Robert Philibosian, the former Los Angeles County district attorney who oversaw the prosecution in the controversial McMartin Preschool case and later served as legal commentator in another high-profile trial, the criminal case against O.J. Simpson, has died at the age of 83, according to his family.
Philibosian, who served as the county’s 38th district attorney from 1982 to 1984, was battling West Nile encephalitis and fell into a coma, daughter Janet Philibosian Valenzuela said. He was removed from life support on Monday.
Family members said in a statement:
“He was a true public servant and always put others before himself. He helped countless people advance their careers with no expectation of anything in return. He cherished his family (including his entire large extended family) above all else and devoted his life to his wife, his children and our spouses, and his beloved grandchildren. He took such pride in all of our accomplishments and we can’t imagine our lives without his constant presence.”
In 1982, Philibosian was unanimously chosen by the Board of Supervisors to succeed Dist. Atty. John Van de Kamp following Van de Kamp’s election to state attorney general. The Times reported at the time that the board decision came “after a series of roll calls marked by high drama and intense lobbying.”
Philibosian won out over two highly touted candidates, U.S. Atty. Stephen Trott and former Republican Assemblyman Dave Stirling. Lobbying to the board on his behalf was political ally and California Gov.-elect George Deukmejian. After three split roll calls, Supervisor Kenneth Hahn changed his mind and provided Philibosian the vote he needed.
Board members denied they were swayed by Philibosian’s close ties to the governor and pointed to his 15 years of experience as a prosecutor.
Upon accepting the board’s appointment, Philibosian pledged “all my efforts toward making the district attorney’s office as effective as possible.”
During his time as district attorney, Philibosian prosecuted civil cases regarding toxic waste disposal and environmental, consumer and antitrust law, as well as criminal matters. But perhaps the case that drew the most headlines was the prosecution of staff members at McMartin Preschool in Manhattan Beach who were accused of child molestation.
Peggy McMartin Buckey, her son, Ray Buckey, and her mother, Virginia McMartin, were among seven at the preschool initially indicted on 115 counts of child molestation by Philibosian, the presiding district attorney during the infamous case.
Ultimately, the case resulted in no convictions. All charges were dropped by 1990, with the entire case lasting seven years and costing taxpayers more than $13 million, making it the longest and most expensive trial in American history.
The Times reported that some jurors in the trials involving the Buckeys “said the children appeared to have been led by questioners to claim they had been molested. Others said that so much time had passed that the memories of the children — who passed from toddlerhood to adolescence in the course of the legal proceedings — couldn’t be trusted.”
Mary Ann Jackson was one of the preschool employees and original defendants against whom charges were dismissed. She told The Times that she blamed the hysteria and political ambitions of Philibosian, who was in a reelection bid, for a “weak case.”
He would lose his reelection race to Ira Reiner in 1984.
Philibosian joined the Los Angeles County district attorney’s office in 1968, rising to become head deputy in charge of the Van Nuys branch in 1979.
Deukmejian, then the attorney general, appointed him as chief assistant attorney general of the criminal law division, where he served from 1979 until 1982. In this position, he directed the state’s criminal appellate prosecution and oversaw initiatives against consumer fraud and antitrust issues.
“Robert Philibosian was an iconic figure in California’s legal and political scene, leaving an indelible mark on the legal community and beyond,” the Association of Deputy District Attorneys said in a statement. “His unwavering commitment to service, his dedication to mentorship, and his steadfast love for his family defined his illustrious career and life.”
At the height of the media frenzy surrounding the O.J. Simpson trial, Philibosian served as a legal commentator for ABC News, becoming a highly visible media figure throughout the trial. He appeared regularly on “Nightline,” “World News Tonight,” “20/20” and “Good Morning America,” heading up ABC’s coverage of special events during the trial, including closing arguments and the verdicts.
Sheppard Mullin — where he was a partner and legal counsel, working there from 1994 until his death— released a statement saying Philibosian had made “a lasting impression on the legal and political community, and his tireless commitment to advocating for justice stays with all of us.”
“He was a brilliant attorney, a keen strategist and a consummate professional,” the statement said. “To know Bob was to know him as a friend and a mentor, with generosity felt by all. His advice was treasured, whether he was advising clients on legal matters or providing words of wisdom to colleagues at the firm.”
Philibosian was born in Selma, Calif., on Sept. 29, 1940.
He earned a bachelor’s degree in history from Stanford University and, in 1967, a law degree from Southwestern Law School. He passed the California State Bar in 1968.
“Everybody who came in contact with him respected him. Whether it was the client or the adversary, Republican or Democrat, everybody respected,” said Guy Halgren, who was partners with Philibosian at Sheppard Mullin.
Philibosian is survived by his wife of 54 years, Nancy Philibosian; children Janet Philibosian Valenzuela and Robert Philibosian; five grandchildren; and siblings Dianne Philibosian and Richard Philibosian.