`Hiller the Killer' faces biggest test of his career

Hiller Zobel is one of the most experienced judges in Massachusetts. But in 18 years on the bench, he has never had to deal with a case like the Louise Woodward trial, probably the biggest in the state's history. As David Usborne explains, it would test the mettle of anyone

To any British observer, the first thing that strikes one about Judge Hiller Zobel is his friendly openness - to the media especially - and his bent for dry humour. Since the guilty verdict was passed on Louise Woodward, however, he has adopted a grave demeanour and retreated from public view.

After 18 years of keeping his telephone number listed - he lives in Cohasset, a quintessentially New England suburb of white homes and lawns which is home also to some of the Kennedys - this weekend, he was forced to ask for a new number that would not be published.

While his reputation in legal circles is as a free spirit and even a maverick - his willingness to cut down lawyers in his courtroom who dare to be verbose or irrelevant has given him the nickname "Hiller the Killer" - the 65-year-old judge is also a deeply serious thinker. In explaining points of the law to journalists in daily off-the-record conferences, he would frequently cite obscure cases from Britain and Massachusetts and cite the writings of figures from Bacon to Churchill. He once, however, quoted his aunt.

He has written widely himself. Among his books is a history of the 1770 Boston Massacre, in which soldiers of the British colonial forces were slaughtered by the French and their Indian allies.

After the 1992 OJ Simpson trial, Zobel wrote a controversial article on the jury system in which he said: "It is asking the ignorant to use the incomprehensible to decide the unknowable." That remark has been seized upon as he considers the conduct of the Woodward jury.

His humour was best revealed to journalists in his recounting of the various items stolen from his courthouse chambers in recent years, including a black gown one Hallowe'en.

His own life has not been uneventful. When he was 25, he was kidnapped by two escaped prisoners and held hostage in a terrifying car ride from Boston to Iowa. He escaped unhurt. And his interest in the media is explained by short stint he did as a young man as a cub reporter on a San Francisco newspaper. A son - one of his seven children - is a journalist.

The children are from a marriage to Rya Zobel, from whom he recently split in a very acrimonious divorce. She is a federal judge and was shortlisted by the White House after President Clinton's 1992 election victory as a possible US Attorney General (the post was given to Janet Reno from Florida).

As speculation rages about what he may do about the Woodward verdict, attention has focused on a 1984 murder trial presided over by Hiller Zobel. The defence of a police officer convicted of Murder Two, as Woodward has been, argued for the verdict to be set aside and a new trial ganted. That is exactly what he did.

Start your day with The Independent, sign up for daily news emails
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
News
ebooksAn unforgettable anthology of contemporary reportage
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Independent Dating
and  

By clicking 'Search' you
are agreeing to our
Terms of Use.

iJobs Job Widget
iJobs General

Recruitment Genius: 3rd Line Virtualisation, Windows & Server Engineer

£40000 - £47000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: A 3rd Line Virtualisation / Sto...

Recruitment Genius: Refrigeration and Air Conditioning Service Engineer

£26000 - £35000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: A successful national service f...

Recruitment Genius: Business Development Executive / Sales - OTE £25,000

£15000 - £25000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: This is an opportunity to join ...

Recruitment Genius: Sales Administrator - Fixed Term Contract

£17500 - £20000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: We currently require an experie...

Day In a Page

Syria civil war: Meet the military commander who says his soldiers will not rest until every inch of their war torn country is free of Islamist 'terrorists'

‘We won’t stop until Syria is back to normal’

Near the front lines with Islamist-controlled towns where Assad’s troops were besieged just last month, Robert Fisk meets a commander confidently preparing his soldiers for battle
The inside story of how Bill Clinton built a $2bn global foundation may undermine Hillary's chances

The inside story of how Bill Clinton built a $2bn global foundation...

... and how it may undermine Hillary's chances in 2016
12 best olive oils

Extra-virgin, cold-press, early-harvest, ultra-premium: 12 best olive oils

Choosing an olive oil is a surprising minefield. Save yourself the hassle with our handy guide
Rafa Benitez Real Madrid unveiling: New manager full of emotion at Bernabeu homecoming

Benitez full of emotion at Bernabeu homecoming

There were tears in the former Liverpool manager’s eyes as he was unveiled as Real Madrid coach. But the Spaniard knows he must make tough decisions if he is to succeed
Sepp Blatter resignation: The beginning of Fifa's long road to reform?

Does Blatter's departure mean Fifa will automatically clean up its act?

Don't bet on it, says Tom Peck
Charles Kennedy: The baby of the House who grew into a Lib Dem giant

The baby of the House who grew into a Lib Dem giant

Charles Kennedy was consistently a man of the centre-left, dedicated to social justice, but was also a champion of liberty and an opponent of the nanny-state, says Baroness Williams
Syria civil war: The harrowing testament of a five-year-old victim of this endless conflict

The harrowing testament of a five-year-old victim of Syria's endless civil war

Sahar Qanbar lost her mother and brother as civilians and government soldiers fought side by side after being surrounded by brutal Islamist fighters. Robert Fisk visited her
The future of songwriting: How streaming is changing everything we know about making music

The future of songwriting

How streaming is changing everything we know about making music
William Shemin and Henry Johnson: Jewish and black soldiers receive World War I Medal of Honor amid claims of discrimination

Recognition at long last

Jewish and black soldiers who fought in WWI finally receive medals after claims of discrimination
Beating obesity: The new pacemaker which helps over-eaters

Beating obesity

The new pacemaker which helps over-eaters
9 best women's festival waterproofs

Ready for rain: 9 best women's festival waterproofs

These are the macs to keep your denim dry and your hair frizz-free(ish)
Cycling World Hour Record: Nervous Sir Bradley Wiggins ready for pain as he prepares to go distance

Wiggins worried

Nervous Sir Bradley ready for pain as he prepares to attempt cycling's World Hour Record
Liverpool close in on Milner signing

Liverpool close in on Milner signing

Reds baulk at Christian Benteke £32.5m release clause
On your feet! Spending at least two hours a day standing reduces the risk of heart attacks, cancer and diabetes, according to new research

On your feet!

Spending half the day standing 'reduces risk of heart attacks and cancer'
With scores of surgeries closing, what hope is there for the David Cameron's promise of 5,000 more GPs and a 24/7 NHS?

The big NHS question

Why are there so few new GPs when so many want to study medicine?