California judge pleads not guilty to murder in wife’s death

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A Southern California judge charged with killing his wife during an argument while he was drunk pleaded not guilty to murder Tuesday, and his lawyer says it was an “accidental shooting.”

Los Angeles Superior Court Judge Ricardo Ocampo ordered Orange County Superior Court Judge Jeffrey Ferguson, who appeared in court in a suit and tie, to surrender his passport, submit to searches, and wear monitoring devices for blood alcohol content and GPS as part of new bail conditions sought by prosecutors. Ferguson, who is free on $1 million bail, also is barred from possessing firearms and alcohol and frequenting places such as bars and liquor stores.

After the hearing, Ferguson’s lawyers told reporters the long-time judge and former prosecutor was confident a jury would agree with him that no crime was committed. “This was an unintentional, accidental shooting and not a crime,” attorney Paul Meyer said. The hearing was held in Los Angeles because Ferguson has been a judge hearing criminal cases in a courtroom about 25 miles (40 kilometers) to the southeast in Orange County. The next hearing in Ferguson’s case was set for Oct. 30. The 72-year-old was arrested on Aug. 3 at his home in the upscale neighborhood of Anaheim Hills after police found his wife, Sheryl Ferguson, shot to death.

Prosecutors said in court filings that the couple had been arguing and the judge was drinking when he pulled a pistol from an ankle holster and shot her in the chest. The couple’s adult son and Ferguson called 911, and Ferguson texted his court clerk and bailiff to say he had shot his wife, according to the filings. He texted: “I just lost it. I just shot my wife. I won’t be in tomorrow. I will be in custody. I’m so sorry,” according to the filing.

Prosecutors argued the new bail conditions protect public safety and ensure Ferguson doesn’t flee after authorities found 47 weapons, including the pistol used in the shooting, and more than 26,000 rounds of ammunition at his home. They say the weapons are legally owned but a rifle registered in his name is still missing. Ferguson was charged with one count of murder and weapons-related enhancements. Larry Rosen, Sheryl Ferguson’s brother, spoke with reporters after Tuesday’s hearing and said it was “hell” when Ferguson looked at him in the courtroom. “My sister was a wonderful person, very caring, very selfless,” Rosen said. “The family is absolutely in shock.”

Rosen declined to discuss Ferguson’s lawyers’ claims that the shooting was an accident and said he would defer to the police and prosecutors who are investigating. Rosen said his sister helped take care of him since he was still a minor when their mother died. He also said she was an active member of her community, participating in Boy Scouts and activities with her now-adult son. The son, who authorities said called 911 after the shooting, is the main focus of the family now, Rosen said. “It’s a tragedy for me. I can’t even fathom what he’s going through right now,” Rosen said.

The arrest shocked the Southern California legal community and officials have been grappling with how the case should be handled. The district attorney’s office in Orange County — a cluster of cities that are collectively home to more than 3 million people — asked state officials to weigh in on whether there was a conflict before charging him last week. Ferguson has been a judge since 2015. He started his legal career in the Orange County district attorney’s office in 1983 and went on to work narcotics cases, for which he won various awards.

He served as president of the North Orange County Bar Association from 2012 to 2014. In 2017, Ferguson was admonished by the Commission on Judicial Performance for posting a statement on Facebook about a judicial candidate “with knowing or reckless disregard for the truth of the statement,” and for being Facebook friends with attorneys appearing before him in court, according to a copy of the agency’s findings. Ferguson said on his Facebook page that he grew up in a military family and traveled throughout Asia as a child. He went on to attend college and law school in California. He and his wife were married in 1996.

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