I received news from my aunt that the mother of a family I grew up with in Pittsburgh had just died. She was 87 years old. The O’Briens were our next door neighbors. After hearing the news, my mother, who will turn 91 in March, and I reminisced about the good times we had growing up with the O’Briens and other families on the street where we lived. I keep in touch with their oldest daughter. We are the same age and graduated from the same high school.
She blew up my pet toad. It’s a funny story, especially when she tells it. But that’s another story.
John O’Brien, the father of the clan of eight children, who passed away in 2006, was a lawyer who distinguished himself as a husband, father, mayor, and judge. I had gone off to college and moved away from home before I could appreciate his work as an Allegheny County Common Pleas Court Judge. After doing a little digging, I came across his obituary in the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette:
- [John O’Brien] served more than a quarter century, presiding over some notorious criminal trials of the 1970s and 1980s. Lawyers called him an old school gentleman.
- “He could exhibit a wry sense of humor from the bench, but never arrogance or sarcasm. When you entered his courtroom, you knew that he was there to dispense justice fairly, and that’s exactly what he did,” said Gregory Nescott, now a federal prosecutor, who tried cases before Judge O’Brien for a decade in the district attorney’s office.
- He worked his way through the University of Pittsburgh and its law school.
- He presided over high profile trials, including the Coraopolis sniper, a deranged 24-year-old Army veteran who in 1980 opened fire on his neighbors from a third-floor window, killing four and wounding a man who rushed to aid his fatally wounded wife. A jury rejected his insanity defense and Judge O’Brien sentenced him to 20 to 40 years in prison.
There were two cases that caught my attention. The first was the “1988 trial of a serial rapist from Homestead who attacked elderly women.” Judge O’Brien believed the evidence against the accused was so strong that he should have made a plea bargain in order to spare the rape victims from having to testify publicly to what was done to them. “He was crying with the women when the guy finally got convicted,” his son John said. Judge O’Brien sentenced the rapist to 100 to 200 years in prison.
But this is my favorite:
“Some of his strongest words in the courtroom were for prisoners who harmed other inmates. In 1986, when a jury acquitted two convicted murderers of killing another inmate by dousing him with lighter fluid and setting him on fire, he was outraged. ‘I don’t know if you believe in the superior being,’ he told one of the accused after the verdict, ‘but you should not only get down on your knees, you ought to crawl out of here on your knees and not get off them for the next 10 years. You beat the system.’”
There’s a reason why “Judge Judy” is the No. 1 show on day-time television. Judge John O’Brien would have made a good “Judge John.” People are looking for some old-time justice rooted in the belief that people are responsible for their actions and ultimately will stand before the Judge of the Universe.
Rest in Peace, Mrs. O’Brien, and my condolences to the O’Brien family in their loss. I have some great memories to treasure.