Kaczynski judge seen as smart, careful Garland E. Burrell Jr. presiding in trial of Unabomber suspect

January 04, 1998|By Sandy Banisky | Sandy Banisky,SUN NATIONAL STAFF

When U.S. District Judge Garland E. Burrell Jr. had questions for jury candidates in the trial of Unabomber suspect Theodore Kaczynski, he would sometimes step down from the grand elevation of the bench to talk to potential jurors at their eye level.

It is a practice rarely seen in the staid federal court. But it is not unusual in Burrell's Sacramento, Calif., courtroom, where the judge presides in a gentlemanly manner meant to preserve decorum while putting people at ease.

"He wants the jurors to be comfortable and doesn't want them to feel he's above them," says Sacramento lawyer Donald Heller.

"It comes from a desire," says Sacramento city attorney Samuel Jackson, "to let everyone in the courtroom know that you have a role to play; I have a role to play, too -- so be respectful, but don't be intimidated by me."

After five years on the federal bench, Burrell is handling his biggest case so far. And when opening statements in the Kaczynski trial begin tomorrow, the judge will find his style and his decisions analyzed and second-guessed as never before.

High-profile trials command more attention than ever on front pages and television. Judges who were once anonymous even in their hometowns suddenly find themselves the object of national scrutiny.

The publicity can make a career. But it can also be cruel: Judges who seem to lose control, like Lance Ito in the O. J. Simpson murder trial, find themselves the butt of David Letterman's jokes.

In Sacramento, the media will be closely following the trial of Kaczynski, a former mathematics professor, accused of being the Unabomber, the anti-technology terrorist. Three people were killed and 29 injured in a string of bombings that lasted 17 years.

But even with international attention fixed on the courtroom, Burrell, his friends say, is too smart and too careful to be distracted.

"He knows who he is, and he's very secure with who he is," Samuel Jackson says.

Deliberate pace

Courtroom observers expect Burrell to handle the case like any other. He will be deliberative. He will take his time -- sometimes an exasperating amount of time -- before ruling.

He will not be fazed by the presence of hundreds of reporters and photographers, by the incessant television and newspaper analysis.

"He's not going to be intimidated or swayed by any commentators out there," says Samuel Jackson, who started his law career with Burrell in the Sacramento district attorney's office about 20 years ago.

Burrell finds publicity so unimportant that he hasn't given an interview since 1992, when President George Bush nominated him to the federal bench. The new judge became the first African-American to preside in the Sacramento-based district.

"He believes that a case should be handled inside the courtroom," Samuel Jackson says. "He's not going to tolerate the lawyers doing the media grandstand, and he is going to lead by example."

A lifetime of hard work

Burrell, born on the Fourth of July 50 years ago, grew up in south central Los Angeles, a tough neighborhood where his father still owns a liquor store.

In his 1992 interview with the Sacramento Bee, Burrell said he began work early because "I wanted to take care of myself."

At 10, he had his first job -- cleaning out back yards. He worked as a newspaper carrier, a brick tender and a fast-food delivery man. He held jobs in his aunt's beauty salon and in a grocery, where he was a cashier before being elevated to assistant manager.

A track star in high school, Burrell attended East Los Angeles Junior College for a semester before spending two years in the Marines. With an athletic scholarship, he returned to college at the University of Nevada, Reno, then transferred to California State University, Los Angeles.

While in school, he said in 1992, he read a book that focused him on his education: "The Autobiography of Malcolm X."

"He educated himself in jail," Burrell said of the black leader. "It struck me that if he could educate himself in jail, I certainly should be able to educate myself in school."

In 1972, Burrell received a sociology degree, then went on to Washington University in St. Louis for a master's degree in social work. But instead of social work, Burrell went into law. In 1976, he received his law degree from California Western School of Law.

Except for less than a year in private practice, Burrell's career was spent as a government lawyer. By 1990, he had risen to chief of the civil division of the U.S. Attorney's Office for the Eastern District of California.

In the district attorney's office, Samuel Jackson nicknamed Burrell "the nighthawk" for the long hours he spent preparing a case.

James P. Jackson, a former Sacramento city attorney who hired Burrell for a position in his office, calls him "one of the finest people I know" -- a lawyer who won his cases but also worried about how the opposing parties were treated.

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