Judge Pleads No Contest to Taking Payoffs, Defense Promises Appeal
CLEVELAND (AP) _ A terminally ill judge pleaded no contest Wednesday to taking payoffs in the murder trials of two Hell’s Angels motorcycle club members, but his lawyers said they would appeal the guilty verdict and possible jail sentence.
Cuyahoga County Common Pleas Judge James J. McGettrick surprised prosecutors by entering his plea on the second day of jury selection. He faces a sentence of one to 10 years and a fine of up to $5,000 on each count, but because of the plea retains the option to appeal.
Hamilton County Common Pleas Judge Simon Leis, assigned to hear the case as a visiting judge, rendered the guilty verdict after reviewing evidence submitted by assistant Cuyahoga County prosecutor Edward M. Walsh and Thomas H. Terry.
Leis earlier had denied defense motions to find McGettrick incompetent to stand trial and to suppress key evidence in the case, and defense lawyer Stanley E. Tolliver said an appeal would be based on those pretrial motions.
Another defense lawyer, Gerald S. Gold, said the plea was changed for a number of reasons, including McGettrick’s health. The 68-year-old judge is terminally ill with cancer of the prostate and bones, has been treated for alcoholism and, the defense contends, suffers from organic brain damage.
McGettrick was convicted of soliciting one bribe and of receiving two bribes totaling $15,900 in exchange for fixing murder charges against the two Hell’s Angels. Leis set sentencing for Feb. 1 and urged McGettrick to cooperate with any continuing investigation, even if it meant more charges against McGettrick.
Joseph E. Griffin, the FBI special agent in charge for northeastern Ohio, said the FBI wants McGettrick’s help.
″There are others involved in these bribery attempts, and these individuals are targets of our investigation,″ Griffin said.
Tolliver said he construed Leis’ admonishment for McGettrick to cooperate as a threat ″in a sense that if you cooperate you stay out of jail, and if you don’t, you go to jail.″
In November 1983, McGettrick dismissed murder charges against Hell’s Angel Richard Armato. The dismissal led prosecutors to withdraw charges against a second defendant.
Prosecutors said they had tapes of April 1984 conversations at a suburban restaurant between McGettrick and an undercover federal agent who paid the judge $5,000 in marked bills to fix a case against Frank Fencl, a Hell’s Angel against whom murder charges still are pending.
That transaction on April 12, 1984 led to McGettrick’s arrest the following day, culminating an investigation which had begun earlier that month when the agent, Stephen Wells of the Bureau of Alcohol Tobacco and Firearms, had made a wisecrack to McGettrick about the dismissal of the Amato case.
The ATF was involved because the case dealt with a bombing.
″We really appreciate what you did for us,″ the agent said sarcastically.
McGettrick, according to records, read from the remark that the agent was really a member of the Hell’s Angels, and McGettrick answered that he should have gotten more for the risk.
McGettrick has been prevented from trying cases since his indictment. He was defeated in the Democratic primary by prosecutor Donald Nugent, who was elected to the bench in November and takes office Feb. 9.