In Judge Gael D. Wood’s 17 years on the bench, he has made many difficult decisions that have impacted the lives of many.
Judge Wood will retire Friday, Oct. 20, from his post as Franklin County 20th Circuit presiding judge.
Over the years, he has heard many memorable cases, including one capital case and a complicated civil suit involving the death of seven people during a plane crash near Sullivan.
According to the Missouri Constitution, judges must retire at the age of 70. For Judge Wood, that is Oct. 23.
“As much as I truly loved having this job and the trust given to me by the people of the circuit, there have been many nights of lost sleep making decisions on sentencing and child custody decisions,” he said. “It’s not an easy job.
“But if it were up to me, I would keep doing it,” he added.
Wood and his wife Mary live in Washington. They have one daughter.
Judge Wood expects a 60-day appointment by the Supreme Court as senior judge, where he will continue to hear cases in the circuit.
“I expect to call the docket as if nothing happened until my successor steps into my shoes,” he said.
Before stepping down as a senior judge, Wood will finish hearing a death penalty case in Cole County where he was appointed as a special judge. He also will hear a habeas corpus in which he has been appointed a “special master” by the Missouri Supreme Court.
In the fall of 2000, Wood was elected to the circuit court and took office on Jan. 1, 2001. He was then elected, en banc, by the judges in the court as presiding judge one month later. He has been re-elected to that position every two years since.
Wood is the longest serving presiding judge in the circuit in the past 40 years.
During his tenure, he has heard six first-degree murder cases and sentenced hundreds convicted of crimes to prison terms.
“Every case is important to the people involved,” he said. “We often make decisions that can affect the parties for the rest of their lives.”
Judge Wood said he has never taken a sentencing lightly, knowing how many lives are impacted.
“There are so many things for a judge to consider,” he said. “What are they trying to achieve — restitution, retribution, rehabilitation, deterrence? There is a very complex set of considerations.”
In 2012, Judge Wood handed down a sentence of life in prison with no chance of parole for Vernell Loggins who was convicted of first-degree murder. It was the only capital murder case he heard. Loggins killed his girlfriend, Stephanie Fields, in November 2009.
“It is a funny feeling to look at a man and say, ‘Lock him up for the rest of his life,’ ” he said. “It is not that they don’t deserve it, and it is not altogether unpleasant.”
Judge Wood also heard a civil case brought by the families of victims in a plane crash that occurred July 29, 2006, just after takeoff at the Sullivan Regional Airport. Seven people lost their lives in the crash. There was one survivor who was injured.
“That was an exhausting experience,” he said. “It was the whole scope of the tragedy, coupled with detailed, technical evidence regarding engine failure. It was fascinating, as well as exhausting.”
Then there was the kidnapping and rape case which came to Franklin County on a change of venue from Stoddard County, where Judge Wood sentenced the defendant to two life sentences plus 163 years without parole on the various charges.
Judge Wood has been vocal in his view from the bench of the rise of opioid abuse in Franklin County. He cited strains on the community due to increased costs for law enforcement and the courts and the growing number of overdoses.
“The inability to help with drug addicts is frustrating,” he said. “We are sending addicts to prisons, and sometimes that is their only crime.”
The increase in addictions and overcrowding of jails and prisons is troublesome, he added.
“Eventually, we run out of options other than incarceration,” he said. “That keeps them off drugs while they are locked up, but frequently that is all it accomplishes.”
Judge Wood noted that there has been an increase in crime in general.
“I have seen a steady increase in major felonies,” he said. “I associate that with opioids and increased population.”
There are more murders in recent years as well, Judge Wood noted.
“It is still a rarity to some extent,” he said. “In the past you just didn’t hear about murders in Franklin County, but now it is not as surprising.”
“I have seen tremendous changes over the years,” Judge Wood said.
The courts were moved into the Judicial Center in 2008. Prior to that, two courts were in one building and two courts were in another.
In conjunction with the move into the new building, the clerks for the circuit judges and the associate circuit judges were consolidated under one appointing authority.
Since the move to the new facility, there have been dramatic changes in courthouse security. Technology in the courtroom also has made major advancements since Wood took office in 2001.
In 2013, the courts switched to an electronic filing system in lieu of paper documents.
“It was a pretty big change for all involved — clerks, judges and attorneys,” he said. “It took quite a bit of getting used to. In the end it saved taxpayers money, and it is much more efficient.”
Judge Wood has been instrumental in the use of video conferencing, Polycom, in the courts.
The circuit judges began using video for court proceedings around 2010. The associate judges started using Polycom in 2005 with the sheriff’s office.
“We talk with inmates at the county jail and also inmates in the Department of Corrections,” Judge Wood said. “It saves a lot of money and increases safety.”
The MAPS (Missouri Augmented Probation Supervision) program began in 2011 and offers swift sanctions for felony offenders who violate probation. The program was initiated in Franklin County Circuit Court and may spread throughout Missouri depending on its success.
Under the program, if a probationer fails to make an appointed meeting with his or her probation officer or fails a drug test, they will be arrested “on the spot” and held until they can be brought before a judge, usually within 48 hours. It is only offered in Franklin County at this time.
Judge Wood also initiated the pretrial release program, a program which aids those arrested on nonviolent charges who do not have the means to post bond. Rather than leaving them sitting in jail taking up space, they could be released on their own recognizance while they await their trial dates.
Judge Wood also has played a major role in the success of the Franklin County CASA (Court Appointed Special Advocates), an organization that advocates for the best interest of children of abuse and neglect who are under the protection of the Franklin County and Gasconade County juvenile courts.
CASA recently celebrated 10 years of service in the community.
Also during his judgeship, the Osage County Drug Court began, and the on-call judge program for adult abuse cases was implemented. Under that program, judges are on call after hours, weekends and holidays.
During the course of his judicial career, Judge Wood has served by special appointment on both the Missouri Court of Appeals and the Missouri Supreme Court.
In 2014, Judge Wood was the recipient of the Benjamin N. Cardoza Award for judicial courage and excellence. He was recognized by the Association of Criminal Defense Lawyers for numerous contributions to the administration of justice in Franklin County, including the pioneer probation supervision program.
“I was extremely flattered to receive that award,” he said.
Judge Wood has been involved in numerous community boards and organizations, including Emmaus Homes. He also has served on the Franklin County Child Protection Team, Washington Public Library Board and East Central College Board of Trustees.
He is a past president of the Washington Rotary Club, past president of the Washington Area Chamber of Commerce, treasurer of the Washington Foundation for Education Excellence and in an advisory role with the Washington Civic Industrial Corporation.
“I’m always happy to get involved in charitable efforts,” said Judge Wood, who also served in an advisory role in the planning and construction of the Judicial Center, as well as the Franklin County Charter Commission.
Judge Wood has been a member of the Circuit Judge Association Judicial Resource Allocation Task Force.
Judge Wood said there are no plans to practice law again, but he may still do some mediation. Judge Wood also noted that he may seek office in some capacity.
“I hope to continue in some role in public service,” he said. “I have not yet determined what role that might be. I have not ruled out an elected office.”
A graduate of Washington High School, Judge Wood graduated from the University of Missouri-Columbia with a degree in mathematics. He later graduated in the top 10 percent of his class from law school at the University of Missouri-Kansas City.
Judge Wood began practicing law in Washington in 1975 at a firm in which he eventually became a partner. He had served as municipal judge for both the cities of Washington and Owensville.