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Orange County judge can stand trial for murder in wife's shooting death, judge says


LOS ANGELES (AP) — A Southern California judge can stand trial on a murder charge in the shooting death of his wife, another judge ruled Thursday, after finding there was sufficient evidence for the case to proceed.

The decision came after a preliminary hearing for Orange County Superior Court Judge Jeffrey Ferguson, who was arrested in August and charged with killing his wife in their home in the upscale neighborhood of Anaheim Hills.

The hearing was held before Los Angeles County Superior Court Judge Eleanor J. Hunter to avoid a conflict. Until the shooting, Ferguson was presiding over criminal cases in a courtroom about 25 miles (40 kilometers) away in the Orange County city of Fullerton.

Prosecutors declined to comment after the hearing, during which three police officers and a police detective described the scene and interviews with the couple's adult son, who called 911 to report the shooting.

Ferguson’s attorney, T. Edward Welbourn, said the only eyewitness — the son — believes the shooting was an accident, and that Ferguson’s wife was “the love of his life.”

“It was a terrible, tragic incident that occurred,” Welbourn said after the hearing.

Ferguson — who is also a former prosecutor — is scheduled to be arraigned in Los Angeles on July 5 on one count of murder and weapons-related enhancements. He remains free on $1 million bail and is required to use monitoring devices for GPS and blood alcohol content.

Ferguson was arrested on Aug. 3 at his home after police found his wife, Sheryl Ferguson, shot to death. Prosecutors said in court filings that the couple had been arguing and the judge had been drinking when he pulled a pistol from an ankle holster and shot her in the chest. Authorities said they later found 47 weapons, including the pistol used in the shooting, and more than 26,000 rounds of ammunition at the judge's home.

Ferguson and his son called 911, and Ferguson texted his court clerk and bailiff saying: “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 prosecutors’ filings.

In court on Thursday, Anaheim police Det. Michael Nguyen testified that the couple's son told him the family had gone out to dinner at a restaurant where his parents began to argue over finances, as they often did. He said his father made a gun gesture with his hands, prompting his mother to walk out of the restaurant, Nguyen told the court.

The family returned home and began watching “Breaking Bad” while the couple continued arguing, with his mother at one point saying "why don’t you point a real gun at me?” Nguyen recalled the son saying.

The son turned around “and sees his father holding a gun in his right hand and the gun immediately going off in the direction of his mother,” Nguyen said.

Ferguson told his son to call 911, and when officers arrived at the home they told the court they found the judge outside. "He said, ’shoot me, shoot me,'" Anaheim police officer Joshua Juntilla testified, adding that Ferguson smelled of alcohol and appeared in shock with tears in his eyes.

Ferguson's wife was pronounced dead at the scene. Ferguson was arrested and police officer Andrew Compton said he heard him making unsolicited statements.

“He spontaneously stated, and used the words, ‘I just killed my wife,’” Compton told the court.

Ferguson has been a judge since 2015. He started his legal career in the Orange County district attorney’s office in 1983, worked on narcotics cases for which he won various awards, and served as president of the North Orange County Bar Association from 2012 to 2014.

Ferguson was admonished by the Commission on Judicial Performance in 2017 for posting a statement on Facebook about a judicial candidate “with knowing or reckless disregard for the truth of the statement.”

According to Ferguson's Facebook profile, he grew up in a military family and traveled throughout Asia as a child. He attended college and law school in California, and he married his wife in 1996.

The arrest shocked the Southern California legal community. The district attorney’s office in Orange County, a cluster of cities that are collectively home to 3 million people, is trying the case but hearings are being held before a Los Angeles County judge in downtown Los Angeles.