Deputy D.A.’s a Bit of TV’s Columbo, With Just a Dash of Perry Mason
Sunday, November 14th, 1976
Nov. 14 – In stature and appearance (dark, wavy hair) there is a suggestion of television’s insouciant detective Columbo (Peter Falk, if you prefer).
It would come as no surprise if he ambled up to the witness stand wearing a raincoat and asked as an afterthought: “Just one more question, sir. if you don’t mind.”
This is Aaron H. Stovitz who, at 52, is the head deputy district attorney for the Pasadena area — a man whose confident yet diffedent manner, an associate says, has been deposited by experience as an overlay on his once youthful brashness.
Through his experience, in which he has brought to heel many criminals, Stovitz has learned that the real denouement for those who break the law often comes from successful prosecution in the courtroom and not at the scene of the crime as is often depicted in televised detective fiction. Thus, Perry Mason, comes closer to the reality of Stovitz’ profession than does Columbo.
At the age of 28 and only two years out of law school at Southwestern University with a magna cum laude degree to hang on his wall, Stovitz was assigned his first felony trial. That was under Dist. Atty. Ernest Roll who initiated a policy of giving the younger blood in his office a chance at trial practice.
Two years later, Stovitz was trying his first murder case involving the death of a Whittier woman as a result of injuries received during a kidnaping, robbery and rape.
Stovitz has prosecuted many cases since then, not the least of which was the initial prosecution of the Manson Family murder case. He was on that case from November, 1969, until September, 1970, when, as he explains it, then Dist. Atty. Evelle Younger felt that the trial was taking too much time and that he needed Stovitz back in administration as head of trials.
Other stories, including that of Vincent Bugliosi, who took over as chief prosecutor in the case, have indicated that Stovitz was removed after an imprudent aside to a reporter about one of the Manson family witnesses, Linda Kasabian.
A wire service carried a story quoting Stovitz after Kasabian had testified: “Oh, she gave a performance worthy of Sarah Bernhardt.”
Stovitz was depicted recently in a television movie, “Helter Skelter,” based on Bugliosi’s book about the Manson case.
“Helter Skelter” was the phrase scrawled in blood on the refrigerator of the LaBiancas, the Los Angeles couple murdered days after the slayings of actress Sharon Tate and four others at Tate’s Benedict Canyon home.
New York-born Stovitz, who lives in Sherman Oaks with his wife, Clara, two sons and a daughter, is concerned about the increase in murders. And when he ran unsuccessfully for judge in the Los Angeles Superior Court this year, he came out in favor of capital punishment because he believes it is a definite deterrent, especially in premeditated murder.
Stovitz believes that killing is a moral Rubicon that most people will never cross “but once someone kills in a premeditated way there is a likelihood that he will do it again.”
Stovitz believes that once the Manson Family killed it had crossed that boundary “and when there was no sense of remorse they could kill again.”
Stovitz says he does not feel this is the situation in some murders committed out of passion. “In some cases,” he said, “I think the person who kills will never kill again.”
His main concern is the threat of the growing number of cold-blooded, premeditated murders. But not only has the number of murders risen, Stovitz reminds, but in the Iast 10 years “the number of mass murders has risen also.”
“It is just one of the facts of life,” he says, “that people in some parts of the country are afraid to go out on the streets.”
Stovitz’ office in the Pasadena Superior Court building covers the western part of the San Gabriel Valley as well as Glendale, La Canada and La Crescenta, which are served by 10 local police departments, the Sheriff’s Department, the Los Angeles Police Department and the California Highway Patrol.
There were 27 murder cases filed in his area last year, Stovitz notes, and with two months to go there have been 22 filed this year. Stovitz believes that capital punishment, which in California is limited to 11 specified crimes, can act as a deterrent and might help bring down these numbers.
Stovitz believes that with some lesser offenses the work of the courts could be eased by adopting different approaches.
Los Angeles City Atty. Burt Pines, for example, recently proposed that there should be mandatory incarceration for all first-time misdemeanor drunk drivers.
If that proposal were adopted, Stovitz believes, it would increase the work of the courts tenfold.
“I agree that drunk driving is a serious offense,” he says, “and that courts are much too lenient with drunk driving offenders, but I feel that some of the court load could be relieved by eliminating as much as possible some of the trials on other traffic offenses.”
Some traffic offenses, Stovitz asserts, could be handled administratively by the state Department of Motor Vehicles (DMV)
“A driver’s greatest penalty,” says Stovitz, “is that his insurance will go up or that he will lose his license. I know that there is a lot of concern that this kind of proposal might result in the DMV officers becoming a rubber stamp for police citations, but on the other hand if a driver has a particular problem, the DMV can put sanctions on his driver’s license.”
From his vantage point as a seasoned trial prosecutor and professor of law at the University of San Fernando law school, Stovilz believes that crime generally is due in some measure to the breakdown of family life.
“There are no solutions to crime in the magic sense of the word,” Stovitz says. However, he believes crime will continue to increase unless more individuals take an active interest in crime in their neighborhoods.
“I don’t believe people should form vigilante groups,” says Stovitz, “but I am in favor of neighborhood groups cooperating in the protection of their homes against burglaries and other crimes.”
A brass clock in the form of the scales of justice behind Stovitz’ desk underscores his abiding interest in the law, but although Stovitz enjoys his role as prosecutor he makes no tones about his desire to sit on the bench.
“I would never run again against an incumbent judge,” says Stovitz, “but I am hoping that perhaps the governor will see fit to appoint me.”
By BERT MANN