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LA Federal Judge Spencer Letts Dies at 79

LOS ANGELES (CN) - U.S. District Judge J. Spencer Letts, a controversial L.A. judge who was critical of harsh sentences imposed by the War on Drugs and California's Three Strikes Law, has died. He was 79.

Letts died on Nov. 10. Chief Judge George King on Friday called his colleague "a true gentleman."

"He treated everyone with dignity and respect, and took a keen interest in restoring defendants in criminal cases to productive and law-abiding lives within the community. He presided with a sharp mind and a compassionate heart," King said.

The cause of Letts' death was not clear from a statement issued by Federal Court Clerk Terry Nafisi. His family plans to hold a memorial service early next year.

Letts was born Dec. 19, 1934 in St. Louis. After graduating from Yale University and Harvard Law School, he spent years working as a corporate lawyer before President Ronald Reagan appointed him as a federal judge on Dec. 17, 1985.

During his time on the bench, Letts was dismayed by the harsh sentences for drug offenses that blossomed during the Reagan's administration's war on drugs - a policy that disproportionately affected blacks.

"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," Letts told the Los Angeles Times in 2010.

"It hit me - I am going to try my best, from then on, to extend myself, see their humanity and let them see mine."

Described by Times writer Kurt Streeter as a soft-spoken mumbler, "prone to nervous laughter," Letts was also troubled by California's Three Strikes law.

Former Compton gang member Michael Banyard had been convicted under the 1994 sentencing law. His three strikes included a $6 theft charge, and later convictions for simple assault and possession of less than a gram of crack cocaine.

Banyard was facing 25 years to life in prison when his appeal landed on Letts'

desk in 2002.

"I couldn't put my finger on it but it just rubbed me the wrong way," Letts told the Times. "Twenty-five years, no guarantee of ever leaving, for that amount of cocaine? Something was wrong. Very wrong."

After taking the unusual step of hiring attorneys to help him on the case, Letts ruled that the $6 robbery was "outside the heartland of serious felonies that normally constitute ... strikes under the Three Strikes Law."

Most egregiously, the judge found that prosecutors had recorded Banyard's second strike as an assault with a gun.

"Banyard's sentence," the judge wrote, "is grossly disproportionate to his offense and constitutes cruel and unusual punishment, in violation of the 8th Amendment."

In the years after Banyard's release, Letts guided and mentored him as he struggled with his addiction. When, as Streeter reported, Banyard tried to kill himself, Letts responded. When he went missing, Letts walked the streets of Skid Row, looking for him.

The judge's career was not without controversies.

In 1999, Letts recused himself from a high-profile lawsuit against the Los Angeles Police Department when city attorneys claimed that he had made disparaging comments about city cops, according to the Times archive.

"Police officers always lie," he was alleged to have told the Mayor of Torrance. "The officers that are good at lying get away with it, and the ones who aren't get caught."

Letts denied any wrongdoing and believed he was at the center of a campaign to oust him from the case.

He was at the center of another controversy when he was removed from a criminal case by U.S. District Judge Florence-Marie Cooper over a statement he made during a pre-trial conference, the Times reported.

At the Feb. 1, 2001 hearing, Letts seemed to suggest that defendants who take the stand are unreliable.

"In my experience, innocent people, such as there are, don't testify. Guilty people do often. Innocent people don't because, by definition, there is a hole in the government's case," Letts said.

Letts walked back from the comments shortly afterward but it was not enough to save him, after defense lawyers petitioned for his removal from the case.

Banyard wrote blog posts about his experiences for the Office of National Drug Control Policy. He credited Letts with helping him get back on his feet. He later graduated from the Los Angeles Dream Center Discipleship Program and completed his General Education Certificate.

"Judge Letts still never gave up. He continued to encourage me and let me know that he believed in me, even at my lowest point," Banyard wrote in the piece, published at the White House.

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