Jim McClain, the governor’s choice to replace Ted Housel as Atlantic County’s prosecutor, is as straightforward as they come, those who worked with him said.
“I think Jim’s a great communicator,” said Chief Assistant Prosecutor Chet Wiech, who has worked with McClain for 25 years. “He won’t shy away from making a difficult decision, that’s for sure.”
Defense attorney Steve Scheffler learned that this past year, after McClain agreed to a deal that allowed Jessica Kisby to plead guilty in the fatal abduction of an Atlantic City casino visitor in exchange for a 30-year prison term.
“It might not have been a popular decision at the time he made it, but in retrospect, it turned out to be the right decision,” Scheffler said.
Kisby’s testimony at the trial of her accomplice, Craig Arno, helped fill in the blanks of the case and get a conviction, McClain said at her sentencing.
But before that, Kisby sat on the stand and told a horrific story of torture and murder as if she were relaying a breezy tale of how she spent her summer. But she told the story she had promised to tell.
“Obviously, my client wasn’t a witness who engendered a lot of sympathy,” Scheffler said. “I think Jim would have had the opportunity to bail out of the deal, but he never wavered at all. He understood the system is based upon making commitments and living by them.
“I think a guy who has that strength of fortitude is the perfect person to run this county’s prosecutor’s office,” Scheffler said.
“He’s a good thinker,” Wiech said. “He considers all his options then reaches his conclusion.”
McClain, 54, who declined to be interviewed before the Senate hearing, knows the office he has been nominated to lead. His entire 29-year career has been spent as a prosecutor there, taking an assistant position after passing the bar in 1983.
In October 2010, Housel made McClain his second in command, replacing outgoing First Assistant Prosecutor Murray Talasnik.
Housel, a Democrat nominated by former Gov. Jon S. Corzine, said there was no better choice than McClain, a Republican.
The two men have worked well together, it seems, despite very different personalities. Housel enjoys the control that comes with the job. He has been known to hold a news conference and acknowledge with a sly smile that he will take questions that won’t be answered.
By contrast, McClain will give a quote on what he can release and then firmly say that’s all that can be given to protect the investigation.
In a courtroom, he doesn’t appear to rattle easily. A rare misstep or lost word usually results in a laugh and maybe a slight joke.
“He’s got a great sense of humor,” Wiech said. “He’s got an easygoing style.”
And he is known for his preparation.
“I’ve had several complex, high-profile trials with him in the past several years, and he was well-prepared, always on time and professional,” Superior Court Judge Michael Donio said. “That’s really all a judge could ask for.”
Defense attorney Steve Feldman has seen the same things and appreciates it.
“I’m always happy when I can get into trial with somebody who knows what they’re doing and gives me a good fight,” he said. “Jim always was more than capable of trying a case. I always appreciated the hard fight he fought every time.”
In the past few years, he has tried cases that include the so-called “sex tape” trial, in which an Atlantic City councilman was set up and videotaped with a prostitute in an attempt to blackmail him to leave office. Instead, the men who carried out the plan were arrested — and convicted.
McClain even took the stand last year in another prosecutor’s murder trial, when a juror was discovered to have been a one-time witness for the state. After a mistrial, the woman changed her story on the stand during the retrial.
“I felt she felt she’d been embarrassed,” he said matter-of-factly. “She knows who it was who put her in that position: The Atlantic County Prosecutor’s Office.”
The juror was dismissed.
Both that case and Arno had McClain facing public defender Eric Shenkus.
“Whenever I see that Jim McClain is assigned to a case, I know that I will have my work cut out for me,” he said. “He possesses all the qualities of a great prosecutor: thoroughly prepared, reasonable and professional.”
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