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Judge Gerhard Gesell Dies at 82

February 21, 1993

WASHINGTON (AP) _ Gerhard A. Gesell, who as a federal judge presided over a number of high- profile cases involving political scandal including Watergate and the Iran- Contra affair, is dead at age 82.

Gesell, who served for 25 years on the federal bench and assumed a reduced work load only recently, died Friday at his Washington home after suffering from liver cancer.

Gesell was appointed to the Federal District Court in Washington in 1967 by President Lyndon B. Johnson, after many years as one of the country’s most successful defense lawyers specializing in antitrust cases.

But Gesell’s prominence stemmed from presiding over a string of major, highly public cases many of which had profound impact on government, political figures and American society.

Gesell, along with the late Judge John Sirica, ruled over many of the court cases connected with the Watergate scandal that force the resignation of President Nixon.

He ruled that Nixon’s office tapes that detailed the Watergate coverup, were in the public domain, clearing the way for making them public. And he helped keep the Watergate investigations alive by ruling that the dismissal of special prosecutor Archibald Cox in 1973 had been illegal.

A feisty, no-nonsense judge, he at one point threatened to hold Nixon in contempt for withholding Watergate evidence. He sentenced a number of senior Nixon aides to jail because of the coverup.

Gesell played a key role in several cases involving the Pentagon Papers, a critical study of U.S. conduct of the Vietnam war.

In 1971, he ruled that the documents could be published by The Washington Post after they had been leaked by Daniel Ellsberg. Nine days later the ruling was upheld by the Supreme Court, leading to the papers publication by the Post and The New York Times.

Years later, Gesell presided over the prosecution of John D. Ehrlichman, Nixon’s chief domestic adviser, in connection with the break-in of Ellsberg’s psychiatrist’s office during the Pentagon Papers controversy. He sentenced Ehrlichman to prison, calling the break-in ″a shameful episode in the history of the country.″

More recently, Gesell presided over the criminal trial of Lt. Col. Oliver North for his role in the Iran-Contra affair, and surprised onlookers by not sending North to jail after the jury found him guilty of obstructing Congress, destroying documents and receiving an illegal gratuity.

Instead he fined the former Marine Corps officer $150,000, placed him on probation for two years and ordered him to serve 1,200 hours of community service.

Gesell handled a number of other historic cases during his career on the bench, including one in 1969 that became one of the early landmarks to liberalize abortion. He declared the District of Columbia’s abortion statute, which permitted only abortions to preserve the mother’s life or health, as unconstitutional.

Gesell was born in Los Angeles in 1910. He graduated from Yale in 1932 and Yale Law School in 1935. While still in his 20s he established a reputation as a trial lawyer at the Securities and Exchange Commission by successfully prosecuting the president of the New York Stock Exchange for securities fraud.

His opponent in the trial was Dean Acheson, then of the powerful Washington law firm Covington & Burling.

Gesell is survived by his widow, two children and three grandchildren.

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