August 21, 2014

Elyria
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Common Pleas Judge Zaleski faced life-and-death decisions in court

ELYRIA — The hardest case Lorain County Common Pleas Judge Edward Zaleski ever presided over still brings tears to his eyes.

Zaleski, who is retiring after 24 years on the bench, said the case was a medical malpractice case involving a woman who had to make a decision over whether to cease life support for her ailing young daughter.

While the mother was testifying, Zaleski said, she recounted how as medical personnel were removing the life support machines, she sang “You Are My Sunshine” to her daughter.

“There wasn’t a dry eye in the courtroom,” Zaleski said as he wiped away a tear during an interview this week.

Zaleski, who was first elected judge in 1988 after serving as Lorain law director and as an assistant county prosecutor, said there was no shortage of tragedy and tough calls while on the bench.

One of the ultimate decisions that any judge has to make is whether or not to sentence someone convicted of aggravated murder to death. And although he’s served on three-judge panels that have spared killers, one of those panels did sentence a man to die for his crimes.

Zaleski and the other two judges handed down a death sentence to James Filliagi, who shot and killed his ex-wife, Lisa Huff Filliagi, in 1994. The sentence was carried out in 2007.

Zaleski said he was doing his job and following the law when he voted for execution.

“It goes with the territory,” the Lorain Democrat said. “I’m sort of thick-skinned. You have to be to be a politician.”

But it wasn’t all hard times on the bench, Zaleski said there were some cases that caused him to laugh out loud. One in particular that stands out for him involved a couple of convicts who sued the makers of Miller High Life beer because every time they got drunk they ended up committing crimes and getting arrested.

The case was quickly thrown out, the judge said.

During his swearing-in ceremony Thursday, John Miraldi, who is replacing Zaleski early next year, praised his predecessor.

“He’s been an innovator and a great judge for this county,” Miraldi said.

And Zaleski does have a reputation for innovations. He was one of the first judges in the state to allow jurors to ask questions during trials, something that has become far more commonplace since he first did it in the early 1990s.

Allowing jurors to ask questions is actually good for trials because they often cut right to the heart of the case even as the lawyers are dancing around a subject, he said.

“A wise juror will pick up on what they’re trying to hide and ask the question,” Zaleski said.

Zaleski also is a big fan of speedy trials, the quicker, the better, in his mind.

He has little patience for lawyers who want to delay trials. He said if the two sides can work out a plea bargain he’s fine with that, but if they can’t there’s no reason not to go to trial.

“Oftentimes we can’t get the defense attorneys to the trial table and oftentimes we can’t get the prosecutors to the trial table,” Zaleski said. “You have to hold their feet to the fire.”

In one of his more famous plea cases, Zaleski sentenced Jessica Coleman to six years in prison after she pleaded guilty to involuntary manslaughter for the death of her infant child, whose body had been found years before in a Columbia Station quarry. It earned him a trip to Chicago to appear on “The Oprah Winfrey Show” to discuss the case.

Zaleski’s career hasn’t been without controversies, including feuds during his long tenure as administrative judge, when he sometimes clashed with county officials, including county Administrator Jim Cordes. He also saw his criminal secretary, Andrea Ritter, resign and be convicted of stealing from the court system.

Zaleski also drew the ire of local police departments because he refused to allow police officers to carry guns into his courtroom. He said armed sheriff’s deputies were in the courtroom to provide security and there was no reason for other officers, even those in uniform, to be carrying weapons in his courtroom.

He’s also seen his share of disappointments as well, most recently when his fellow judges voted against accepting a federal grant that would have largely funded a drug court for the next three years. Court Administrator Tim Lubbe said some of the judges were concerned about the cost to the county, although Zaleski said the local match only would have been around $30,000.

As he heads into retirement, Zaleski, 73, said he plans to remain involved in the legal system as a visiting judge. He already has been asked to fill in for a vacationing Lorain Municipal Court judge next month, although he acknowledged with a smile that he’ll have to brush up on the law governing the traffic and misdemeanor cases municipal courts tend to deal with.

He also has two daughters with his late wife, Margie, who died from cancer about 10 years ago, and four grandchildren.

In the end, Zaleski said, he’s had a rewarding career and feels he’s made a difference.

He said a man came up to him the other day and thanked him. When the judge asked what for, the man replied Zaleski had sentenced him to prison years ago and remarked it was the best thing that had happened to him.

Zaleski said the man told him his stint behind bars convinced him to turn his life around.

Contact Brad Dicken at 329-7147 or bdicken@chroniclet.com.