Just cause: Judge learned legal ropes as a prosecuting attorney

By Tom Kirvan
Legal News

In his prosecutorial days, John McBain “batted a thousand,” to use the baseball vernacular, winning all 42 jury trials that he pursued in Jackson County courts.

“With that being said, I always said a prosecutor never wins or loses as long as justice is done,” McBain noted.

But, in several high-profile cases, the winning came at considerable cost for the then Jackson County Prosecuting Attorney, who acknowledged that he and other court personnel likely suffered varying degrees of PTSD by virtue of “internalizing” the graphic and gruesome nature of the crimes.

Take a 1998 murder case for instance, a slaying that attracted national attention after a 13-year-old boy was arrested for the crime. It is a case that still haunts McBain to this day, some 22 years after Martez Stewart was found guilty of second-degree murder in the stabbing death of his 14-year-old neighbor, Stacy Davis. The killing became even “more personal” for McBain, who at the time had two daughters “of a similar age” as the victim.

“By its very nature, any murder case is horrible, but this one really tested the limits as the evidence showed that the defendant stabbed the victim 33 times, using three knives in the process of the murder,” said McBain, now in his 19th year as a Jackson County Circuit Court judge after spending six years as the county’s Prosecuting Attorney. “It was so brutal that it just shocked the conscience.”

Yet, despite the gory details of the crime, McBain had a job to do when the case came to trial, developing an evidence trail that led squarely to Stewart, who by his own admission “hunted down” the victim in her house and prevented her escape.

“It was clear that this wasn’t some random act that came out of the blue,” McBain said of the brutal killing.

The case also highlighted a long-running legal debate about sentencing juveniles as adults, according to McBain, who successfully argued that a delayed or blended sentenced “would not provide closure” to the victim’s family nor would it meet the primary goal of punishing the defendant for his ghastly crime.

“Even though Martez Stewart was sentenced to life in prison, he is eligible for parole,” McBain said. “At the time of his case, he was the second youngest defendant facing a first-degree murder charge, which is how determined we were to remove him from the streets for the rest of his life so there is no chance that he can kill again. The girl he murdered was a stellar student and deserved so much more out of life.”
McBain’s time as a prosecutor proved to be “invaluable” once he was elected to the Circuit Court bench in 2002, he indicated.

“Being a prosecutor serves as an incredible foundation for becoming a judge,” said McBain, a Michigan State University alum who earned his juris doctor from Cooley Law School in 1987. “Trial experience helps give you a fuller appreciation for what is to come when presiding over a case. In a sense, you’ve seen it all and can better understand the strategies that both sides employ.”

In 2009, McBain may have thought he had “seen it all” until faced with a grisly murder case that again would make national waves.

“The case revolved around the case of a husband murdering his wife,” McBain explained.

But in a most despicable way, he indicated.

Kevin “Kip” Artz was charged with killing his wife by striking her on the head with a metal bar, dismembering her body, and then disposing of her remains by cooking them at the restaurant they owned in Summit Township.

“The best we could determine is that the couple had an argument and it quickly escalated and went bad,” McBain said of the murder. “He was addicted to marijuana, so the argument may have been about his drug habit, but it didn’t take long for the jury to see through his insanity defense. His appeals in the state and federal courts also have failed. After trying and winning that case, I really decided it would be a good time to consider moving on.”

Following law school, McBain began his legal career as an Assistant State Attorney in Florida, spending five years there before returning to Michigan to serve as Chief Assistant Prosecutor for Jackson County.

The courtroom skills that he developed in those two roles may have been honed initially during his days as a student at Grand Ledge High School, where he was a key member of the debate team.

“I had a wonderful debate coach, who taught us how to structure an argument and then effectively present it,” McBain said. “We competed all over the state and of all the teachers that I’ve had, he was the most impactful in terms of my career.”

And McBain should know, as he comes from a “family full of teachers,” including his sister, brother, and step-father, Donald Farnum, a chemistry professor at MSU.

“He’s a Harvard grad and is the polar opposite of me politically, but we have a great relationship and enjoy presenting our views in a civil and respectful way,” said McBain, who has served for 12 years as an adjunct professor at Baker College and longs at some point to teach at Hillsdale College, a bastion of conservative thinking.

McBain’s father, John, worked in the purchasing department of General Motors for 36 years, while his mother, Saundra, was a nurse in a hospital oncology unit.

“My siblings and I rarely complained about our lot in life, but if we did, then our mom would take us down to where she worked at the hospital for us to get a rude awakening,” said McBain. “It was a real wake-up call to see how tough some people really have it.”

He would experience it first-hand when his father died of suicide at age 56, a tragedy that prompted McBain to redirect his own career by moving back to Michigan.

“His death forced me to take an altogether different look at mental health issues and how they impact families and society in general,” McBain said. “It was a time of reckoning for all of us. I really became aware of what a critical influence my mother has played in my life, while also now recognizing that both my father and step-father have taught me great lessons about life and growth.”

McBain, in turn, has done his best to impart those lessons on his two daughters, Madeleine, an MSU grad who is pursuing a degree at the Southern College of Optometry in Memphis, and Elizabeth, a junior majoring in special education at Eastern Michigan University.

“Very proud of both my girls,” McBain said. “They’re both doing important work.”

As is his wife, Michelle, who retired as a vice president for Consumers Energy, the Jackson-based utility. The couple enjoys spending time at their summer home up north, a place where McBain relishes opportunities to hunt and fish.

In 2015, McBain made headlines by catching the biggest brook trout in the state that year, a feat that he topped on the hunting side of the ledger by bagging a 13-point moose during a trip to Newfoundland.

His chambers, in fact, are known in some legal circles as the “Wild Kingdom,” as various fish and game trophies line the office walls.

“Taxidermy isn’t for everyone,” he said with a smile.

If so, then perhaps they will share McBain and his wife’s love for classic cars, a passion they indulge each year at a show in St. Ignace. She is partial to her ’67 Ford Mustang, while the judge in the family opts for his 1969 Olds 442 Convertible.

“You can’t go wrong with either one, but I’ll always have my favorite,” he said.

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