Janice Morse reports:
The glare of international publicity hit Neal Bronson soon after he became a judge.
In 1987, he presided over the strange case of Sam the Chimp, a cigarette-smoking, beer-swilling primate caught in a custody battle between his owner and the Humane Society of the United States.
Then, toward the end of Bronson’s tenure on the Warren County Common Pleas Court bench, he endured the rigors of three sensational trials for Ryan Widmer, whom a jury convicted of murder three years after the 2008 bathtub-drowning of his wife.
During those cases, and hundreds in between, Bronson earned respect for being a cool-headed jurist with a commanding presence – tempered with endearing dashes of humor and warmth, says Jim Spaeth, Warren County clerk of courts.
“He just seemed to stay very steady through it all,” Spaeth said. “He’s open to people, he’s caring; he’s just a flat-out nice guy.”
Bronson had been a fixture in the Warren County courthouse from 1987 until he retired from the bench at the end of last year following a string of unopposed elections.
Bronson, 64, could have sought another term, but he decided it was time to step aside.
His time on the bench provided insights into troubling trends, Bronson said.
Often, he says, people who run afoul of the law share similar life scripts. “They didn’t finish high school, had substance (abuse) issues, come from a single-parent family,” Bronson said.
“It’s kind of sad…. I wish I could help these people,” he said.
Still, Bronson occasionally saw a sign that he had made a difference in someone’s life.
Weeks before his retirement, Bronson and his wife were out for dinner and learned that the bartender had once been a defendant in his courtroom. The man told Bronson: “You gave me another chance. I always said, if I ever saw you again, I wanted to tell you thank you,” Bronson recalled.
Bronson’s successor, Judge Don Oda, says he looked up to Bronson for years. As a defense lawyer, Oda tried his first felony case before Bronson.
“He helped a lot of the younger lawyers,” Oda said. “After trials, he would give us advice on things that we might be able to do differently or things that we did well.”
Oda admired Bronson’s courtroom style. “He was very humble as a judge, and he was just very workman-like, and he did not try to insert himself in the case. In fact, it was quite the reverse. He tried to extract himself from the case so the facts would just play out and present themselves,” Oda said.
Oda, who became a judge in Warren County Court in 2005 and then was elected to fill Bronson’s Common Pleas seat, said some judges make the mistake of becoming “outcome-driven” or “they let their emotions get the best of them.”
He would never say that about Bronson.
“He always gave the attorneys the freedom to try their own case … as long as the attorneys behaved themselves,” Oda said. “When somebody was acting up, his presence in the courtroom was formidable; if you got scraped by Judge Bronson, you remembered it for a long, long time.”
‘I just wanted it to be right’
Bronson credits his quiet confidence on the bench to some advice he received as a brand-new judge.
He had been a defense lawyer for 15 years and, “The first day I had to make a decision, it was very strange.… I was used to being an advocate and presenting your side. That was a big change,” Bronson said.
A veteran magistrate, Eddie Lawson, told him: “Everyone just wants a decision. If they don’t like it, they can appeal.”
And, with that, Bronson said, “I stopped fretting about every decision. I just wanted it to be right.”
The most frequently publicized case of Bronson’s career was Ryan Widmer’s, Bronson said.
The publicity made it harder for Bronson to “make everybody feel comfortable,” particularly jurors, he said, noting that ethical rules bar him from further discussing the case while appeals are pending.
Spaeth said one situation in the Widmer case put the judge’s patience to the test.
“It was the only time that I’ve ever seen him mad or change his demeanor,” he said. “It wasn’t ranting or raving. But there was no smile on the face, let’s put it that way.”
Now that Bronson has retired, he plans to serve as a visiting judge and mediator. He also will spend more time with his two grown children and wife of 41 years, Barbara.
Bronson advises anyone aspiring to be a judge to keep in mind this fact about court cases: “By nature, half the people are unhappy. But at least, hopefully, they think they were treated fairly.”
About Sam the Chimp
Bronson agrees that the Sam the Chimp case was the most bizarre case he handled in his 25 years as a judge.
The case became legendary in Warren County. Even now it pops up in conversations, more than a quarter-century after it happened.
Sam, a chimpanzee who had once been in a traveling sideshow, became a “living landmark” at the Train Stop Inn in Fosters. Patrons of the Warren County tavern gave the chimp cigarettes to smoke and beer to drink.
The Humane Society of the United States learned about the situation and complained to authorities. Police confiscated the primate, and Sam’s owner, Kenneth Harris, was charged with animal cruelty. After Harris was acquitted of that misdemeanor, the Society filed suit, seeking custody of Sam. That part of the case landed in Bronson’s court.
In July 1987, The Enquirer reported Bronson had decided to return the chimp to Harris while the custody suit was pending. Bronson also criticized the Humane Society for suing only after Harris was acquitted of the cruelty charge.
Bronson ended up not having to decide the case, however.
The Humane Society and Harris reached a settlement in 1988; the terms remained undisclosed.
The case became so famous that Sam’s portrait and part of his story were included in a 1993 National Geographic Society book, “The Great Apes: Between Two Worlds.”
A passage in the book says Sam “ignored” healthful snacks such as fruit but grabbed soda, cheesy snacks and “cigarettes, which he lighted with his own lighter.”
Harris, who still lives in Fosters, is now in poor health and couldn’t be interviewed for this story.
Tavern employee Melody DeCarlo said Sam was moved to an animal preserve in an undisclosed location out of state. As far as she knows, Sam is still alive, noting that chimpanzees can live into their 50s.
“Customers ask me about Sam almost every day and tell me stories,” said DeCarlo, who never met the chimp. “In fact, because of Sam, they know us as ‘The Monkey Bar’ as well as the Train Stop.”