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Liberal South African Judge Dies

October 27, 1998

DURBAN, South Africa (AP) _ John Didcott, a judge who tried to soften the impact of harsh apartheid-era laws and rose to sit on South Africa’s highest court, is dead at age 67.

Reluctant to join the bench during apartheid because he would have to administer the system of white rule, Didcott decided to do so after concluding he could try to alleviate the impact of unjust laws.

While serving on the provincial Natal Supreme Court, Didcott and two other judges criticized an apartheid law allowing people deemed ``idle and undesirable″ to be jailed for a year. The judges’ 1983 opinion led to the government scrapping the law.

Didcott proposed in 1988 that the state provide legal counsel to indigent defendants _ a move overturned by a higher apartheid-era court.

An opponent of the death penalty, Didcott never sentenced anyone to death.

``South Africa has experienced too much savagery,″ he wrote in one case, adding that the state must demonstrate ``the priceless value it places on the lives of all its subjects _ even the worst.″

``He used the opportunities presented to him on the bench to do what he could with existing laws to promote the cause of human rights,″ Julian von Klemperer, president of the Natal Law Society, was quoted as saying by The Star newspaper.

In 1994, Didcott was appointed to the Constitutional Court _ the highest tribunal in South Africa _ by President Nelson Mandela.

Didcott died of leukemia Oct. 20 at his Duban home.

He is survived by his wife, Pam, his mother and two daughters.

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