Judge known as fair, bright

WARREN – Prominent Boston defense attorney F. Lee Bailey once referred to Trumbull County Common Pleas Judge David F. McLain as ”one of the brightest judges he ever appeared before.”

The comment came more than 40 years ago and before the nationally renowned lawyer was part of O.J. Simpson’s ”dream team” or before he represented Patty Hearst.

It was after Bailey gained fame for his defense of Dr. Sam Sheppard and the self-confessed Boston Strangler.

It was when Bailey breezed into Warren to represent a local laborer accused of shooting a 26-year-old ironworker during a 1969 picket-line melee between laborers and skilled craftsmen at the site of the General Motors Lordstown complex.

Bailey offered the comment about McLain to then-assistant county prosecutor J. Walter Dragelevich, who teamed up with his boss Trumbull County Prosecutor David Griffith, to defeat Bailey at trial.

Bailey, according to news accounts, admitted getting fair treatment from Judge McLain as well as his prosecutorial opponents.

But McLain, a Harvard Law School graduate, was always known among his peers as an intellectual in a black robe.

Just as confident outside the courtroom, it was McLain and the prosecutors who hosted a post-trial birthday party for Bailey at the former Living Room Restaurant.

McLain died Saturday at his home. He was 84 years old.

”He was one of my closest friends. Dave was always sensitive to civil and human rights, including those at the lowest tier of the economic class,” said former Judge Donald R. Ford. ”I confided in him quite a bit. I learned from him.”

”They broke the mold when they created Judge McLain. I modeled my career after him,” said Judge W. Wyatt McKay, who inherited McLain’s docket after he retired.

”He was just a great guy to try a case in front of. He made quick decisions. And he was always right,” said Trumbull County Prosecutor Dennis Watkins, who remembers convincing McLain how color crime scene photos were more valuable as trial exhibits.

”At all the photos were black and white and the defense attorney was arguing how the red blood would be prejudicial to the jury,” Watkins said. The judge was convinced at some point that some color exposed mold in the scene and revealed a time element that was unavailable in black and white shots.

McLain, who gained considerable trial experience as a JAG officer in the U.S. Navy in the mid-1950s, allowed the color photos as evidence – a first in Trumbull County judicial history – and commonplace nowadays.

”I considered him my mentor. You had to take your practice up a notch when you were in front of him. He made you better,” said Watkins, who keeps a color photo of himself, Dragelevich, McLain, and Lynn B. Griffith Jr. – all modern-day county prosecutors – right outside the door to his office.

In 1964 McLain was elected Trumbull County prosecuting attorney. In 1968, he was elected Trumbull County Commons Pleas judge, serving until 1987. While serving as common pleas judge, he was cited eight times by the Ohio Supreme Court for outstanding judicial service. In 1993, he began serving by assignment by the Ohio Supreme Court in Trumbull and Mahoning counties, retiring in 1999.

McLain’s family will receive friends from 5 to 7 p.m. today at McFarland and Son Funeral Home in Warren.

A Memorial Mass will be held 2 p.m. Wednesday at St. Mary’s Church in Warren.