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Tuesday, September 12, 1995 - Page updated at 12:00 AM

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Last Of Nuremburg-Tribunal Judges, William Wilkins, Dies In Bellevue At 98

BELLEVUE - William J. Wilkins, the last surviving judge of the post-World War II Nuremberg tribunal that convicted numerous Nazis of war crimes, is dead at the age of 98.

Locally, the longtime King County judge is perhaps best remembered for his 1971 decision against mandatory school busing when he ruled that Seattle's racial imbalance was not deliberate but the result of housing patterns. His decision was later overturned.

Judge Wilkins, who died Saturday at his Bellevue home, was born in 1897, the fifth of nine children of a miner who emigrated from Cornwall, England, to Michigan's Upper Peninsula. At the age of 14 he went to work in a copper mine to help support the family after his father became ill.

In a 1988 interview, he recalled that every time he fastened the miners' carbide lamp on his work helmet and descended into the mine to pick rocks or operate a jackhammer, he wondered if he would see the light of day again.

In September 1918, while serving as a sergeant with the U.S. Army in France during World War I, he won a battlefield commission to second lieutenant. During the Meuse-Argonne offensive some weeks later, he was awarded a Silver Star for gallantry after leading a mission to knock out a German machine-gun nest.

Returning home, he completed high school, worked his way through the University of Michigan and obtained his law degree from George Washington University Law School. On a classmate's invitation to visit, he came to Seattle in 1928. He liked the area so much he stayed and passed the state bar. He met his future wife, Lucille, the daughter of a Yakima rancher, a year later.

Judge Wilkins was a King County deputy prosecutor from 1929 to 1934 and then went into private practice until 1940, when he was appointed a King County Superior Court judge. At the outbreak of World War II, he re-enlisted and was back in the Army as a major in the Judge Advocate General Corps.

After the war, he returned to the King County bench, but in September 1947 was appointed by President Harry Truman as one of 32 American judges to try high Nazi officials accused of war crimes.

Judge Wilkins was on the three-judge panel that heard the Krupp Munitions case. Alfred Krupp and several associates were found guilty of plundering art treasures and manufacturing equipment from conquered territories and kidnapping their people, in violation of The Hague regulations of 1907. Judge Wilkins described the trial in his autobiography, "The Sword and the Gavel."

He returned to the bench and served until his retirement in 1972.

In 1952, he and his wife adopted a family of five children, ranging in age from 5 to 15 and whose parents had died and left them with no close relatives. They enlarged their house and joined the Episcopal Church, where the children felt at home.

The Wheat-Aiken murder trial in the mid-1960s, in which Judge Wilkins sentenced two Paine Field airmen to death for killing attendants at three service stations, resulted in the U.S. Supreme Court decision that declared Washington state's death penalty unconstitutional.

"I suppose you could call me a hard-liner, a firm believer in capital punishment," Judge Wilkins reflected after more than 30 years on the bench. "(But) I think (the death penalty) should be handled in such a way that it is a deterrent."

Judge Wilkins was one of two surviving members of the Last Man's Club of World War I survivors, founded here in 1938. It was one of several around the country that agreed that the last survivor would pop the cork on the bottle of cognac and drink to his departed friends.

But on Veterans Day 1993, he and two other remaining survivors, all in their 90s, decided to have a party and drank the cognac.

Judge Wilkins survived by his wife; five children, Jay G. of Issaquah; Jensen R. of Woodinville; Jeannie Guzzi of Seattle; Virginia Cook and Dennis Wilkins, both of Houston; 10 grandchildren and six great-grandchildren.

At the family's request there will be no service, remembrances or memorials.

Copyright (c) 1995 Seattle Times Company, All Rights Reserved.

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