A would-be rapist was standing before Oakland County Circuit Judge John (Jack) McDonald, awaiting sentencing.
The defendant was earnestly explaining that the woman he had assaulted on a dark path after a Pine Knob concert had it coming. Police interrupted the attack when they heard the woman screaming.
“He kept talking, and I kept piling on the time,” McDonald told the Free Press in a recent interview. “By the time he got done, I had exceeded his sentencing guidelines by 10 years.”
The next day, after his disgust subsided, and knowing he would be overturned, McDonald reduced the excessive sentence.
“At least I got his attention,” the jurist said.
McDonald, 71, officially retires Dec. 31 after 17 years on the bench. Courtly and mannerly, but gruff when provoked, he is widely viewed as one of the most independent judges on the bench. The defense bar likes him because they see him as fair; prosecutors like him because he can be tough.
Among the many high-profile cases he presided over, a recent one involved three defendants accused of beating to death a patron at Arturo’s Jazz Club in Southfield. Two pleaded to lesser charges and were sentenced. The third is expected to follow suit.
“I honestly have never heard anyone say a bad word about him,” said Judge Colleen O’Brien, a colleague who appeared before McDonald routinely as an attorney. “And that’s unusual for a judge.”
McDonald is not afraid to make unpopular decisions. In 2005, he reduced a jury’s first-degree murder conviction to second degree in the sensational murder trial of schoolteacher Nancy Seaman, who bludgeoned her husband to death in the family’s home on Mother’s Day 2004. The Farmington Hills woman claimed she was a battered wife.
McDonald, in throwing out the verdict, said the prosecutors failed to prove premeditation, a position he maintains today. A higher court eventually reinstated the first-degree murder conviction. But McDonald may get the last word yet. In November, a federal judge threw out the conviction again, saying Seaman did not get adequate legal representation. That decision is likely to be appealed.
“I was troubled by the evidence,” McDonald said. “The physical injuries. The stabbings. Was that done out of rage, or was she in fear for her life?”
Some reporters who covered the case speculated that McDonald, a patrician looking man and elegant dresser, perhaps identified with the educated, upscale Seaman, “Like I was born with a spoon in my mouth,” McDonald laughed. “I wish they could see where I came from.”
Where he came from was New Philadelphia, a tiny coal mining town of mostly Irish Catholic families in eastern Pennsylvania. His mother was a factory worker. His father was a coal miner, and later a gas station owner, who worked seven days a week to support a family of six.
By 14, McDonald was working at the gas station, and he hasn’t stopped working. Trained as a schoolteacher, he put himself through law school at night, and then went to work for the Oakland County Prosecutor’s Office before going into private practice. He was appointed to the bench by Gov. John Engler in 1993.
When he leaves the bench, he plans on taking two months off, going someplace warm, maybe working on his golf game. “And then I’m going to have to find something to do,” he said.
Colin A. Daniels