Colorful Lake Circuit Judge Jerry Lockett, who sentenced seven men to death, dies

Photo: Jerry Lockett

Former Lake County Judge Jerry Lockett is pictured during misdemeanor criminal traffic hearings at the Lake County Courthouse. (Stephen M. Dowell, Orlando Sentinel / June 28, 2005)

As the body was carried out of the house, retired Tavares lawyer Jerri Blair rose to her feet on the front porch to deliver one final salute as he passed by.

She snapped it off just the way former Circuit Judge Jerry T. Lockett liked it, so he'd know that he was still the boss.

Boss, orphan, naval officer, father, tough judge, brilliant legal mind and voracious advocate for children — Lockett was all.

The colorful judge who toted two pistols under his black robe and whose controversial ruling helped changed Florida abortion law died late Tuesday at his home in the Silver Lake area of Leesburg following years of declining health. "Lock 'em up Lockett" was 71.

He left behind his wife, Ruth, a retired schoolteacher, and two daughters: Catherine, a school guidance counselor; and Elizabeth, a marketing executive for a law firm in Washington, D.C. Blair was his longtime law partner.

Describing Lockett, who retired from the bench in November 2001, and his larger-than-life personality is difficult because he lived and worked in a different legal era.

Today, the justice system seems so sterile. There's little camaraderie. Back in Lockett's day, prosecutors and defense attorneys — not to mention newspaper reporters and folks who worked at the courthouse — got together weekly at a Tavares bar called the Waterfront, where the justice went on.

Many a passionate legal debate was moderated — well, instigated is probably more accurate — by a roaring Lockett calling for another round.

Controversial rulings

But make no mistake: Lockett was no legal lightweight.

He ruled in 1989 that Florida's law preventing teen abortion without parental or judicial consent was unconstitutional. The case, involving a 15-year-old Lake County girl, went to the U.S. Supreme Court in 18 days with Blair as her attorney, firmly establishing the right of all women in Florida to get an abortion.

In July 1992, Lockett threw out Florida's statutory rape law, saying a teen's right to have sex with adults outweighs the state's right to interfere. The case involved a 17-year-old girl and a man who was 18. They came to court holding hands and convinced Lockett that they were mature enough to make a decision about sex.

Today, a child who is at least 16 can consent to sex with a person who is not 24 or older; those under 16 cannot legally give consent.

As a circuit judge for 15 years, Lockett oversaw some of Lake's most heinous murder cases and sentenced seven convicts to death in the electric chair, among them James Duckett, the Mascotte police officer who raped and killed an 11-year-old girl on her way to a convenience store to buy a pencil so she could finish her homework.

No question, Lockett was tough. But he also was the sort of judge who raked aside bureaucracy and its petty rules to achieve justice.

And justice was his single goal.

Take the time in 2001 that Lockett went up against the U.S. Immigration and Naturalization Service because a Lake woman was on the verge of being deported — wrongly, he deemed. She had obtained a divorce in her native Panama, and the INS refused to recognize its validity. He read of the woman's plight and presided over a second, quickie divorce so that she could instantly remarry in a courthouse ceremony to satisfy the federal agency. Problem solved.

'So much empathy for kids'

Most of Lockett's courtroom triumphs came behind closed doors because they involved children.

One decision always haunted him. In 1998, the state agency that is supposed to protect children assured Lockett that 6-year-old Kayla McKeen would be fine if he gave her father custody. The man beat the elementary school student to death and buried her in the Ocala National Forest.

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