United States Federal Courthouse Los Angeles. Photo by John Schreiber.
United States Federal Courthouse Los Angeles. Photo by John Schreiber.

A memorial service was pending Friday for Senior District Judge Spencer Letts, a soft-spoken jurist who fought against mandatory federal sentences and mentored some of the criminal defendants that appeared before him in downtown Los Angeles.

Letts died Monday at the age of 79, said Clerk of Court Terry Nafisi. The cause and location of his death were not immediately available.

Letts, whose courtroom was located at the U.S. District Courthouse on Spring Street, was nominated as a U.S. district judge for the Central District of California by then-President Ronald Reagan. Letts received his commission in December 1985 and assumed senior status in 2000.

Born in St. Louis in 1934, Letts was the son of a vice president at Prudential Insurance. He attended Yale University and Harvard’s law school, then joined a Houston law firm in the early 1960s.

In 1966, he moved to Los Angeles to become vice president and general counsel at the then-budding high-tech conglomerate Teledyne.

He was in private practice from 1973 to 1975, and from 1978 to 1985.

Chief Judge George H. King described Letts as “a true gentleman and a wonderful colleague.”

“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,” King said. “He presided with a sharp mind and a compassionate heart. We will all miss him very much.”

Letts disparaged mandatory sentences, which gave federal judges no leeway in imposing penalties for crimes including the sale or possession of crack cocaine. Letts called them discriminatory and possibly unconstitutional, earning him popularity with defense attorneys and the displeasure of federal prosecutors.

Required to give a 10-year prison term to a man who had no criminal record and pleaded guilty to mailing a package containing crack, Letts asked for a presidential pardon. The Reagan administration turned him down, according to a 2010 Los Angeles Times profile on Letts’ friendship with a different defendant.

“Judge Letts was one of the most humane and thoughtful judges I have appeared before,” said Los Angeles defense attorney Ellen Barry. “He was actually interested in the lives of the defendants who appeared before him.”

At a 2009 sentencing hearing, Letts characteristically ordered that a Los Angeles bank robber facing up to 40 years in prison be immediately set free. The defendant — dubbed the “Weathergirl Bandit” — had served seven months in a federal lockup and admitted robbing two banks using a demand note, but no weapon, to feed her addiction to prescription painkillers.

In honor of Letts, the flags outside the federal courthouse were flown today at half-staff.

Letts’ family is planning a memorial service to take place in January.

Information on his survivors was not immediately available.

— City News Service

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