`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and lawns which is home also to some of the Kennedys - this weekend, he was forced to ask for a new number that would not be published.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.

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