In more than three decades on the bench, Judge Alfred Delucchi ’60 has suffered only one reversal. His enviable record, he says, is linked to the insights he gained by being both a prosecutor and a defense attorney. He appreciates the role of lawyers. “I don’t like to be the centerpiece of the trial,” he says. “I like to let the lawyers try their case.” That demeanor, along with his willingness to pull the plug when lawyers go too far, didn’t escape notice when it came time to appoint a judge for the lurid murder trial of Scott Peterson. One prosecutor reacted emphatically when he learned of the appointment.
“I said, ‘The Peterson case has a real judge,’” said Tom Burke ’73, J.D. ’83, an Alameda County deputy district attorney who has interacted with Delucchi at the courthouse in Hayward. “Judge Delucchi is what you would hope to have if you walked into a trial as a juror or a spectator and wanted to see how the process works. He talks, acts, and reasons like a judge. He makes decisions that, whether a lawyer agrees with him or not, allow the trial to move forward.”
Or as prominent defense attorney Michael Cardoza told Santa Clara Law, “He has a great judicial temperament.” This is a telling observation from a lawyer whose TV commentary was silenced by a Delucchi gag order (because Cardoza helped prep Scott Peterson for cross examination). “He treats lawyers with respect,” Cardoza said, but also, “He’s not afraid to take care of a problem …swiftly and with power.”
That Delucchi would preside at the Peterson trial was never a foregone conclusion. He was tapped only after disqualification of Judge Richard Arnason. Officially retired in 1998, Delucchi was in the mix because he sits on assignment to superior court in Alameda County. By the time he walked into the Peterson trial, he had 22 capital cases under his belt, experience that helped him ride herd on the trial’s tumultuous twists.
The media attention was more than Delucchi ever imagined back when he applied to Santa Clara’s law school from a ship at sea while in the Navy. Serving out his ROTC commitment after graduating from U.C. Berkeley in business and economics, he took an interest in law thanks to some law school-bound Naval buddies. “Being a judge was not my career goal,” he says. “I just wanted to get out and practice law and do the best I could.” He was in private practice in 1971 when a chance encounter with a local power broker launched him to appointment to the bench by then Gov. Ronald Reagan.
Delucchi is known to attorneys as approachable and affable. “Some judges will cut you off. Others will give you a fair hearing. He bent over backwards to give both sides an opportunity to be heard,” and to allow Peterson a fair trial for the murder of his pregnant wife and unborn son, said Jim Hammer, a former San Francisco prosecutor. Hammer observed the Peterson trial as a TV analyst and remembered Delucchi as “one of the greats” back when Hammer was a greenhorn in the Alameda County district attorney’s office. He said the chilling moment when Delucchi sentenced Peterson to death was revealing. “You could sense the weight of the moment on him and he showed it. You could feel the humanity and hear it in his voice that this was a very awesome moment. He didn’t do it cavalierly.
Devoted to his wife of 39 years, Gloria, and their two adult children, Delucchi is known for his low-key humor. His friend, Judge Julie Conger, recalls when a covey of defendants shuffled into his arraignment court, one of them mummy-like in bandages and bruises. Delucchi surveyed the group and deadpanned, “Let me guess…which one of you is accused of assaulting a police officer?” Delucchi refuses press interviews but he made an exception for Santa Clara Law, with the stipulation that he could not discuss the Peterson case, which is on appeal.
Q. Growing up in Oakland, what did your family anticipate for you?
A. My mother came from Italy. All my grandparents came from Italy. My father was a partner in the Oakland Scavenger Company…collecting garbage. I can remember my grandparents telling me how lucky I was to be born in this country, and I should take advantage of the opportunities afforded to me. I was the first one in my family who went to college.
Q. Is it true you had to be talked into taking the Peterson case?
A. Let’s say I was reluctant to take it.
A. I’m retired. I was here in Hayward doing arraignment calendar. I was comfortable with that. I thought I had done my share of capital cases.…Then there were a few phone calls from the presiding judge asking me if I would be interested if there was a change in venue, and in the words of Samuel Goldwyn I said, “You can include me out.”
When they challenged Arnason, I got sort of that sinking feeling. I got a call that the [California] chief justice wanted me to try this case, so I said fine.
Q. How do celebrity lawyers change the courtroom dynamic for you as a judge?
A. I try to treat larger-than-life lawyers the same as I treat any other lawyers. A lot of these celebrity lawyers are very good lawyers…. I try to be polite to the lawyers. I try to be considerate of juries. I try to be decisive. I try not to be arbitrary. I try to be dignified, and to listen to what they have to say and rule accordingly to keep the trial moving.
Q. Your voice caught when you were sentencing Peterson to death—
A. I know what you’re driving at and I can tell you I’ve sentenced seven people to die and every time I do it I get a lump in my throat. It’s not easy. If you’re not affected, you’re not a human being. You’re sitting there condemning somebody to die. That’s an awesome amount of power that you have. It’s a decision that the jury made but still it comes right down to you then. Usually in a capital case you spent months with the defendant. You see him or her every day. You know it’s going to affect their families, their parents. You also know how the victim’s death has affected that person’s family. It’s not something I look forward to.
Q. Is there empathy for the defendant?
A. Well, you certainly know a lot about the defendant because you heard everything in the case, and in the penalty phase you hear all about the good characteristics that he has. And then you always have the aggravating factors, the nature and circumstance of the crime. Some of these are very vicious crimes. It’s just the fact that you’re looking someone in the face and saying, “I’m sentencing you to die in San Quentin.” It’s an emotional, draining experience.
Q. Do you ever feel after so many years on the bench that you’ve heard it all?
A. You learn something new every day when you’re a judge..
Q. How has the view from the bench changed during your career?
A. Cases now are a little more complicated. You have more sophisticated methods of law enforcement and you have more pre-trial motions now. You have advances in technology, like DNA, that didn’t exist before. Attorneys are obliged to pursue all these issues.
Q. What’s the strangest or wackiest thing you’ve seen in a trial?
A. I’d have to refer to the Scott Peterson case and I can’t do that. But I’ve had some strange cases: A guy scalped his girlfriend. You don’t get too many scalping cases that come down the line. And another case I tried that was bizarre was the woman who murdered her sister and cut her up in three pieces and stored her in the freezer. I’ve had my share of grisly cases.
Q. What is the role of humor in the courtroom?
A. The judge should not be clowning around in the courtroom. Neither should the attorneys. But if you’re in a trial that’s going to take six or seven months, you cannot keep humor out of it because some witness is going to say something funny and something might go haywire with an exhibit and things happen. I remember when I was voir diring one juror in a case, explaining to her that this trial was going to take five or six months, and she said, “My husband was hoping I would get selected to serve on this jury because then he would have some peace and quiet.”
Q. Is there benefit to the intense media surrounding some trials?
A. The public has a right to know what’s going on in their courts. I am not an anti-First Amendment person….but you have this tension between the public’s right to know and the defendant’s right to a fair trial and that’s the judge’s responsibility—to see that the defendant gets a dignified and restrained trial and that he gets a fair trial.
Q. You’re retired but you still sit on superior court assignment. Why?
A. Because I still have a lot of energy. And as long as I still have my marbles and if I can still be useful, the experience that retired judges offer is important.