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Witness for the Prosecution: The Murder of Judy Malinowski


On August 2nd, 2015, patrons of a Speedway gas station in Gahanna, Ohio, were horrified as they watched a man pour gasoline on a female and set her ablaze. Nearby bank surveillance cameras captured the horrific scene. The couple was seen arguing, before the woman went to sit in the grass behind the Speedway Station. Moments later, the man approaches her with gasoline and pours it all over her and lights her on fire as she tried to get away. The woman, thirty-one-year-old Judy Malinowski was about to begin a long, painful battle for her life.

Judith Ann Hensel Malinowski was born August 26th, 1982, in Columbus, Ohio. She is the daughter of the late Thomas Hensel and Bonnie Bowes. She is the oldest sibling, with a younger sister and brother. Judy was a 2001 graduate of New Albany High School, where she was a popular girl and homecoming queen. Judy was beautiful and outgoing, so it’s not surprising she was crowned Miss New Albany. After high school, Judy attended Ohio State University.

Judy married at age twenty-one and became a mother to two daughters. She loved being a mother, and her girls were her entire life. In 2006, Judy was diagnosed with ovarian cancer. As a result of her diagnosis, she underwent a hysterectomy. After her surgery, Judy was prescribed opioid pain killers. Like many Americans, the prescription medications led Judy down a path of life-changing drug addiction. 1.6 million Americans suffer from opioid use disorders (Bicket, Lin, & Waljee, 2022), many of which began their addiction after being prescribed opioids following a surgical procedure.

The addiction destroyed Judy’s marriage, and eventually lead her to a heroin addiction. She entered rehab in hopes of cleaning up her life. In the spring of 2015, Judy was home following her rehab stay and enjoying being a mother to her girls. She was sober and rebuilding her life. She connected on Facebook with an acquaintance of her ex-husband’s, construction worker Michael Slager. The two began to date, and it quickly became apparent that Michael was not a good influence on her life.

Judy and Michael shared their first date and were together constantly after that first night. Michael provided drugs to Judy, fueling her addiction and dependence on him. The two had a tumultuous relationship that soon became abusive. Michael was possessive and abusive, often trying to turn Judy’s mother against her own daughter. Her mother soon noticed that she had bruises on her and that Judy had relapsed. Michael once choked Judy to the point that she was in fear for her life. She tried to end the relationship, but always seemed to find herself back with Michael. Despite nearly a dozen calls to her apartment for domestic violence, no charges were ever filed.

Although their relationship only lasted a few months, the relationship was dramatic and disturbing. Michael frequently called the police on Judy for various reasons, which law enforcement believes now was an attempt to control her. Judy shared with her friends and family that she was afraid Michael would kill her if she left. Judy’s family felt that her history of drug abuse caused law enforcement not to take her seriously (The Fire That Took Her). Finally, in August of 2015, Judy was accepted into a drug rehabilitation program. Michael offered to drive her.

On August 2nd, 2015, Michael and Judy were on their way to the rehabilitation center. They stopped at the Speedway Station for cigarettes. The surveillance camera showed the two arguing outside the gas station. Judy appears to throw water or soda at Michael. Then you can see Michael go to his vehicle and obtain a red gasoline container. He walks back to Judy and pours the gas can overtop her. Moments later, he bends down and lights her on fire. The horrific scene, caught on camera, shows Judy struggling for her life as she is engulfed in flames outside the gas station.

At the hospital, Michael Slager told authorities that he and Judy had fought, but states the fire was accidental. He stated that he bent down to light a cigarette for Judy, at which time she was accidentally set on fire. Police quickly found the surveillance footage, however, and did not believe the story told by Michael. He was placed under arrest at the hospital as Judy fought for her life down the hall.

Michael had a criminal history of menacing, making false police reports, domestic violence, assault, rape, petty theft, endangering children, sexual battery, disorderly conduct, stalking, resisting arrest, failure to register as a sex offender, and obstructing official business. He had a long criminal history of disturbing and abusive behavior. Following the tragic incident on August 2nd, 2015, he was charged with felonious assault and aggravated arson. He was facing eleven years in prison.

Judy had severe burns to nearly eighty percent of her body. All of her hair was gone, and the skin of her face was burned beyond recognition. Judy was taken briefly out of sedation to speak to police officers. She confirmed that Michael Slager had purposely set her on fire. As the trial for felonious assault and aggravated arson neared, Judy was still fighting for her life. She underwent nearly fifty surgeries and was resuscitated at least eight times. The battle she was fighting was painful and awful. Despite this, Judy was determined to testify against her ex-boyfriend at his trial.

