A hanging party for Judge Brian Rowe
After serving 24 years on the bench at the Dukes County Courthouse in Edgartown, retired Judge Brian Rowe found himself summoned to a hanging party last Thursday afternoon.
There he faced a jury of his peers - judges, lawyers, and courthouse and law enforcement personnel - a veritable "who's who" of Cape and Islands jurisprudence. They delivered their verdict with swiftness and justice: the time had come to unveil Judge Rowe's portrait, which will hang in honor in the courtroom where he used to preside.
Judge Rowe called upon nine-year-old Willow Jin Yi Wunsch, the daughter of head administrative assistant Jean Wunsch, to help him unveil his portrait. The two of them pulled off a white sheet to reveal an oil painting depicting Judge Rowe in his robe on the courthouse steps outside. The Dukes County Bar Association commissioned the portrait from artist Patricia Marsan of Osterville, who worked from a photograph.
Retired Judge Brian Rowe and his portrait Photos by Ralph Stewart
The "hanging party" began on a seemingly serious note, with court officer Dan Flynn calling the proceeding to order after Superior Court clerk of courts Joe Sollitto and Edgartown District Court clerk/magistrate Liza Williamson took their places before the bench, with Judge Rowe on the witness stand.
However, with the arrival of Judge H. Gregory Williams, First Justice of the Dukes County District Court, who vowed to make his comments "brief and irrelevant," the event took a decided turn towards a good-humored roast of the pony-tailed, Harley motorcycle aficionado Judge Rowe.
Referring to those in the audience who enjoyed a pre-ceremony celebration in the bar at the Wharf Pub and Restaurant, Judge Williams joked, "Some of my colleagues thought Judge Rowe's portrait was going to be hung where he was served - not where he served!"
Prefacing her remarks with the quip, "I've been looking forward to Judge Rowe's hanging for a long time," Ms. Williamson recounted one of her first appearances before him as a lawyer. Judge Rowe stood up at the bench, yelled and shook his finger at her over a memorandum she wrote. The first thing she did when she got back to her office was to look up his mandated retirement date, she said.
However, Ms. Williamson added, they later became good friends, and he put in a good word for her when she was being considered for appointment as clerk/magistrate of the Edgartown District Court.
Ms. Williamson presented Judge Rowe with a "happy hanging card," decorated with a large noose on it and signed by everyone at the ceremony. Commenting on its appropriateness, Mr. Sollitto added with a smile, "Some defendants referred to him as 'Death Rowe.'"
In the "hot seat" in back at left, Judge Rowe enjoys remarks by Judge H. Gregory Williams, along with clerk of courts Joe Sollitto and clerk/magistrate Liza Williamson up front.
With a big grin on his face, Judge Rowe told everyone, "When you retire, you are reborn. I'm having a ball." Summing up his Vineyard career during which he commuted from his home in Mashpee to the Island two or three times a week, he said, "I enjoyed the trip, I had fun, and I'm glad I'm out."
Judge Rowe graduated from the University of Virginia and received his law degree from Suffolk University Law School. Appointed to the bench in 1981 by Gov. Edward King, he served as the associate justice of the Edgartown Superior Court under Judge Herbert Tucker. He was appointed First Justice in 1985 when Judge Tucker retired.
"When I was appointed, I lived in Westminster and had never been to Martha's Vineyard before, except to fish," Judge Rowe said. "I was a bit apprehensive, because I had heard about the Island mentality towards outsiders." Despite his initial qualms, "It turned out to be the greatest adventure I ever had," he said.
Asked about his most unusual case in his Vineyard career, Judge Rowe paused only a few seconds before answering with a chuckle, "The Princess of Liechtenstein." After "cleaning out Nantucket," Judge Rowe said the Puerto Rican woman posing as a princess headed to the Vineyard where she continued the charade, looking at million dollar homes and convincing everyone her yacht would be arriving to pick her up. She conned numerous people out of money and almost made it off the Island without getting caught, he said.
While some defendants took flights of fancy, Judge Rowe said others resorted to downright flight, leaping out windows to escape his judgment. One man, wearing handcuffs, no less, dove outside through a courtroom window and broke his leg. Another jumped out of a second floor men's room window and managed to crawl to St. Andrew's Church, where security guards caught him hiding behind the altar.
Judge Rowe stepped down as First Justice in December 2004 and Judge Williams was appointed to the position in October 2005.
"I had a lot of fun," Judge Rowe said, which he attributed to "a great staff, a great bar, and a wonderful community."
He and his wife Bo live in Falmouth and have seven children. Enjoying travel in his retirement, Judge Rowe recently returned from a trip to Alaska. The day after the ceremony, he planned to head to northern Maine, then to North Carolina and Georgia, returning home for Christmas. "I hunt everything - I love the outdoors," he said.
The Dukes County Bar Association sponsored Thursday's event, including a reception afterwards at the Wharf. About 30 people attended, which Judge Rowe said surprised him. "I expected about six or eight people would show up," he laughed.
Guests included Judge James O'Neill of Nantucket, Judge Michael Creeden of Falmouth, Associate Justice Don Carpenter of Barnstable, former Edgartown District Court clerk/magistrate Thomas Teller, retired Sheriff Christopher S. Look, Jr., former Oak Bluffs police chief Peter Williamson, and former court officer Harold Hill.