Saturday, August 26, 2000

Throwing the book at Mike Mestemaker

Cincinnati lawyer's book covers more than 30 years of verdicts, victories and mistakes

By Jim Knippenberg
The Cincinnati Enquirer

        Albert J. “Mike” Mestemaker has seen the law from both sides now: He's been a prosecutor, defense attorney and judge. He's also been in jail.

        “Oh, that. I argued with Judge Louis Schneider and lost. I got furious and threw his textbook — Schneider's Criminal Code — in the trash right in front of the jury.

[photo] (Enquirer photo)
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        “All he said was "Call for the sheriff.' ” I spent the next couple of hours jailed for contempt.”

        That's one of a zillion stories in Mr. Mestemaker's Courtroom Gladiator (Brandenburg Publications; $19.95), a plenty blunt memoir of more than 30 years in Cincinnati courtrooms — 30 years of crime, criminals, trials and tribulations.

        Lurid years, those, starting with his first case out of Chase Law School — the 1967 trial of Cincinnati strangler Posteal Laskey — up through his most controversial decision and “one of my really big mistakes,” namely ordering an Addyston man to marry the woman he had abused as a condition of his probation.

        He was a $3,200-a-year assistant prosecutor (he made ends meet by doing title searches at $75 a pop) when Laskey came to trial after six women had been raped and murdered. Laskey was convicted of one murder and sentenced to death, later commuted to life.

        “I was a gofer in that trial, baby-sitting witnesses, that sort of thing, but it got me in a courtroom with Mel Rueger (then-prosecutor) and Cal Prem (chief assistant prosecutor). I sat behind two brilliant prosecutors and listened and learned. It was like going to school for free and being paid for it.”

        That's all recounted — the murders and trial — in grisly detail in Gladiator. With pictures.

        So are some of the most interesting/bizarre/controversial of the 25,476 cases he heard as a Hamilton Country Municipal judge.

        Today, the 63-year old Mike Mestemaker ...

        Time out: His name's Albert Joseph Mestemaker. What's with Mike? “My father and grandfather were also named Albert and we all lived together, so when my mom yelled "Albert,' three people came running. We started calling my grandfather Daddy Al, my dad Al and me Mike, after my other grandfather.”

        Glad we got that cleared up.

        Today, Mr. Mestemaker lives in North Bend with wife Judy, works part time as North Bend's law director, teaches at the Police Academy (search warrants, obtaining admissible confessions) and at the Police Training Institute, where veteran officers go for refresher courses. He also writes law books — Ohio Criminal Practice and Procedure and Ohio Search Warrant Manual.

        “Gladiator is different. It's ego writing, and it's not about the money. In fact, I pledged 25 percent of the proceeds to St. Joseph Church, and I'll be happy if I can cover costs and still give some money away.

        “But if Hollywood came along and liked the book to the tune of a million, I wouldn't kick.”

        Right. And who would play Judge Honeymaker, as courtroom regular Fifi used to call him?

        “That guy from the Magnificent Seven — the gray-haired one with the big teeth.”

        That would be James Coburn. “Or maybe Si Lies could play me. We locked horns a lot when I was a judge and he was releasing people early to make room in jail. We had no idea what prisoners were where and it gave me fits.”

        Something else that gave him fits and that ultimately squashed his hopes for re-election in 1995: The domestic violence case where an attempt at creative sentencing backfired. The one where he ordered a woman to marry the man who abused her.

        “They swore they were getting married anyway, and I believed them. I took a chance and, just as I say in the book, it was a huge mistake.

        “But the reaction was out of proportion because everyone misunderstood the verdict and went on the attack.

        “It's why I'm a defeated judge instead of a retired judge.”

        Hmmm. Time to turn the tables and ask His Honor a few questions ...

        One case I never want to relive ...

        That quit abusing her and get married case. I'm sorry I ever saw those two. I should have put him in jail and been done with it.

        If someone objects to this book, it's will be because ...

        I didn't pull any punches and just laid it all out — the good, bad and ugly. Some lawyers are going to be unhappy, some people at your paper, too. But I tell it like it is on myself, too. I made mistakes, and I say so.

        The strangest courtroom incident I can remember ...

        Was the day in Room A when a man in a second floor cell put a Styrofoam cup in the toilet and kept flushing. Five minutes later, water is cascading down on me. My bailiff stood there with an umbrella and I kept calling cases.

        Lawyer, prosecutor, judge, what I miss most ...

        Being a prosecutor. As a prosecutor, you represent the people and help enforce the law. You're the guy in the white hat. What I don't want to do again is be a defense attorney. The people you have to deal with to do your job ... it's not always palatable.

        One thing I want people to take away from this book ...

        Is that the legal system in this country really does work. Even with its flaws, it's the best on earth. It's not perfect, and it's not an exact science, but there's still nothing better.

        One question I'd like to be asked right now ...

        Am I bitter. The answer is no. I was in '96, but not now. I've learned to accept what happens and believe it's for the best or it wouldn't have happened.


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