Federal judge who presided over rare Michigan death penalty trial dies at 79

Robert Holmes Bell, a federal judge for 30 years whose trials included one that led to a rare death sentence in Michigan, has died. He was 79.

Bell died Thursday, Michelle Benham, the court’s chief deputy clerk, said Friday. A cause was not disclosed.

He was “one of the giants” on the federal bench, said Chris Yates, a judge on the state appeals court who often appeared in Bell’s courtroom as a defense lawyer.

Bell was a judge in the Lansing area when President Ronald Reagan in 1987 appointed him to the U.S. District Court in western Michigan, based in Grand Rapids. He retired in 2017.

Bell presided over many significant cases, but none was bigger than the 2002 trial of Marvin Gabrion, who was convicted of drowning a woman in a remote lake in a national forest in Newaygo County.

Michigan outlawed the death penalty in 1847, but it is available under federal law. Federal prosecutors had the ability to charge Gabrion because Rachel Timmerman’s murder occurred on government property. The U.S. Justice Department at that time told prosecutors to ask jurors for the death sentence.

The jury unanimously agreed, and Bell ordered it.

Gabrion remains on death row 21 years later while lawyers pursue appeals. He could be an intimidating figure in Bell’s courtroom and even slugged one of his attorneys in the jaw in front of the jury.

Bell said Gabrion could wear a menacing look.

“He tried that on me,” Bell told WOOD-TV in 2016. “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.’”

Bell took pride in personally giving encouragement to people who had returned home from prison.

“Usually, I’ll say to their mother, ‘What does your son need? What does your grandson need?’” Bell told The Grand Rapids Press. “I usually spend 10 minutes trying to engage them and tell them I care. They can’t believe it.”


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