"Bonfire of the Vanities" Judge Burton Roberts Dies

Judge Burton Roberts has died. He was 88. The retired Bronx Supreme Court Judge was the inspiration for Myron Kovitsky, the judge in Tom Wolfe's Bonfire of the Vanities.

In “The Bonfire of the Vanities,” one of the only admirable figures is Myron Kovitsky, a Bronx judge who refuses to be influenced by the press, the public or publicity-seeking prosecutors. Mr. Wolfe modeled the character after Judge Roberts and dedicated the book to him and one of his former assistants, Edward W. Hayes. In the 1990 film version, the judge’s name was changed to Leonard White, and he was portrayed by Morgan Freeman.

Judge Roberts, a longtime prosecutor before becoming a judge, was flamboyant but always true to his strongly held principles:

[He] denigrated capital punishment, mandatory sentencing laws, and public officials who criticized rulings in ways he felt were politically motivated intrusions upon the independence of the judiciary.


He was not a quiet man:

His voice — described by a courthouse wag as a few decibels below the roar of a jet engine — could rise harshly, his face turning beet-red, as he railed before a jury about a defendant’s dastardly wrongdoing.

When then Governor George Pataki and Mayor Rudy Guiliani criticized one of his bail decisions, he told the media their comments were "“the bleatings of public officials who possibly are seeking political advantage.” He was a champion of the independence of the judiciary:

In his trademark stentorian rumble, he told a reporter for The New York Times: “The judiciary acts as a ballast on our ship of state, and it prevents the ship from being wrecked on the reefs of inappropriate judgment, and should not be steered by the whims of hysterical opinion.”

He paused to clear his throat. “You got that?” he shouted

Journalist Nat Hentoff wrote in 1995:

I knew a New York judge, Burton Roberts, who had been a prosecutor and then had presided over criminal trials. When the first rigid sentencing guidelines went into effect, this judge was resistant, although he was known as a law-and-order jurist. "While the crimes may be the same," Burton Roberts told me, "the individual defendants may be significantly different, and the sentencing judge should be able to take that into account."

Judge Roberts was held in high regard by defense lawyers, receiving the New York State Association of Criminal Defense Lawyers prestigious William Brennan Award for Outstanding Jurist.

In 2001, Judge Roberts said in an affidavit in support of a lawsuit to declare the low rates being paid to assigned counsel unconstitutional:

"I, like many of my colleagues, believe that the current rates are an affront and beneath the dignity and vision of the State of New York, the Empire State, which has always been renowned for being in the forefront of providing competent representation for defendants who are indigent."

Barry Scheck and Peter Neufeld, in their book Actual Innocence, write that Judge Roberts "brought a child's curiosity and excitement to the assembly-line work of managing criminal cases." They point out that as the Bronx District Attorney, he once asked aa judge to release a convicted murderer from prison, because the man's brother, who resemembled him, was the actual killer.

I didn't meet Judge Roberts until 2000, two years after he retired from the bench at the mandatory age of 76, when we made a movie together for TNT on wrongful convictions. In the movie, Charlie Stone, a former prosecutor from Illinois and I spent weeks first in Richmond, Virginia and then Jefferson City, Missouri, investigating the murder convictions of Beverly Monroe and Dale Helmig. After each trip, we flew to New York to report our findings to Judge Roberts.

Beverly Monroe was freed from prison in 2003 after serving 11 years of a 22 year sentence. Dale Helmig is still in prison, serving a life sentence, and even John Walsh, of America's Most Wanted, has done shows urging his release. Dale is waiting for a decision on his motion for a new trial that was heard in July, 2010.(He was granted release on a habeas writ in federal court, which was then overturned, sending him back to state court. At his last hearing, one of the cops recanted an incriminating part of his testimony against Dale. I've chronicled the ups and downs of his case here.

I spent a few hours tonight digging around in the basement for a VCR VCR tape of the movie. I then converted it to DVD, and selected only a 2 minute portion that shows his personality and character and how strongly he felt about wrongful convictions. Here's the 2 minute clip of Judge Roberts from our movie, insisting Beverly Monroe did not get a fair trial, and telling the viewing audience what that means for the rest of us and society. (Just click on the "close" button to make the ad go away.)

He was a delight to work with , regaled us with stories of his 50 year career, and often kept me and Charlie from getting into Jersey Shore style scream fests when Charlie wouldn't concede Beverly or Dale were innocent, after all we learned, between reading the transcripts, interviewing the DAs, judges and defense counsel in the cases, and meeting with Beverly and Dale inside their prisons, and interviewing the witnesses, their friends and family members, all before we reported back to Burt in New York.

As an aside, any time you can get a Christian group concerned about inappropriate videos to give your movie a thumbs up, that's a good sign. The Dove Foundation's review is here.

In the clip, Judge Burton rails that Beverly Monroe should get a new trial and explains why. The scene was filmed in the Manhattan law office of another friend of mine, Attorney Jack Litman, who graciously agreed to let us and the entire camera crews invade for the day. Jack died way too early in January, 2010.

I think of Jack at least once a week, and I bet I'll think of Judge Roberts just as often. Our society would be so much better off if they could still voice their views, I have a feeling there will be several NY defense attorneys who will continue to present Judge Roberts' arguments in court, beginning with a reminder to the current Judge, "Judge Roberts once said...."

R.I. P. Judge Burton Roberts. You never hesitated to call out the "wrongs" being committed in our criminal justice system, and you had a way of reaching and connecting with those you were duty bound to sentence. They liked you too. I'm proud to have known you. Your legacy will last forever.

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    Beautiful article. (5.00 / 1) (#2)
    by lentinel on Mon Oct 25, 2010 at 06:37:52 AM EST
    I wish this kind of person was represented on the Supreme Court.