Tuesday, February 15, 2005
Private Services Are Held for Judge L. Jeffrey Wiatt, 61
From Staff and Wire Service Reports
Private services were held Sunday for Los Angeles Superior Court Judge L. Jeffrey Wiatt, who authorities said shot and killed himself last week after becoming distraught when detectives contacted him about an allegation that he had molested a child.
Yesterday Wiatt was remembered by a colleague as a “courageous judge who did what he thought was right regardless of the consequences.”
Judge Criag Veals said he first became acquainted with Wiatt some 18 years ago when Veals was a prosecutor and Wiatt was “a defense attorney who frequently visited his old friend, Ernest Hiroshige,” the judge in the court to which Veals was assigned.
“Over time, our own friendship developed,” Veals recalled in an email message. “Following my appointment in 1994 to the old L.A. Municipal Court, I replaced Jeff as the bench officer in Division 30, the felony arraignment court. He did absolutely everything humanly possible to make the transition as smooth as possible for me, and provided me with invaluable tips on calendar management.”
Wiatt “could not have been more professional and courteous to me throughout this process,” Veals declared, adding:
“He will be sorely missed.”
Former Los Angeles Municipal Court Judge Sheldon Sloan, a member of the State Bar Board of Governors, described Wiatt yesterday as a “respected Superior Court Judge” who “always comported himself with dignity.”
Sloan, also a former president of the Los Angeles County Bar Association, commented:
“Jeff was my friend. My heart goes out to his wife Jeannie and his children, Jackie and John in this time of sorrow.”
Judge Eudon Ferrell, a former police officer, recalled attending Whittier Law School with Wiatt and spoke of him in similar terms.
“He was just really outgoing and energetic,” Ferrell said.
Ferrell said it seemed to him Wiatt made up for his short stature with confidence and a positive attitude.
“He was a good judge,” Ferrell said. “He was a good attorney. He really seemed to enjoy life. All those that knew him are really going to miss him.”
Wiatt, a former prosecutor, was the subject of a preliminary child sex abuse investigation before killing himself Thursday, according to sheriff’s Lt. Dan Rosenberg. No additional details about the case have been released.
Authorities contacted Wiatt, 61, at his home Wednesday. Worried that he was suicidal, detectives monitored his movements using a commercial anti-theft device on his car.
They followed him to Towsley Canyon Park on Thursday and urged him over a cell phone not to harm himself. But Wiatt pulled out a gun and shot himself in the midst of the conversation before they could reach him, sheriff’s officers reported.
Judges and attorneys expressed shock at last week at Wiatt’s death, some remembering his blunt manner in the courtroom.
“He was a cherished colleague, and he will be deeply missed,” North Valley Supervising Judge Alice Hill said. Wiatt had been assigned to the Chatsworth courthouse.
A University of Southern California graduate, Wiatt attended Whittier Law School before joining the district attorney’s office in 1975. He left in 1978 to work in private practice, and was appointed to the Los Angeles Municipal Court in 1993 by then-Gov. Pete Wilson.
In 1995, Wilson elevated him to the Superior Court, where he oversaw high-profile cases including the death penalty trial of Sandi Nieves, a woman convicted of setting a fire to kill her four daughters.
While at the San Fernando courthouse, he handled the cases of Jeanie Adair and Kenneth Gay.
Wiatt was ordered in May 2001 by the this district’s Court of Appeal to overturn his finding of factual innocence for Adair following her acquittal in her husband’s 1996 beating death.
The state Supreme Court upheld the appellate court’s order in January 2003, agreeing that “the trial court erred in making a finding of factual innocence.”
Nieves and Gay, meanwhile, are both on death row after being convicted of capital murder by juries who sat in Wiatt’s courtroom.
Wiatt sentenced Nieves to death on Oct. 6, 2000, for killing her four daughters and trying to kill her son in an arson fire at the family’s Santa Clarita home.
In December 2000, Wiatt sent Gay back to death row for the 1983 murder of Los Angeles police Officer Paul Verna. Gay’s 1985 death sentence had been overturned in 1998 by the state Supreme Court, which found that he had incompetent legal representation in his first trial.
Wiatt chaired the State Bar’s Committee on Juvenile Justice in 1986-87. From 1984 to 1993 he was a Los Angeles Superior Court Juvenile Court referee.
He was legal advisor to and served on the board of Sunrise Youth Homes, a non-profit corporation serving juveniles.
He is survived by his wife and two children.
Copyright 2005, Metropolitan News Company