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Supreme Court expert taught at USC

Charles H. Whitebread, 1943 - 2008

September 23, 2008|Valerie J. Nelson | Times Staff Writer

Charles H. Whitebread, a popular professor at USC's law school whose wit and incisive observations on the U.S. Supreme Court and how to survive law school helped him develop a national following, has died. He was 65.

Whitebread died Sept. 16 of lung cancer at his home in Santa Monica, the university announced.

Since 1981, he had taught at USC and was a nationally respected expert on criminal law, the Supreme Court and juvenile law, according to USC.

"He was a life force," said Robert Rasmussen, dean of the USC Gould School of Law. "So many alums say their USC law experience was shaped and furthered by Charlie Whitebread. He had a true passion for teaching, scholarship, his students and justice."

Evidence of the professor's popularity can be found in a Facebook group called "Charlie Whitebread Rocks My World." It has more than 1,600 members, some of whom discovered him through lectures he often gave for a popular bar-exam preparation course.

The son of a dentist, Whitebread was a product of Princeton University and Yale Law School. He once called his background "pampered, preppy" and said his charmed life made him aware of his responsibility to give back.

He did so in part by pledging $100,000 in 1996 to found a drop-in facility at the Los Angeles Gay and Lesbian Center in Hollywood that offers life-saving services to homeless and at-risk youths. Eventually, Whitebread donated more than $280,000 to the center and helped raise an additional $230,000, said Jim Key, a spokesman for the Gay and Lesbian Center.

Called the Jeff Griffith Youth Center, it was named for a barely literate 17-year-old runaway whom Whitebread befriended. Griffith died at 32.

The center, which helps 50 to 70 people a day, provides meals, clothing, counseling and other services, Key said.

Wearing his ubiquitous bow tie, Whitebread traveled extensively to present roundups of recent U.S. Supreme Court decisions to judges, said George Lefcoe, a USC law professor and good friend of Whitebread.

"He might have been the most popular law lecturer in the country," Lefcoe said. "In his annual summaries . . . he was like the painless dentist -- he would tell the judges what the court was up to without them having to suffer."

Whitebread also had visited more than 80 law schools to talk about how to succeed in the first year of law school. His advice was rooted in common sense, such as "stay positive" and "focus on the big picture."

Most recently, Whitebread taught two law school courses at USC: criminal procedure and gifts, wills and trusts. The latter was "affectionately known as GWATS," Whitebread wrote on his website. He said it could "be summed up in two words. . . . DEATH and GREED."

Because he also taught an undergraduate course on law and society, Whitebread probably reached more USC students than any other law professor, Rasmussen said.

Whitebread was an expert on the battle to legalize marijuana and co-wrote a piece published in 1970 in the Virginia Law Review that brought national attention to the subject, according to USC. He argued that the drug's prohibition originated not out of concern for public safety but from racial prejudice, ignorance and religious intolerance.

Charles Howard Whitebread was born April 2, 1943, in Montgomery County, Md., and grew up in Bethesda, Md. His parents also died of lung cancer.

After graduating from Princeton in 1965 and receiving his law degree from Yale three years later, Whitebread briefly practiced law in Washington, D.C. He said he found his "true calling" at the University of Virginia School of Law, where he taught from 1968 to 1981.

Among Whitebread's dozen books are the leading textbook "Criminal Procedure" and "Recent Decisions of the United States Supreme Court," which he had updated annually since 1982.

Since the late 1980s, Whitebread had lived on one side of a two-unit condominium that he built with Lefcoe on a narrow lot in Santa Monica. A sculptural structure with nautical touches, it won design awards.

Although he was known for being funny, Whitebread never told a joke, Lefcoe said.

"He was an astonishing raconteur yet straightforward, very crisp. He was terribly witty," Lefcoe said. "His humor came from the moment."

Whitebread's survivors include his life partner, John Golden; Michael Kelly, a friend who lived with him as a family member; a sister, Anne Tower; and a brother, Joseph Whitebread.

The USC Gould School of Law is planning a memorial.

Donations may be made to the Charles H. Whitebread Memorial Scholarship, USC Gould School of Law, 1149 S. Hill St., Suite 340, Los Angeles 90015.

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valerie.nelson@latimes.com

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