Image: Ellie Nesler
George Nikitin  /  AP file
Ellie Nesler in July 1993 in Sonora, Calif. She sparked a national debate about vigilantism after killing her son's accused molester in a courtroom. She died Friday of cancer at age 56.
updated 12/30/2008 10:54:30 AM ET 2008-12-30T15:54:30

Ellie Nesler, who sparked a national debate about vigilantism after killing her son's accused molester in a courtroom in 1993, has died of cancer. She was 56.

Nesler died Friday morning at UC Davis Medical Center in Sacramento, according to hospital spokeswoman Phyllis Brown. She had battled breast cancer since 1994.

Nesler made headlines when she shot Daniel Driver five times in the head in a Tuolumne County courtroom during a break in his preliminary hearing for allegedly molesting four boys, including her then-6-year-old son William, at a Christian camp. Some hailed her for exacting her own justice, while others condemned her for taking the law into her own hands.

Sentence overturned
Nesler was convicted of voluntary manslaughter, but her 10-year sentence was later overturned because of jury misconduct. She cut a deal with prosecutors to plead guilty to manslaughter and get out after serving three years because she had breast cancer.

The case became a 1999 TV movie, "Judgment Day: The Ellie Nesler Story," on the USA cable network.

Video: Vigilante killer, Nesler, dies at 56 After the shooting, the Nesler family remained entangled in the legal system. In 2002, Nesler was sentenced to six years in prison after pleading guilty to selling and possessing methamphetamine. Outside the courtroom, she maintained her innocence, saying she felt she couldn't get a fair trial in Tuolumne County.

She was released from a women's facility in Chowchilla in 2006.

Meanwhile, her son got into legal troubles of his own and was convicted of first-degree murder in 2005 for stomping to death a man hired to clean the family's property in Sonora. The 23-year-old said he believed David Davis was letting people pick through the family's belongings.

Son now serving a 25-year-to-life sentence
William Nesler killed Davis less than an hour after he was released from a 30-day sentence for an earlier assault on him. He is serving a 25-year-to-life sentence.

Prison officials allowed William Nesler to speak with his mother on the phone when she was hospitalized, and he spoke to family members Christmas night about her condition, said Terry Thornton, spokeswoman for the state Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation.

"He knew she was very ill, and he knew her death was impending," Thornton said.

William Nesler has asked for a temporary leave to attend the funeral, and the request is being reviewed by prison officials, Thornton said.

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