Reflecting before retiring

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Sapala has seen it all from both sides of the bench

Wayne County Circuit Court will lose four long-standing, well-respected judges to retirement at the end of the year: Judges Prentis Edwards, Thomas E. Jackson, Michael Sapala and Carole Youngblood. The Detroit Legal News sat down with the judges for a look back at their careers. This is Part I of a 4-part series that will appear over the next four editions.

By Steve Thorpe
Legal News

Judge Michael Sapala has become a keen student of human behavior in his decades in the law profession. He has come to believe that some people are fruits

“I have what I call the ‘lemon theory’ of human behavior,” he says. “There are some lemons out there. No amount of education or faith-based relationships or family will help them. They’re just lemons and they’re going to do some very bad things. The tough part is to recognize who’s a lemon and who isn’t. When you find one, they have to be isolated, it’s as simple as that. It’s good that I’m not back over at Criminal, because I would probably be a substantially harsher sentencer than before.”

Born In Portland, Ore., Sapala was an “Army Air Corps kid,” following his flight surgeon dad around from place to place during and after World War II. His family ended up in Detroit, where he attended Mackenzie High School before going to Wayne State University for undergrad and law school.

Sapala has been in private practice, a prosecutor, a defense attorney, a Recorder’s Court judge, a visiting judge on the Michigan Court of Appeals, and was a finalist, in 1993, for appointment to the U.S. District Court, Eastern District of Michigan. He was also chief judge of Wayne County Circuit Court. As retirement looms, he’s a judge in that court’s Civil Division.

To say he’s seen it all from both sides of the bench is to put it mildly.

Along the way, Sapala garnered recognition for his skills, like being named the highest rated Recorder’s Court judge in a 1991 attorney survey in Detroit Monthly magazine.

He’s also been active in efforts to improve and streamline the legal process. He was chair of the Wayne Circuit/Recorder’s Court Merger Committee, chaired a committee on implementation of juvenile waiver legislation, and was president of the Detroit/Wayne County Criminal Advocacy Program, which sought an education program for attorneys representing indigent clients.

One side effect of so many years in courtrooms is that Sapala has seen more than his share of drama and colorful characters.

Perhaps none were more theatrical and memorable than former Recorder’s Court Judge James Del Rio.

According to an Associated Press report at the time in 1976, after a year-long investigation, Del Rio was charged by the state Supreme Court with 23 instances of alleged judicial misconduct including bias against the defense or prosecution, coercing criminal defendants into pleading guilty, harassment of court employees and abuse of defendants, witnesses and others in his court. He was eventually removed from the bench.

“I was one of the five who testified against Judge Del Rio,” Sapala says. “Del Rio arrested me in his courtroom. I was a defense attorney at the time and I came in to serve him papers on an appeal. I just wanted to drop them off. Courtroom full of people and Del Rio was doing preliminary exams. He told his deputy, ‘Put that man in the box.’ He then tells everyone, ‘That’s one of those people who wants to get rid of me. And I’m gonna make sure he doesn’t do that.’  This was in open court in front of citizens, lawyers and law enforcement. He then said, ‘Take him in the back.’ “

Sapala was saved from … something … by the intercession of a stranger in the courtroom.

“Someone present who was on friendly terms with him persuaded him that it wasn’t a good idea to put me in the lockup.”

Sapala also got an up close and personal view of Del Rio’s intimidation of defendants.

“As I testified in his review, I was representing a young man before Del Rio who would not plead guilty,” he says. “Del Rio told me to sit down and have my client come up to the bench. From where I was sitting, I could still hear the judge. He told my client, ‘You’re going to plead guilty, or I’m going to kick your ass.’ He pled guilty.”

But for every character who left a bad taste, there were many more who inspired.

“Two judges who had a lot of influence in my life were very different people … George Crockett, Jr., and Robert DeMascio,” he says. “They were more or less the ‘patron saints’ of the original Defenders Office and got it off the ground. I appeared many times in front of both of them and, for different reasons, they had a really strong impact on my life.”

Sapala once inadvertently threw Crockett a curve ball that left the judge scratching his head in puzzlement.

