By Kevin Kelley
Ward 1 Councilman Brian McDonough, an assistant county prosecutor, tried his first case this summer as the first chair, or main attorney, on behalf of the county’s major trial unit.
It turned out to be a big one, a murder trial that would not only garner significant coverage in The Plain Dealer and local TV newscasts, but also attract the nationally televised newsmagazine broadcast, “Dateline NBC.”
McDonough, who was elected to council in November 2011, and the murder trial are scheduled to be featured on the season premiere of “Dateline NBC” at 9 p.m. Friday on WKYC-TV 3.
The case had it all, McDonough said – drama, conflicting experts, a love story gone sour.
Holly McFeeture stood accused of murdering her lover, Matthew Podolak, by poisoning his tea with antifreeze in 2006. The two had two children together, but never married.
Tests by the county medical examiner had determined the cause of Podolak’s death – intoxication by ethylene glycol, the active ingredient in antifreeze – but not the manner of death, McDonough said. While Podolak’s family always suspected McFeeture, the prosecutor’s office decided there was not enough evidence to charge the woman.
In 2008, McFeeture began dating Jamison Kennedy, a convicted felon. Kennedy later told police McFeeture had told him she poisoned Podolak, McDonough said. Kennedy’s credibility as a witness sank, however, after he and McFeeture had a confrontation that ended with her calling the police. At the hospital where Kennedy was taken that night, he allegedly tried to escape and ended up being charged with felonious assault against a police officer, McDonough added.
But Kennedy’s tip was enough to convince the prosecutor’s office to charge McFeeture with aggravated murder and contaminating a substance for human consumption.
Podolak had been taking an antidepressant and had incurred significant debt from playing poker on the Internet, leading defense attorneys to argue that his death had been a suicide. They thus argued that his death was from acute, not chronic ethylene glycol poisoning, as the prosecution contended. Podolak’s health had deteriorated from the poisoning over several weeks, said McDonough, who graduated from the University of Notre Dame in 1996 and Cleveland-Marshall College of Law in 2000.
“It really came down to a battle of the experts as to what the jury would believe,” McDonough said, referring to the medical examiners called to testify by both the prosecution and defense attorneys.
The jury deliberated for less than two days following a weeklong trial. On June 24, they found McFeeture guilty on both counts. Judge Brian Corrigan sentenced her to life in prison Aug. 28.
From the start of the trial, “Dateline NBC” cameras were in the courtroom, recording every minute of testimony. McDonough, a graduate of St. Ignatius High School, wondered if the jurors would act differently because of the cameras.
“The whole experience was surreal,” McDonough said.
Not only was McDonough’s prosecution recorded for a nationwide TV audience, he was later interviewed by correspondent Keith Morrison. The unique vocal inflections Morrison makes in his narration of murders and other crimes profiled on “Dateline” has been parodied on “Saturday Night Live.” Comedian Bill Hader’s take on Morrison in his impressions is that the correspondent appears to derive a perverse enjoyment from hearing about murders and other gruesome crimes.
McDonough had seen the “SNL” parodies of Morrison before being interviewed by the correspondent, but did not discuss them with him.
“Mr. Morrison has such a unique voice, tone, inflection and style,” McDonough acknowledged. The seriousness of the case, as well as loss of the Podolak family, precluded the possibility of McDonough laughing at Morrison’s inflections, the prosecutor told West Life.
“He asked all the possible questions from the defense point of the case,” McDonough said of Morrison, who interviewed him and fellow prosecutor Alison Foy for two hours.
McDonough acknowledged that the “Dateline NBC” cameras made him nervous while trying the case. However, the attorney is an advocate of cameras in the courtrooms.
“I think in the interest of transparency, there should be cameras in all the courtroom,” he said.
Gavel-to-gavel coverage of trials increases the public’s knowledge of the law, McDonough said, and also can be informative for the legal profession.