First Of Two Parts — The man, a thin and gray-haired federal judge, walked nervously up and down the streets of skid row, past drug dealers, pimps and thugs, past rows of men lying like glass-eyed zombies against concrete walls.
"Excuse me," he said, pulling out a photograph, "have you seen this man?" He was met by blank faces or angry stares. And, always, one word: "No."
He couldn't give up. Down more streets and through urine-soaked alleys. He was the only white person he could see.
To Judge Spencer Letts, then 72, this distinction did not matter. What mattered was that Michael Banyard, an ex-con who had lived much of his adult life in prison, could be in trouble again.
Letts told himself that if he could just find him, Banyard would not run -- even if he were in a drug-induced stupor. Instead, he would peer at the judge through his dreadlocks, smile his sheepish smile and the two would walk a few blocks to an entirely different world -- the judge's chambers inside the U.S. Central District Courthouse. There they would sit, as they so often had, and Letts would try to convince his friend that the troubled man on skid row was not the real Banyard. Not the man the judge believed in.
John Spencer Letts was born in St. Louis in 1934, the privileged son of a vice president at Prudential Insurance. He went to Yale, Harvard Law and, in the early 1960s, to a powerhouse litigation firm in Houston. "As a lawyer," he said, "a lot of times I would fail. But then one case would come up that everyone else was struggling with and I guess I would just look at it in a way that was different. I would find a solution others would look past. And that became my reputation: out of the box."
FOR THE RECORD:
A previous version of the photo caption above said Letts has mentored several men he has put in jail, including Banyard. Banyard was sentenced to prison by another judge; Letts handled his appeal.
He took that reputation to Los Angeles, where in 1966 he became vice president at the budding high-tech conglomerate Teledyne. As the company's legal chief, he burrowed deeply into his work, overseeing acquisitions. He provided a life of comfort for his wife, two sons and daughter. There were country clubs and boarding schools, tennis lessons and summer vacations at a home on a Michigan lake that had been in his family for generations.
He was a Republican but mostly steered clear of politics. He was well-connected, however, with lawyers and businessmen who had ties with the White House, and that paid off. President Reagan nominated Letts for an opening on the District Court.
Confirmed in 1986, Letts proved unusual from the start. At the courthouse, he spoke softly, tended to mumble, was prone to nervous laughter and would launch into asides on such subjects as the nature of time, the age of reason and the essential goodness of man. After long periods of meandering, he'd get back to the legal point and nail it.
Some lawyers hated going to his court. He wasn't just hard to understand, his views and rulings were unpredictable. Others saw him as a refreshing maverick who plowed through all manner of ideas before settling on a reasonable course. "He's a truth teller, unafraid to follow uncommon lines of thought as far as he can go," said veteran defense attorney Michael Proctor. "And that makes a lot of people uncomfortable."
The federal judiciary is stacked with former state judges and prosecutors who have spent years in courtrooms. Because he had always preferred to settle cases as a lawyer, Letts had rarely been in court. At first, there were basic procedures he didn't know. Moreover, he had no experience with many of the kinds of cases he would oversee, which came from a world of gangs, drugs and guns.
"I was terrified, absolutely terrified," he said of his early days as a judge. "Street crime? What did I know about that?"
Meanwhile, he also was confronted with a new federal law that mandated long sentences for the sale or possession of crack, giving judges no leeway.
Unable to consider the context of cases, he grew indignant at being required to sentence wrongdoers to decade-long prison terms when he often felt they deserved far less. His anger intensified when he saw that almost every defendant coming into his courtroom was black, even as statistics showed that most drug users were white.
He was struck by how smart many of them seemed, how driven. Born into different circumstances -- into his circumstances -- some also might have become vice presidents at Teledyne, he figured.
"I began to see that it is all too easy for a judge to just put a C for convicted on a guy's forehead and then to walk away like the guy is, and always will be, nothing," he said. "It hit me -- I am going to try my best, from then on, to extend myself, see their humanity and let them see mine."