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Eugene Nickerson, 83; Federal Judge Ruled Against Pentagon Policy on Gays

January 06, 2002|From Times Wire Services

NEW YORK — Eugene Nickerson, the first judge to strike down the "don't ask, don't tell" policy for gays in the U.S. military and who presided over the Abner Louima police brutality trials, has died. He was 83.

Nickerson, who served 24 years in U.S. District Court in Brooklyn, died Tuesday of complications from ulcer surgery at St. Luke's Hospital in Manhattan.

A lawyer by training, Nickerson was the first Democratic politician to be elected county executive of Nassau County, a Republican stronghold and one of the most affluent counties in the United States.

Elected in 1961, he served three terms before returning to private law practice. He became a federal judge in 1977 on the nomination of President Carter.

Nickerson presided over many prominent cases, including three trials in which white New York City police officers were charged with torture, assault and lying in the case of Louima, a black Haitian immigrant. The off-duty security guard was beaten in August 1997 after being arrested over a nightclub scuffle and had a broomstick jammed into his rectum inside a Brooklyn station house.

The case shocked New York, fueled racial tensions in the city and drew worldwide attention to allegations of brutality and excessive use of force by police officers.

In 1995, Nickerson became the first judge to strike down a Pentagon policy under which gays and lesbians could still be expelled from the military for conduct including declaring their sexual orientation. Nickerson said that the policy was a violation of free speech. A year later, a federal appeals panel sent the case back to him, directing him to assess the constitutionality of the Pentagon's ban on homosexual activity.

Nickerson again struck down the policy in 1997, this time on the grounds of equal protection, and rejected the military's argument that prohibiting homosexual conduct was needed to maintain unit cohesion.

His ruling, however, was overturned by a three-judge appeals court that upheld the military's ban on homosexual activity and its "don't ask, don't tell" policy.

Known as an independent-minded judge, Nickerson also ruled in a case that had major implications for jury selection. That 1983 ruling strayed from U.S. Supreme Court precedent by barring prosecutors from using challenges that excluded jurors solely on the basis of race. The Supreme Court ultimately ruled to stop allowing jurors to be removed on the basis of race.

He was also involved in trials of Mafia bosses John Gotti and Vincent Gigante. Gambino crime family head Gotti was acquitted by a jury in a 1987 racketeering trial presided over by Nickerson, but was convicted in 1992 and sentenced to life imprisonment.

In the 1996 trial of Gigante, who was known for wandering the streets in pajamas and a bathrobe, Nickerson rejected the mobster's claims that he was not mentally competent to stand trial. Gigante was convicted on racketeering charges.

Born in Orange, N.J., the son of an Army intelligence officer, Nickerson graduated from Harvard before going on to law school at Columbia University, where he was an editor of the law review. He later clerked for Harlan Fiske Stone, the chief justice of the U.S. Supreme Court.

Nickerson, a descendant of President John Adams, is survived by his wife, Marie-Louise; four daughters; three brothers; and five grandchildren.

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