The defense team realized that if Judy were to testify against Michael Slager at his felonious assault and aggravated arson trial and was cross-examined, the testimony would be admissible in a future murder trial should Judy die. For this reason, the defense advised their client to withdraw his not guilty plea and instead plead no contest. By pleading no contest, Judy was not able to confront him in court and Michael did not have to admit guilt. He was sentenced to eleven years in prison, although the judge stated she felt he deserved much longer. Eleven years was the maximum sentence allowed by law.

With her mother, daughters, stepfather, and siblings by her side, Judy fought courageously for two years. She fought not only for her life, but for legislation that would increase the maximum sentence for felonious assault in which the victim experiences disfigurement or serious injury to twenty years. Judy said that “If my story helps just one woman, that’s all I want” (People Magazine). “I got a life sentence, and he didn’t”, she also said (People Magazine). Judy, from her hospital bed, fought with her family to pass Judy’s Law, in hopes of helping women who were victims of domestic violence.

As her condition worsened, Judy met with law enforcement officers and became determined to do something that had never been done before. Judy wanted to testify at her own murder trial, knowing she would not survive her injuries. Still in the hospital, eighteen months after her surgery, Judy Malinowski won a motion and was granted permission to give a video deposition that would be admissible in Michael’s future murder trial. In order to do this, however, Judy had to be weaned off her pain medications in order to be considered competent.

Judy, who had a history of drug addiction, was on high doses of pain medications due to the severe burns to her body. She endured weeks of tremendous pain as she was weaned off the pain medications in order to give her testimony. Judy’s pain was strong, but her determination was stronger. Michael Sager asked the judge to allow him to be in the room while she recorded her deposition. This request was denied.

Judy Malinowki gave a videotaped deposition in which she explained what happened on August 2nd, 2015. She admitted to arguing with Michael, throwing a cup of soda at him, and watching Michael go to his truck. She said he returned with a large gasoline container and soaked her in gas while calling her names. She described the burning in her throat from the gasoline. She said she was begging for him to stop and help her, but he just ignored her and said, “See what I do to you Bitch” (The Fire That Took Her). She then recalls watching him pull a lighter out of his pocket and walking towards her with the lighter. She denies smoking a cigarette or asking Michael to light it. She said she cried and begged for help as he lit her on fire. She described his eyes as “black” (The Fire That Took Her). She gave a three-hour deposition that included cross examination by the defense, in which her drug abuse history was used to put her on trial.

On June 27th, 2017, Judy Malinoski succumbed to her injuries after nearly two years in the hospital following this brutal attack. Judy signed herself up for hospice care, expressing that she was ready to rest. Judy passed peacefully with her mother by her side. She was buried at Forest Lawn Memorial Gardens in Columbus, Ohio. She left behind her two young daughters, mother and stepfather, and siblings who adored her.

Following Judy’s death, Michael Sager, still serving his sentence for the attack, was charged with first-degree murder. Michael plead not guilty, and that state of Ohio announced they planned to seek the death penalty against Michael Slager. While awaiting trial, Judy’s Law was passed through the Ohio legislature on September 7th, 2017.

The defense fought to have Judy’s deposition excluded from evidence, stating that admitting the evidence violated Michael’s right to confront his accuser. The judge ruled that since Judy was cross-examined during the deposition, the video tape would be admissible. Facing the death penalty, Michael’s defense team requested a plea deal that would allow him to plead no contest, again not admitting any guilt. The prosecution denied this request, stating that no deal would be considered unless Michael admitted and took responsibility for his crime.

Michael Sager’s defense team finally agreed to a plea deal in which Michael would plead guilty to first-degree murder and give a full allocation of his crime. In exchange, the death penalty was waived, and Michael was sentenced to life in prison with no possibility of parole. On July 5th, 2018, Michael Sager entered his plea deal and was sentenced to life without the possibility of parole in the Ohio Department of Corrections. Her testimony was played to the court during the sentencing hearing, ensuring her voice was heard.

Judy Malinowski should be remembered for her bravery and determination. She was one of the first people to testify at her own murderer’s trial. She endured severe pain and suffering to ensure she could provide this testimony. She fought courageously for twenty-three months not only for her life, but for change in the criminal justice system and help for women suffering from domestic violence. Judy Malinowski is a hero.

If you are experiencing domestic violence, call the National Domestic Violence Hotline at 1-800-799-7233 or go to thehotline.org





References

Pelisek, C. (2023). Justice from beyond the grave: she testified at her own murder trial. People Magazine. June 5, 2023

The Fire That Took Her (2023). MTV Special. Available on Paramount+

Price, R. (2017). Burned woman who inspired legislation dies at 33. Dayton Daily News. 28 Jun 2017

Carter, A. (2022). A mother’s battle for justice revisited. The Cincinnati Inquirer. 06 Nov 2022

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