Thrusday, December 31, 1998

Moser wraps up 20 years on bench

The Cincinnati Enquirer

        HAMILTON — After 20 years of putting murderers, rapists and burglars behind bars, Judge John Moser will spend his time putting marigolds, begonias and potatoes into the ground.

        The dean of Butler County Common Pleas judges retires today, moving from the hectic world of crime and civil lawsuits to a more sedate life of gardens and home improvement projects.

        Unlike most judges who retire, Judge Moser will not ask for visiting judge assignments. He will pursue interests unconnected to the legal realm.

        “I hope I don't get bored,” he said. “My colleagues are taking bets that within 90 days, I'll be asking for visiting judge assignments.”

        The Ohio mandatory retirement law for judges has forced Judge Moser, 71, to step down.

        While presiding over many high-profile criminal trials and complex civil cases, he forged a reputation for being knowledgeable, fair and even-tempered.

        “He epitomizes what a judge is,” said Dan Gattermeyer, an assistant Butler County prosecuting attorney. “When things are going crazy in his court, he has complete control over it.”

        He's had his share of controversial and sensational cases, including:

        • The 1985 murder trial of Rhett DePew, who fatally stabbed a Hanover Township woman, her 7-year-old daughter and her 12-year-old sister and set the house on fire to try to cover up the grisly crime.

        • The 1987 occult murder trial of John Fryman, who was convicted of killing a woman during a satanic service and then cutting off her legs. The legs were found behind a church in Indiana, but the rest of her body was never recovered. During the trial, an altar — complete with a stolen gravestone that police found in Mr. Fryman's apartment — was erected in Judge Moser's courtroom.

        • The 1993 murder of Michael Grasa, who was shot in the neck and head by two crossbow arrows while he slept. In separate trials, juries determined that Mr. Grasa's wife, Melissa Grasa, and her lover, Ronald Branham, conspired to kill Mr. Grasa, with Mr. Branham firing the arrows. Judge Moser sentenced them to life in prison.

        But he said handling civil cases consumes more time and requires more legal skill than criminal cases.

        “Criminal cases follow prescribed statutes,” Judge Moser said. “Civil cases depend on legal precedents. They require a great deal more research and effort than criminal cases. They are a true test of a judge's skill.”

        One of his best-known civil cases was the long legal battle over whether Fairfield Township could become the city of Indian Springs in its effort to avoid annexations.

        Judge Moser ruled that the law creating Indian Springs violated Ohio's Constitution because it was special legislation. An appeals court upheld his decision.

        Judge Moser began practicing law in 1953 in Hamilton and became chairman of the Butler County Republican Party in 1960.

        Unlike today, Democrats dominated Butler County in 1960, controlling all countywide seats except the audi tor's office. Now Republicans control all countywide seats except the prosecutor's office.

        Judge Moser downplays his role in this dramatic turn-around and credits the change to the migration of Hamilton County Republicans into Union and Liberty townships

        He gave up his Republican Party duties in 1979 when he was appointed to fill a common pleas vacancy.

        The only GOP meeting he has attended in the past 20 years was one earlier this year in which the party endorsed Patricia Oney as his successor. She takes office Friday.

        “I assiduously avoided any political activity,” he said. “My political background made me suspect on the bench. So I had to bend over backward to avoid politics.”

        Judge Moser, a decent handyman, has left some distinctive physical touches in his courtroom.

        He built a witness stand in his garage during the winter of 1993-94 to match a beautifully crafted judicial bench that an adult vocational woodworking class constructed for his court.

        When his courtroom needed curtains a few years ago, he decided it would take too much time for the county to buy and hang them. So his wife, Shirley, made curtains for the high windows and the two of them spent an evening hanging them.

        Eighteen years ago, he began playing tapes of light classical music during bench conferences with attorneys to prevent juries from overhearing them. He mounted the two small speakers on the jury railing and wired them to the tape deck behind his bench.

        “I got the idea from federal courts, where they play static,” Judge Moser said. “But I thought music would be more pleasant for jurors.”

        Besides gardening, Judge Moser plans to take electrical wiring vocational courses so that he can volunteer his services for Habitat for Humanity.

        Judge Moser will miss many people at the courthouse, but none more than Orville Lunsford, his bailiff for 20 years, and Mary Swain, his secretary for 10 years.

        “He's like family to me,” Mr. Lunsford said. “He's a very patient man and always tried to be fair.”


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