Larry Paul Fidler has heard his share of controversial, high-profile cases.

Described by colleagues as a no-nonsense jurist, Fidler presided over preliminary hearings in the Reginald Denny beating case stemming from the 1992 riots. And he has also taken a lead role in overturning dozens of criminal convictions tainted by the Los Angeles Police Department's Rampart scandal.

Never before, though, has the longtime Los Angeles judge faced a situation as strange as the one last week, when accused Symbionese Liberation Army member Sara Jane Olson pleaded guilty to attempting to blow up police cars and then told reporters outside the courtroom that she wasn't guilty.

The 54-year-old former private criminal defense attorney is known as a judge who keeps his court under control and has little patience for lawyers who are unprepared or insincere. The long-running Olson saga, with its many twists and turns, may be the ultimate case for trying a judge's patience.

Fidler has scheduled an unusual hearing Tuesday to discuss Olson's plea with her and the attorneys in the case. Fidler could throw out the plea and order that the long-awaited conspiracy trial move forward.

If he does not toss out the plea, Olson, arrested two years ago for the unsuccessful 1975 bombing attempts, is scheduled to be sentenced Dec. 7 to 20 years to life in state prison. Her attorneys believe the state Board of Prison Terms will order her to serve just over five years.

Judge Got His Start as a Defense Lawyer

Fidler declined to be interviewed for this story, saying through his clerk that he believed it was unethical because of the pending case.

The Los Angeles native received his bachelor's degree at Cal State Northridge and graduated from Loyola Law School in 1974. While clerking in Superior Court as a law student, he met noted criminal defense attorney Howard Weitzman and was invited to join his firm.

Fidler handled several death penalty cases and rose to the level of partner in Weitzman, Fidler and Re. But when the firm was hired to defend auto maker John Z. DeLorean against federal cocaine-trafficking charges, Fidler opted out and applied for a judicial position.

In 1983, Democratic Gov. Jerry Brown appointed him to a Municipal Court judgeship. Later, he was named to a Superior Court post by Republican Gov. Pete Wilson.

"It's like he had a calling," said Weitzman. "Being a judge meant more to him than the money and fame of being involved in a case like that. It's rare where someone would make that sacrifice."

Touring the Site of a Cross-Burning

The slender, balding jurist speaks directly without being overbearing. Most lawyers say he is extremely evenhanded, but can be acerbic when provoked.

Among the cases Fidler handled in Municipal Court was a preliminary hearing for several white supremacists--including a former Ku Klux Klan grand dragon--who were accused of burning crosses in the Angeles National Forest in 1983. Before making his decision to bind the men over for trial, Fidler took an entourage of lawyers, defendants and a court reporter to the site of the cross-burning.

Fidler served on the Municipal Court bench for nearly 10 years before being elected to the Superior Court in 1992. Prior to his taking that seat, Gov. Wilson's office called and appointed him to a Superior Court post. He accepted and began work several months before his elected term began.

After a few years of hearing cases in Dependency Court, Fidler began handling a felony criminal calendar. He was reelected to the bench in 1998, and served as the supervising criminal judge from 1999 to 2000 at the downtown Criminal Courts Building.

Robert Dukes, assistant presiding judge of the Los Angeles County Superior Court, said Fidler has a reputation for being one of the most knowledgeable criminal jurists in the county.

As a result, Dukes said, Fidler makes decisive rulings and doesn't waste the time of attorneys or jurors. His areas of expertise include search and seizure law and juror voir dire.

On the Rampart cases, the Sherman Oaks resident has overturned the convictions of dozens of defendants whose prosecutions involved testimony from discredited former LAPD officers. One example is that of Gerald Joseph Peters, who pleaded guilty in 1996 to possession of cocaine and was sentenced to two years in state prison. After former Officer Rafael Perez admitted that the arrest report was fabricated, Fidler threw out the conviction.

As the number of such rulings began to rise, Fidler expressed determination to get to the bottom of the scandal. The Rampart cases prompted such public interest that Fidler stepped out of the traditional judge's role and spoke at a law school forum and on television about the devastating effects of the scandal.

Fidler has also served three temporary stints as a state appellate justice, writing decisions on such topics as the right to self-representation and allowing information of prior convictions at trial.

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