John McDougall, 82, public defender

John G. McDougall
John G. McDougall
Posted: May 07, 2014

John G. McDougall, 82, whose storied legal career in Delaware County included a 12-year battle that cleared a teenager convicted of murder, died Thursday, May 1, at Kindred Acute Care in Havertown of complications from a fall.

Until that fall about a month ago, he worked full time at Minisec Inc., the offender rehabilitation-services company he founded in 1995 with son Sean and daughter Colleen Marsini.

Mr. McDougall, who lived most recently in Wallingford, was appointed Delaware County's first public defender in the late 1970s. He soon built a reputation for embracing even the most daunting cases and unlikable clients.

In 1989, Delaware County Daily Times columnist Gil Spencer wrote: "If you're looking for a man to play the part of the courtly, dignified Atticus Finch in To Kill a Mockingbird from all the lawyers in Delaware County, John McDougall would be your man.

"He's managed to represent some of the scummiest people around, but it's never tarnished him or his reputation,'' Spencer quoted a Delaware County attorney as saying.

By far Mr. McDougall's toughest challenge was Terence McCracken Jr., a 19-year-old sentenced to life in prison for the fatal 1983 shooting of a 71-year-old man during the robbery of a Collingdale delicatessen.

Mr. McDougall believed police intimidated a key witness and targeted McCracken because his father was a member of the Warlocks motorcycle gang. Among other evidence of McCracken's innocence, Mr. McDougall found an imprisoned convict who confessed to being the triggerman.

The protracted case - an order for a new trial was overturned, reinstated and, finally, upheld - is now studied in law schools.

"I think Frank was one of the best trial lawyers I ever saw," said Delaware County Court Senior Judge Frank Hazel, who handled McCracken's retrial. "He was one of the best prepared. He knew it was an adversarial process, but he was always civil."

He doggedly delved into arcane details that prosecutors overlooked. In 1991, for example, Walter F. Phillips, a Chestnut Hill dentist, was charged with murder in the death of his wife, who prosecutors said died of a lethal injection of the narcotic papaverine.

Embarrassed prosecutors dropped the charges after Mr. McDougall gave them evidence that the drug was injected after death by a team readying Mrs. Phillip's organs for transplant.

Mr. McDougall was born in West Philadelphia, graduated from West Catholic High School, and served in the Marine Corps Reserve. He attended Drexel University on the GI Bill, then worked as an insurance adjuster to support his family while attending Temple University School of Law at night.

Politically, he had a few missteps. In the late 1970s, he unsuccessfully challenged the Republican machine in Delaware County by running as a Democrat for district attorney and then mayor of Upper Darby in the late 1970s.

"His running was more successful on the road," said son Christopher, who wrote a book about the other kind of running after joining his father in marathons. "Even at age 63, he was still lacing up for the Marine Corps Marathon. For years, he ran it in a brisk three hours, 30 minutes."

Besides his sons and daughter, Mr. McDougall is survived by his wife, the former Jean Gangemi; another son, Jonathan; another daughter, Kelly E.; a sister; and 12 grandchildren. A granddaughter died earlier.

A viewing at 9 a.m. Tuesday, May 6, followed by an 11 a.m. Mass, will be at Nativity of the Blessed Virgin Mary Church, 30 E. Franklin St., Media. Burial will be private. Contributions may be made to National Association of Criminal Defense Attorneys Fund for Criminal Justice, 1660 L St. N.W., 12th Floor, Washington, D.C. 20036.


mmccullough@phillynews.com215-854-2720

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