Kevin P. McMahon, ‘The People’s Judge’ of New London County, dead at 68
East Lyme — Superior Court Judge Kevin P. McMahon, known as “The People’s Judge” for his fairness, accessibility and instinctive understanding of people from all walks of life, died early Monday at Lawrence + Memorial Hospital.
McMahon, 68, had suffered from rheumatoid arthritis and other health issues, and had been hospitalized for nearly a month, according to his wife, Patricia “Patti” McMahon.
“He was the love of my life,” Mrs. McMahon said by phone. “I’ll miss him every day. He loved being a judge in New London and Norwich. He was so proud of being there.”
McMahon had been semiretired since 2013, but as a senior judge continued to handle some of the most difficult cases. In December, he insisted on returning to Connecticut from his vacation home in Florida to preside over a sentencing in a drunken driving fatality.
“He couldn’t wait to retire, but he just couldn’t give it up,” said his long-time friend, Judge Patrick J. Clifford. He and McMahon shared a love of the Providence College basketball team and the Boston Red Sox and together enjoyed many games and many laughs.
A native of New Britain, McMahon attended Providence College and Western New England College School of Law. He served as a prosecutor before being appointed to the bench in 1993. He and his wife settled in Niantic, and he became a fixture in the area’s legal community. His peers said he had the ability to quickly assess criminal cases and to get it right when applying the law. His remarks from the bench were often more blunt than eloquent.
“I always used to say about him, you might not send a law school class to see him, but nobody did it better,” Clifford said. “He just had that instinctive sense of justice. He’s a big loss to the system in my opinion.”
Hillary B. Strackbein, chief administrative judge for the New London Judicial District, said McMahon was such a fixture in New London County that countless people have been calling and texting her daily for updates on his condition.
“His unique style, which was often comical, somehow resonated with the public,” Strackbein said. “He was extremely fair in his decisions. He loved coming to work, even when he was not well. He loved all the people he worked with and he really loved being on the bench.”
Many remember the day he ate a sandwich on the bench, and before he gave up cigarettes years ago, McMahon would smoke in his chambers or stand outside and smoke with staff at the Geographical Area 10 courthouse on Broad Street in New London. From the bench, he once told prosecutor Peter A. McShane, who is now a judge, “Don’t be a smart ass.” McMahon would sign his emails with a long stream of ks, as in “kkkkkkkk,” and would start voice mails in the middle of a conversation. He was a reluctant dieter who would keep both candy and Slim Fast diet drinks in his chambers.
One day, a young man wearing a New York Yankees jersey appeared before McMahon for sentencing on a minor charge.Not looking up from the bench, McMahon, a Red Sox fan, noted the man’s choice of apparel in his courtroom.“Wearing that shirt usually gets you six more months,” he said in a serious tone.The man, already worried about his sentence, appeared shaken.But when court employees began to chuckle, as did the the man’s attorney, he realized McMahon was having some fun at his expense.Still it was reminder that in his courtroom, McMahon was in charge.
He was a loyal friend who would help someone secure a promotion if he thought they deserved it and took pleasure in performing wedding ceremonies and dining out with friends.
“He was the kindest, most compassionate person I ever met, who to his credit never forgot where he came from,” said Thomas Haley, retired public defender and close friend. “Our lives are less without him in them.”
Senior Assistant State’s Attorney Theresa Anne Ferryman said McMahon was a friend inside and outside the courtroom. She remembered the kindness he extended when her father passed away in 1994. In court, he could make instantaneous assessments of cases that gave deference to the pace that the court system required while at the same time respecting the individual interests at stake, Ferryman said.
“His love of the system elevated the daily back and forth that goes on at the GA (court),” Ferryman said. “He believed in it all.”
McMahon presided at murder trials and other major crimes, but was best known for ably handling the high volume of cases at the lower level courts in New London and Norwich.
“It’s a rough and tumble court and he was the perfect judge for it,” said Judge McShane. “Other judges might have looked at him and said, ‘I don’t like the way he got it done.’ But nobody could argue with his results.”
Public defender Kevin C. Barrs remembered when McMahon came into the lockup area of the Hartford courthouse to congratulate him after Barrs won his first trial in Hartford. The defendant who had been found not guilty was surprised, Barrs said, because McMahon had presided over jury selection in the case.
“I said, ‘He’s a friend,’ ″ Barrs said.
Defendants respected McMahon because he’d listen to them and give them a break if they deserved it, Barrs said.
“What more could you ask of a judge?” Barrs said. “He was one of the greatest people I’ve ever met.”
McMahon was one of the first state judges to welcome news cameras into his courtroom, saying he had “nothing to hide.” He would often address journalists from the bench and was unafraid to be quoted on controversial topics.
Senior Assistant State’s Attorney Lonnie Braxton II said that with McMahon’s death an era has passed. McMahon was a normal every day person who happened to be a judge, Braxton said.
“He set a high standard,” Braxton said. “He was the people’s judge. Anyone who stood in front of him knew that the Constitution, as it was laid out for everybody, was going to be followed. Many people feel justice is for those who have money. He felt that justice was for everybody.”
Day Staff Writer Joe Wojtas contributed to this story.