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In Memoriam

Robert Holmes Bell - Class Of 1962

Robert Holmes Bell



Former federal judge Robert Holmes Bell dies at 79


Associated Press

Published 10:09 a.m. ET June 11, 2023


Robert Holmes Bell, a federal judge for 30 years whose trials included one that led to a rare death sentence in Michigan, has died. He was 79.

Bell died Thursday, Michelle Benham, the court’s chief deputy clerk, said Friday. A cause was not disclosed.

He was “one of the giants” on the federal bench, said Chris Yates, a judge on the state appeals court who often appeared in Bell’s courtroom as a defense lawyer.

Bell was a judge in the Lansing area when President Ronald Reagan in 1987 appointed him to the U.S. District Court in western Michigan, based in Grand Rapids. He retired in 2017.

Bell presided over many significant cases, but none was bigger than the 2002 trial of Marvin Gabrion, who was convicted of drowning a woman in a remote lake in a national forest in Newaygo County.

Michigan outlawed the death penalty in 1847, but it is available under federal law. Federal prosecutors had the ability to charge Gabrion because Rachel Timmerman's murder occurred on government property. The U.S. Justice Department at that time told prosecutors to ask jurors for the death sentence.

The jury unanimously agreed, and Bell ordered it.

Gabrion remains on death row 21 years later while lawyers pursue appeals. He could be an intimidating figure in Bell's courtroom and even slugged one of his attorneys in the jaw in front of the jury.

Bell said Gabrion could wear a menacing look.

“He tried that on me,” Bell told WOOD-TV in 2016. “I just looked right back at him, and then I said, on the record, ‘The record should reflect Mr. Gabrion is staring at me and has stared at me for the last two hours, and it’s having no effect whatever upon me.'”

Bell took pride in personally giving encouragement to people who had returned home from prison.

“Usually, I’ll say to their mother, ‘What does your son need? What does your grandson need?'" Bell told The Grand Rapids Press. "I usually spend 10 minutes trying to engage them and tell them I care. They can’t believe it.”

Judge Robert Holmes Bell is pictured inside his courtroom in downtown Grand Rapids on Tuesday, October 25, 2016.  Cory Morse, The Grand Rapids Press Via A U.S. District ssociated Press


(The following biography was directly copied from Wikipedia, the free encyclopedia)

Robert Holmes Bell (April 19, 1944 – June 8, 2023) was a United States district judge of the United States District Court for the Western District of Michigan.

Education and career
Bell received a Bachelor of Arts degree from Wheaton College in 1966.[1] At Wheaton, Bell lettered in track each year.[2] Bell received his Juris Doctor from Wayne State University Law School in 1969.[1] He was an assistant county prosecuting attorney for Ingham County, Michigan from 1969 to 1973 and then became a judge, first on the Ingham District Court in Mason, Michigan from 1973 to 1979, and then on the Ingham County Circuit Court in Lansing from 1979 to 1987.[1]

Federal judicial service
On March 11, 1987, Bell was nominated by President Ronald Reagan to a seat on the United States District Court for the Western District of Michigan vacated by Judge Wendell Alverson Miles.[1] Bell was confirmed by the United States Senate on July 1, 1987, and received his commission the following day.[1] He served as Chief Judge from 2001 to 2008.[1] He assumed senior status on January 31, 2017.[1]
Chief Justice John Roberts appointed Bell to serve as chairman of the criminal law committee of the Judicial Conference of the United States. In that post, Bell wrote a letter to the Senate Judiciary Committee in 2013 opposing mandatory minimum sentences, saying they produce "unjust results" and waste public funds.[2][3][4]
One notable case during Bell’s federal judicial service was the 2002 trial of Marvin Gabrion, where Bell ordered a death sentence for Gabrion after the U.S. Justice Department told prosecutors to ask jurors for the death sentence, in which the jurors agreed for it.[5] Gabrion remains on death row as of 2023.[5]
Bell also took actions on protecting Lake Michigan sand dunes, supervising the cleanup of the Kalamazoo River, and dismantling Holland, Michigan’s street gang Latin Kings.[6]

