GRAND RAPIDS (WOOD) — The federal judge who presided over the death penalty case of Marvin Gabrion now doubts the convicted killer will ever be put to death.
U.S. District Judge Robert Holmes Bell, who is retiring after 30 years on the federal bench, recalled the Gabrion trial as the most high-profile one he’s handled.
“I told my wife at the time, ‘I got that one,’ I said to my wife, ‘This guy and I are going to be synonymous for months and years to come,’ and it’s true,” Bell said in a recent interview.
Gabrion, now 63, is on death row at the federal prison in Terre Haute, Indiana. He has been there since 2002, when he was convicted of killing Rachel Timmerman, the 19-year-old woman he’d been accused of raping.
Gabrion dumped her alive, weighted with cinder blocks, into a small lake just days before he was to go to trial for the rape.
Michigan’s constitution doesn’t allow the death penalty. But the side of Oxford Lake where her body surfaced is in the Manistee National Forest, making it a federal crime.
Timmerman and her 11-month-old daughter, Shannon Verhage, are among five people Gabrion is suspected of killing just to get rid of them.
The mother and daughter disappeared in 1997. The infant’s body was never found. She would be 20 years old now.
Bell recalled the evil look in Gabrion’s eyes.
“He tried that on me. I just looked right back at him, and then I said, on the record, ‘The record should reflect Mr. Gabrion is staring at me and has stared at me for the last two hours, and it’s having no effect whatever upon me.'”
It was a federal jury that decided Gabrion deserved the death penalty, making him the first prisoner sentenced to death in Michigan in 65 years.
“That jury unanimously ruled, decided, that he deserved death, not life in prison,” Bell said.
Gabrion has filed repeated appeals. Higher courts overturned the death penalty, then reinstated it.
When asked if Gabrion would ever be put to death, Bell responded: “I don’t know. I don’t know. There’s a chance, but I would not give it better than a 50-50 chance. I think it’s more likely he’ll spend the right of his life in prison. Yeah, I think it’s most likely.”
Bell said he rarely thinks about Gabrion, though he learned that he recently attacked a female attorney in a visiting room at the federal prison in Terre Haute.
“Apparently it didn’t go well,” Bell said. “Apparently the minute she got in and got seated and he got seated, he came right across the table after her.”
Guards watching through a window charged in, he said.
“They flew the door open and came in and rescued her,” Bell recounted.
CASINOS, GANGS AND POLITICIANS
The Gabrion trial was certainly not Bell’s only big case.
President Ronald Reagan appointed Bell, a former Ingham County judge, to the lifetime job in 1987.
Since then, he’s presided over fights between Native American tribes over casinos in the 1990s and over cases that helped break up the violent Latin Kings gang in Holland.
He and two other judges helped re-draw the lines of U.S. House districts in Michigan in the early 1990s. He recalled unveiling the maps to a courtroom full of politicians and attorneys.
“Bedlam took place,” he said. “Oh, my goodness. Every big shot politician in the state of Michigan went nuts.”
Bell said he tries to make an impact on every criminal who stands before him. Before they’re set free, he orders them into court, along with somebody who was close to them before they got locked up, like a brother, or a mom.
“I say, ‘Ok, you paid your debt to society, you’ve been punished, I want to know, what did you learn from this? How are we going to live for the rest of our lives? What are we going to do?'”
A CHANGING SYSTEM
As he retires, Bell said he sees a judicial system that has changed, not necessarily for the better, with fewer jury trials and more backroom deals.
“Many judges don’t know how to try a case because you don’t have them,” he said. “Lawyers don’t know how to try a case, because they don’t try cases anymore. They settle them.”
Many lawyers, he said, don’t know how to pick a jury.
“They’re scared to death of juries, a lot of lawyers,” he said.
Bell said he prefers a good trial.
“The more juries I hear, the more confidence I have in the average person’s ability to achieve justice.”