“I was a prosecutor on Friday, then on Monday came in as a defense attorney,” Sapala says. “He called me up and I told him about my decision and he was so happy. He said, ‘You’ve done the right thing.’ Such a wonderful man. Crockett was so courageous … I get chills thinking about him. He was tough on everybody, but respected the law. We will never see his kind again.”

Sapala also had a front row seat as the effects of the civil right movement rippled through the Detroit legal community. More African-American attorneys and judges were appearing and beginning to have an influence on the law. Those influences excited many and frightened some.
“People like George Crockett and Milton Henry, they were ahead of their time,” Sapala says. “Many people, especially in the white community, thought they were so radical and threatening. I guess in a sense they were. But they were beacons and they woke a lot of us up.”

Sapala says his most memorable case on the bench was probably the twisted, strange murder of well-to-do Grosse Pointe psychologist Alan Canty.
Canty got involved with a young Cass Corridor prostitute named Dawn Spens who had gone from being selected valedictorian of her high school class to being strung out on drugs and turning tricks to support her habit. Her pimp, a small time crook named John Fry, pressured Canty for money and, when it ran out, Fry and Spens killed him.

“They bludgeoned him with a baseball bat and cut up his body, putting parts of it in the freezer,” Sapala says. “A few days later, they drove up north tossing body parts out of the car along I-75. They got to Alanson, just past Indian River, and buried the head in a field outside town.”

Fry bragged to his friends, one of whom went to the police. He and Spens were arrested and charged with the murder. Fry had a jury trial and was found guilty. Spens had a bench trial before Sapala.

“I acquitted her of murder, but found her guilty of accessory in the mutilation of a human body,” Sapala says.  “I gave her probation and 10 months in the county jail and set up a drug program for her. I got excoriated by the press, really got blasted.”

Spens justified Sapala’s faith in her, successfully completing probation and becoming a drug counselor at Dawn Farms near Ann Arbor. She kept in touch with him and sent him cards with pictures of her kids and husband. Despite the odds, she had made a success of her life.

“I took that chance because I thought I saw something in her,” Sapala says.

One case may follow Sapala right into retirement.

“I oversee the (Wayne County) jail population case,” he says. “It may be that I’ll be taking that case with me. The administration is working with the state court administrator’s office to decide if that’s all right for me to do.”

The suit was filed in 1971 against then-Sheriff Bill Lucas and the jail alleging constitutional violations. Overpopulation had led to mistreatment and poor medical care. It’s been a continuing, open lawsuit since then and traditionally the chief judge of the circuit has had the case. The
commissioners, the county executive and the sheriff haven’t been eager to break in a new judge on all of the complex issues and history of the case.
“When I left as chief judge I was asked to keep it,” Sapala says. “With the new jail on schedule to be opened either summer or fall of 2014, this lawsuit will be terminated and my responsibilities will be done. The new jail isn’t a panacea, but it will alleviate many of the problems.”

His other retirement plans are still crystallizing, but family, travel and reading have already made the list.

“I’ll be able to spend more time with my grandsons and, when we get the chance, my wife and I like to travel. We also have a time share in Key West and go down there for three weeks every year.”

It’s been Sapala’s habit to always have a book in his chambers and he tries to carve out a half hour of reading every day to relax and decompress. He’s currently reading “Picasso’s War” about the painter’s depiction of Guernica inspired by the terror bombing of that city in 1937. He acquires enough books that he has to do a “cleaning job” from time to time on his library and donate some to the local library.

His avid reading led to his eye doctor recommending an e-reader, which he has now grudgingly accepted.

“I fought that for so long,” he says. “But I have to alternate. I love the Kindle, but I have to have a paper book in front of me every now and then.”
“It’s been a great ride,” he says. “Some don’t realize what a great job this is and how lucky they are to be on the bench. It really is a privilege.”
Looking back, it’s the people who have made his career and rich and rewarding experience.

“A real benefit has been meeting people I never would have met otherwise,” Sapala says.  “One of the most challenging, but best, years of my life was 2008, when I was president of the Michigan Judges Association. Going all over the state and meeting other judges, going to the U.P. and seeing the ‘Anatomy of a Murder’ courthouse, making friends for life was such a treat.”

And in a world where attorneys are often unpopular and don’t always get the credit they deserve for their contributions to society, Sapala remains a big fan of the profession, even after decades of rubbing shoulders with the breed.

“Some of my best friends are lawyers.”

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