Personal life
Born in Lansing, Michigan, on April 19, 1944, to Preston and Eileen (née Holmes), Bell was raised in nearby Williamston and graduated from Okemos High School in 1962.[7] His father died of war-related illness, lymphoma, when he was eight years old.[7][2]
Bell met his wife, Helen, while both were students at Wheaton. They had three children. Their son, Rob Bell, is the founding pastor of the Mars Hill Bible Church megachurch.[2] Bell taught at a sunday school in upper Michigan.[8]
Bell died in East Grand Rapids, Michigan on June 8, 2023, at the age of 79.

 1. Robert Holmes Bell at the Biographical Directory of Federal Judges, a public domain publication of the Federal Judicial Center.
2.  Agar, John (February 13, 2011). "Profile: U.S. District Court Judge Robert Holmes Bell". MLive.
 3. Associated Press, West Michigan federal judge knocks mandatory minimum sentences (September 21, 2013).
4.  Ellison, Garret (September 22, 2013). "Mandatory minimum sentences waste money, have 'unjust results,' says Grand Rapids federal judge". MLive.
5.  "Former federal judge Robert Holmes Bell dies at 79". Detroit Free Press. Retrieved 2023-06-10.
6.  Agar, John (2016-11-20). "Retiring federal judge reflects on death penalty, Latin Kings, place in history". mlive. Retrieved 2023-06-10.
7.  Chardavoyne, David G.; Brenneman, Hugh W., Jr (6 October 2020). A Lincoln Legacy: The History of the U.S. District Court for the Western District of Michigan. Wayne State University Press. ISBN 978-0-8143-4805-5.
8.  "Obituaries in Lansing, MI — Robert Holmes Bell, Sr". Lansing State Journal. 2023-06-09.
 9. White, Ed (June 9, 2023). "Federal judge who presided over rare Michigan death penalty trial dies at 79". AP NEWS. Retrieved June 9, 2023.

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06/14/23 09:34 AM #1    

Sherrie Paty (Barber) (1966)

My memories of the Bell family drifts me back into the 1950's when both of our families were members of Okemos Baptist Church.  Widowed Mrs. Bell and her two sons were very active in the church and, as I recall, the boys participated in Vacation Bible School during the summers and were ensconced with the youth group.  I didn't know Bob well but always had a secret crush on his younger brother Doug.  Both boys were exceptionally nice looking, so much so that I remember my own mother commenting on what nice looking sons Eileen had.

Mrs. Bell was one of my Middle School teachers.  I still invision her soft hands, kind voice and smile.  She was firm but always so very nice.  Most middle school kids don't pay much attention to their teachers but for some reason Eileen caught my eye.  She dressed beautifully, was ever efficient and her smile was always a ready one.  I really liked Mrs. Bell, yet I can't remember what she taught!  I think she taught English.

I also remember the tragic death of the youngest son Doug in 1961.  The family was up north at their grandparent's farm visiting.  Bob and Doug went hunting in two separate sections of the farm but for some reason Doug came looking for Bob, wading through tall corn.  Bob thought he was shooting at a deer and then realized it was his brother.  Racing back to the house, Bob raised the alarm.  Doug, along with his comforting mother, was transported to a nearby hospital but succumbed to his injuries several hours later.

Mom broke the news to me.  I cried!  I had just talked with Doug a few days before they left.  Doug (1946-1961) was interred in Summit Cemetery, Williamston near his father, Preston (1918-1952).  Years later Eileen (1918-2008) was laid to rest beside her husband Preston and now too Bob has been interred with his brother and parents nearby.

Bob graduated the following year, 1962, from OHS and went on to college at Wheaton.  Eileen remarried and gradually I lost track of the family.  But I have lovely memories of those yesteryears; playing ball in the field behind the church with my friends, chase games around the church building and through the parking lot, forbidden yet running up and down the staircases in the side church entry and finally sneaking into the kitchen and grabbing an extra cookie, hoping not to be caught.  Innocent days of fun so long ago.

Sherrie Paty Barber '66

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