John G. McDougall, Delaware County, Pennsylvania’s first public defender and one of the most tenacious and dedicated defense attorneys who ever lived, died May 1 at an acute care facility in Havertown, Pennsylvania a month after injuring himself in a fall.
McDougall’s finest case was a 12-year-long battle to acquit Terence McCracken Jr., an 18-year-old high school senior who was arrested for and convicted of murdering a 71-year-old man named David Johnston during a robbery in a place called Kelly’s Deli on March 18, 1983. McCracken became a suspect because he wore a red sweatshirt that day and because he was the son of a Warlocks Motorcycle Club patch holder named Terence “Screw” McCracken.
The McCracken Case
Two weeks after the young McCracken was jailed a nearly identical robbery took place at a liquor store in a nearby town. Two men named William Vincent Verdekal and John Robert Turcotte were arrested in connection with the second robbery and a .38 caliber handgun in Turcotte’s possession proved to be the gun that killed Johnston.
But because McCracken’s father was a Warlock police assumed the young man must have been guilty of something and a local district attorney named William H. Ryan Jr. charged all three suspects with the murder and put McCracken on trial first. After a mistrial the young son of a notorious biker was convicted of second-degree murder, robbery and conspiracy. Astoundingly, charges against Verdekal and Turcotte were then dropped because no one could find any evidence that McCracken was connected in any way to the two guilty men. Even after Verdekal admitted that he had participated in the robbery at Kelly’s Deli and that McCracken had not, the prosecutor refused to reopen the case.
McCracken spent four years in prison before he was released while McDougall pursued his young client’s appeals. McCracken was finally acquitted in 1995 when he was 31. At that retrial the prosecution’s chief witness, a man named Michael Aldridge who had identified McCracken as being at the scene of the crime, recanted his testimony. After the acquittal District Attorney Ryan said the witness had changed his testimony because he had been intimidated by the Warlocks. “You cannot overestimate the fear factor in this case,” Ryan said.
The case is now frequently studied in law schools. It was merely the first of a very long list stunning defenses based on McDougall’s distrust of the police and his sensitivity to prosecutorial malice and incompetence.
McDougall was born in West Philadelphia, served in the Marine Corps, attended Drexel University on the GI Bill, and went to Temple University Law School at night.
He is survived by his sons Sean and Jonathan, his daughters Kelly and Colleen, his wife Jean, his sister and 12 grandchildren. His buried Tuesday in a private ceremony. His family asks that any memorial contributions in his name be made to the National Association of Criminal Defense Attorneys Fund for Criminal Justice, 1660 L St. N.W., 12th Floor, Washington, D.C. 20036.
John G. McDougall was a friend in need to many innocent men and proof that one man can make a difference.
Requiscant In Pace