Orange County judge charged with killing wife pleads not guilty

One week after admitting in a text message that he shot his wife after he “lost it,” Orange County Superior Court Judge Jeffrey Ferguson pleaded not guilty to murder charges in a downtown L.A. courtroom.

Ferguson, 72, was charged with murder last week. Prosecutors allege he pulled a gun from his ankle holster and shot his 65-year-old wife, Sheryl, inside the couple’s Anaheim Hills home. He spent one night in jail and has remained free in lieu of $1-million bail since, records show.

Los Angeles County Superior Court Judge Ricardo Ocampo allowed Ferguson to remain free during a Tuesday morning hearing, but ordered him to surrender his passport and barred him from traveling anywhere outside Los Angeles, Orange or Riverside counties. The veteran judge must also refrain from consuming alcohol or possessing firearms, submit to electronic monitoring and stay away from bars, Ocampo said.

Ferguson, wearing a black suit with white hair swept slightly toward his eyes, did not speak to reporters outside the courtroom. His attorneys, John Barnett and Paul Meyer, described the killing as an “accidental shooting and not a crime.”

“Judge Ferguson protected and served the citizens of Orange County for 40 years. He’s confident that when a jury from Orange County hears these facts they will agree with us that this was an unintentional discharge of a firearm, there was no intent to kill, no malice,” Barnett said.

Asked how his client would be spared from a manslaughter charge if the shooting was in fact accidental, Barnett insisted Ferguson was innocent of that crime too.

On the night of the Aug. 3 shooting, Ferguson and his wife got into an argument over dinner at a restaurant, where he threatened her “by making a hand gesture indicative of pointing a gun at her,” prosecutors allege.

The argument continued when the couple returned home, where Sheryl Ferguson said, “Why don’t you point a real gun at me?” or something similar, prosecutors allege.

The judge removed a .40-caliber Glock handgun from his ankle holster and shot Sheryl once in the chest, prosecutors said.

Ferguson and his 22-year-old son called 911 before the judge reached out to his law clerk and bailiff via text message.

“I just lost it. I just shot my wife. I won’t be in tomorrow. I will be in custody. I’m so sorry,” he wrote, according to court filings.

After Ferguson’s arrest, Anaheim police confiscated 47 firearms and more than 26,000 rounds of ammunition from his home. Detectives were unable to find a .22-caliber rifle that is registered in his name, according to the district attorney’s office. In court, the judge’s attorneys insisted that he does not own such a weapon.

Laurie Levenson, a former federal prosecutor, said the facts of the case as publicly known clearly justify a murder charge.

“They’ll say he was in the heat of passion … but it is very much what we could call a second-degree murder,” she said. “In California, the standard is callous disregard for human life. Even if you’re drunk, you can have enough intent to meet the requirements of second-degree murder.”

Levenson said the facts of the case will probably inhibit Ferguson’s ability to argue he was too impaired to realize the danger he’d put his wife in. Ferguson’s blood-alcohol content was measured at 0.06% after the shooting, below the legal limit for intoxication, court records show.

“The standard is malice, and here malice would be that he at least realized the risk that he was going to seriously injure or kill her,” she said. “The less drunk he is, the easier it is to argue that he realized that risk.”

The case has been moved out of Orange County’s court system because Ferguson had been a judge there since 2015. But despite the fact that Ferguson was a longtime prosecutor before taking the bench, the Orange County district attorney’s office is still prosecuting the case because the California attorney general’s office declared there was no conflict of interest.

Sheryl Ferguson was laid to rest in a Hollywood Hills cemetery Monday, according to her younger brother, Larry Rosen, who said his sister was “a wonderful person, very caring, very selfless.”

Rosen declined to discuss the specifics of the case or answer questions about the Fergusons’ relationship, other than to say, “There’s going to be some stuff that will potentially come up.” But he described the shooting as an “absolute tragedy.”

“The family is absolutely in shock and she’s going to be missed dearly,” he said. “She’s very well loved by very many people.”

Times staff writer Christopher Goffard contributed to this report.