WARREN - When colorful defense attorney Sam Petkovich retired in 1995 as a Warren Municipal Court judge, it was Judge John M. Stuard who reminded those gathered at the combination party and roast that Petkovich had once taught him that ''without humanity, the law is meaningless.''
The message also clearly serves as the epithet of Stuard's legal career, according to friends and colleagues who are now congratulating him on his retirement from the Trumbull County Common Pleas Court bench.
''John is truly a gentleman's gentleman. You always know what you're getting going into his court. Like major league umpires, the strike zone might vary a little. But you know what to expect,'' said assistant county prosecutor Chris Becker, who has appeared numerous times in front of Stuard, including on capital murder cases.
Tribune Chronicle file photo
Trumbull County Common Pleas Judge John M. Stuard listens during a recent court case. Stuard will soon be stepping down from the bench.
The 73-year-old Hartford resident is probably just as well-known for his gunsmith skills and his Civil War cannon as he is for his court rulings.
Lt. Pete Lucic of the Trumbull County Sheriff's Office said, ''I remember talking to John once about Civil War generals. The conversation didn't really center on the battles as much as their personalities. It was more about honor, integrity, displaying mercy, things like that. Things like that matter to the judge.''
Lucic presented Stuard with a plaque on behalf of the Fraternal Order of Police Chapter 137 in appreciation for what he's done to promote law enforcement. The deputy gave it to the judge Dec. 13 in the middle of a hectic criminal court day. Even some of the defendants applauded.
''He's just a homegrown, down-home guy. Everybody likes him,'' said Deputy Rochelle Dykes, who organized a retirement party in the Courthouse.
Stuard, a Thiel College graduate with a University of Kentucky law degree, practiced law while serving as a solicitor in places like Newton Falls and even the Village of Orangeville near his home. He did criminal defense work, but also worked as a prosecutor for the City of Warren.
By his own admission, Stuard would rather be at a Farm Bureau meeting than a cocktail party at the Buckeye Club. And he'd rather show up anywhere in field boots than patent leather loafers.
Appointed in 1983 as the first judge at newly created Central District Court in Cortland, Stuard was later appointed in 1991 to the Common Pleas bench, where he inherited the docket of Judge Robert Nader, who had been elected to the 11th District Court of Appeals.
While he was starting to move out of his office Monday, Stuard had already taken down the framed photograph he has depicting the actor Sam Elliott in a scene from the film ''Gettysburg'' - the same movie in which Stuard served as an extra along with his Civil War cannon that he used for years in national competition.
While taking down other diplomas from the wall, Stuard said that for one reason or another, ''I probably stayed (on the bench) four or five years longer than I wanted to. In this job, the rewards are great and so are the disappointments.
''Whether it's me or any other judge, the most you can ever do is to use your own judgment. I just hope I was right more than I was wrong,'' Stuard said.
During more than 20 years on the common pleas bench, Stuard has the distinction of being perhaps the only judge who was thanked by a capital murder defendant for a death sentence.
The judge was only carrying out the recommendation from a jury that opted to recommend death for Donna Roberts June 20, 2003. Roberts - who was the only woman on Ohio's death row - thanked Stuard and said the sentence would give her time to build a case to prove her innocence.
The death sentence was vacated briefly on appeal, but after re-sentencing, she remains on death row.
Stuard also sentenced Nathaniel Jackson to death as a co-defendant. Roberts and Jackson plotted the murder to kill Roberts husband and collect insurance money.
The judge also sentenced Roderick Davie, who was convicted in a double slaying at a Warren warehouse. Davie has since been executed.
Stuard also set aside another death sentence for a capital murder defendant only to have him indicted the next year and convicted in the murder of a Warren woman and her daughter. That defendant - Stanley Adams - still remains on death row.
During his tenure, Stuard has seen another defendant once beaten by relatives of a young rape victim, with the attack captured on tape by a local TV station that broadcast the scene across the country.
He has seen another convicted rapist break away from a deputy after the jury returned a guilty verdict and run into the Mahoning River and try to swim to freedom.
Stuard has the distinction of jailing a Tribune Chronicle reporter for 22 days in January of 1994 after she refused to testify before a grand jury.
Another time when he was on the bench, a reckless motorist ran into the judge's car, totaling it before fleeing.
Stuard was moved out of his courtroom and into the third-floor of the Stone Building when the Courthouse underwent renovations. It was in his much smaller office that he and his staff, bailiff Lori Gibson and court Reporter Mary Ann Mills watched on TV as another jury handed down the verdict in the O.J. Simpson case.
Defense attorney Michael Scala, who also boasts of bagging more deer on Stuard's Hartford property than the judge himself, said his hunting buddy has good qualities that he would have developed as a child.
''If John were alone on a desert island, he'd be the same guy. He would have those same qualities,'' Scala said.
''On one hand, John is mindful of the stigma attached to a person given a prison sentence. But he's also aware that people must be held accountable for what they do,'' Scala said.
''These are big shoes to fill. I only hope that someday I can gain the respect that people have for John,'' said Judge Ronald Rice, who will be replacing Stuard on the bench.
''I don't think I've ever heard anyone attorney or otherwise, say an unkind word while leaving John's court,'' Rice said.