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Judge Vernon L. Neilson

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Anne Arundel County District Judge Vernon L. "Sonny" Neilson, who served on the bench for 13 years and was known for his straightforward, no-nonsense demeanor in the courtroom, died Monday of cancer at Tate House Hospice in Linthicum. He was 87.

"I was a young lawyer when he was on the bench, and I can tell you he was a straight shooter. If you had a weak case, he'd let you know right away," said Maryland Court of Appeals Judge Clayton Greene Jr., who was a District Court judge from 1988 to 1995.

"He was a very decisive judge who had good common sense, and that's what we all want in a judge," said Judge Greene. "He always called it the way he saw it. I thought very highly of him. In my view, he was down to earth. There was nothing frilly or pretentious about him. He spoke his mind on and off the bench."

"Vernon had a good reputation of being both efficient and fair. He cared for the common man," said Judge Bruce Williams, who retired in 1996 from the Maryland Circuit Court.

The son of a machinist and a homemaker, Vernon Louis Neilson was born in Baltimore and raised in Lansdowne.

"A cousin of his named him 'Sonny' after Al Jolson's song 'Sonny Boy,' and it stuck," said his wife of 63 years, the former Lois M. Gerber, who worked for a decade as secretary to the principal of Glen Burnie High School.

After graduating in 1943 from Catonsville High School, Judge Neilson enlisted in the Navy and served in the Pacific as quartermaster aboard the attack transport USS DuPage.

He participated in the invasion of Kwajalein, Guam, Palau Islands, Peleliu, the Philippines and Leyte. He was wounded during a Jan. 10, 1945, Japanese kamikaze attack on his ship that killed 35. He received a Purple Heart.

After being discharged from the Navy in 1946, he enrolled at the University of Baltimore School of Law on the GI Bill of Rights. While attending law school, Judge Neilson drove a taxicab and worked three summers aboard Standard Oil Co. tankers.

He graduated from law school and was admitted to the Maryland Bar in 1951. He worked for Title Guarantee Co. as a title searcher and later for Kemper Insurance Co. as an adjuster.

In the late 1950s, Judge Neilson began practicing law with Paul Berman, and in 1964 established his own general law practice in Odenton. In 1967, he served as a delegate to the Maryland Constitutional Convention.

In 1968, Judge Neilson was appointed to the People's Court of Anne Arundel County, and three years later Gov. Marvin Mandel appointed him to the District Court for Anne Arundel County.

A 1980 article in The Evening Sun described Judge Neilson as "a brusque, impassive-looking man who has a reputation for being 'street-wise' and rides a Kawasaki 900 motorcycle to work in the summer. [He] feels he had been 'unfairly harassed' for his 'individualistic thinking.' "

Judge Neilson stressed in the article that following rules in court was extremely important.

"If you ignore the technicalities, you are ignoring the rights of the defendant. I've always done what I thought was right, and I have no regrets," he told the newspaper.

Joseph Touhey, a Glen Burnie lawyer, was a longtime friend.

"I love the guy. Sonny was one unique individual. He was really very street-smart and people thought he walked on water. He was very genuine," said Mr. Touhey.

"People think once a person becomes a judge, they are suddenly pro-state and pro-police. Not Sonny. He was the nemesis of the police force. And if you were a police officer, you better not come into his court with fancy footwork and oratory, because he knew the law," said Mr. Touhey.

"One time, a police officer kept insisting during a DWI case that the man's eyes were glassy," said Mr. Touhey. "And the man did have a glass eye. He took it out and put it on the table. Sonny nearly died laughing over that one."

After stepping down from the bench in 1985, Judge Neilson continued working as a substitute judge in Southern Maryland.

Judge Neilson had been a member of the Trial Judges Association and was active in the Kiwanis Club and the Howard Lodge of the Masons. Until June, he volunteered with Meals on Wheels of Central Maryland and had been active in the Juvenile Diabetes Association.

He had been a trustee of Lynchburg College in Lynchburg, Va.

Judge Neilson enjoyed fishing, boating, goose hunting and ballroom dancing. He also liked camping and had visited the other 49 states and many of the Canadian provinces. He enjoyed traveling by ship and was an avid reader.

He had been a member for 81 years of Lansdowne Christian Church, where he rose to become an elder and member of the board.

Services will be held at noon Friday at the Loudon Park Funeral Home, 3620 Wilkens Ave.

In addition to his wife, Judge Neilson is survived by four sons, Randy K. Neilson of Crownsville, Blake D. Neilson of Pasadena, Brent D. Neilson of Falls Church, Va., and Scott B. Murphy-Neilson of Herndon, Va.; two granddaughters; and a great-granddaughter. His daughter, Cynthia Neilson, died in 2007.

fred.rasmussen@baltsun.com

Copyright © 2014, The Baltimore Sun
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