In 1999, within a two-week period, Michael Wilson won back-to-back jury cases in Randolph and Callaway counties for separate murders committed in Monroe County, and prosecuted a third murder case three months later.
It was a Tuesday afternoon of hearings in criminal cases at the Monroe County Courthouse in Paris.
In the high-ceilinged third-floor courtroom, a young woman nervously moved from one foot to another answering questions about a plea deal would keep her out of prison on a drug charge, receiving a suspended sentence and probation in lieu of several years behind bars.
After he accepted the pleas and issued her suspended sentence, Monroe County Judge Michael Wilson looked at young woman and encouraged her to take advantage of her good fortune.
“This is the luckiest day of your life; you may not think that — but it is,” Wilson said in an even grandfatherly style to the young woman, who had stopped shifting. Wilson added that he had known the young woman through most her life, suggesting that it was time “to stop making bad choices.”
The judge later used similar language for a young man facing the same circumstance. The message was clear to both young people. Make better decisions. Stop breaking the law. And if they came back to his courtroom with similar charges, be prepared for prison.
The cases range from child abuse to drunk driving to illegal drug charges of all types. Throughout each case, he remains calm and measured in conversations with defendants and lawyers.
So started an afternoon of hearing criminal cases for the 1969 graduate of Paris High School, who has served as a judge in the 10th Circuit of Missouri for nearly 13 years. He was appointed in 2004 by then-Missouri Gov. Bob Holden to serve the unexpired term of Carroll Blackwell, who was retiring. He ran for office in a contested race in 2006, winning, and has won two uncontested races in 2010 and 2014.
Wilson graduated with journalism and political science degrees in 1973 from the University of Missouri, and then entered the United States Air Force as a second lieutenant. He attended the Defense Information School, and was assigned as a public affairs officer.
In 1977, he was one of 25 Air Force junior officer selected to attend law school. He graduated from the University of Missouri Law School, and became a lawyer on for the Air Force Judge Advocate General (JAG), serving in a variety of legal roles at various bases.
His assignments included a two-year posting to Incirlik Air Base in Turkey, where he worked both the courtroom as a prosecutor and negotiated with Turkish authorities for the release of American airmen and soldiers accused of violating Turkish law. Other assignments included serving as base JAG at Williams Air Force Base, Ariz., and later at Minot Air Force Base, N.D.
Wilson rose to lieutenant colonel, and was in line for a promotion to colonel when he and wife, Kathleen (Roegge), also a Paris native, decided that it was time to retire after a 20-year career and return home to Monroe County.
“We were ready,” he said simply of the decision.
Not long after coming back to Paris to set-up a law practice, Wilson decided to run for Monroe County prosecuting attorney, a post he won in a contested election in 1994, and won re-election in unopposed races in 1999 and 2002. As a prosecuting attorney, Wilson, according to court observers, had a reputation as a tough litigator.
In 1999, within a two-week period, he won back-to-back jury cases in Randolph and Callaway counties for separate murders committed in Monroe County, and prosecuted a third murder case three months later.
His performance in the murder case Zachary Wilson, who was charged with murdering his girlfriend’s father, was chronicled in the Pulitzer Prize winning-author Ron Powers’ book, “Tom and Huck Don’t Live Here Anymore,” published in 2001.
After Zachary Wilson testified in his own defense, Powers chronicles Michael Wilson’s aggressive questioning.
“There was recess in the proceedings, and then Mike Wilson arose to cross-examine. He was spitting out rapid-fire questions before he left his chair, a hard edge in his twangy mid-Missouri voice as he moved swiftly in direct line toward the defendant,” wrote Powers. “His strategy seemed as clear as it was brutal: Given that Zachary Wilson had already exposed himself as a liar, the prosecutor meant to tear down every last shred of credibility and then trap him in moments of irrevocable truth.”
The case ended with a conviction and a life-without-parole sentence for Zachary Wilson.
Since he has become a judge, Wilson admits to mellowing a bit from his days as an aggressive prosecutor. His tone is more gentle.
“You have to remember, I have a different client now,” he said.
In the years that he has been a judge, Wilson said the biggest change is the number of cases involving drugs, which have grown exponentially over the years.
Wilson also hears civil and probate cases, in addition to criminal cases. Because he is a member of small community, he will sometimes recuse himself from a case. Although it does not happen often, he says “you just feel when that is the right thing to do.”
As for the future, Wilson thinks he has one more term before he reaches mandatory retirement age for a Missouri judge. His office is up for election in 2018.