Citing a conflict of interest, a county judge yesterday ordered defense attorney William H. Murphy Jr. to step down as counsel for a Severn man charged with murder.
Noting that he was reluctant to order the veteran lawyer off the case given his "excellent reputation," Circuit Judge Lawrence H. Rushworth said he knew of no other way to resolve a dilemma arising from Murphy having previously represented a potential prosecution witness in the case.
The conflict raised the issue of the defendant's 6th amendment right to competent legal representation. To retain Murphy, defendant Christopher Anthony Lee would have had to waive any claims to incompetent representation despite the chance that Murphy may be restricted in his cross-examination of the witness.
Murphy could have been barred from cross-examining the witness because he presumably gained confidential information from the witness under attorney-client privilege. Murphy represented the witness, Donford Harmon, in an armed robbery case that has yet to be heard, said Assistant State's Attorney Eugene M. Whissel II.
The judge's decision obviously did not sit well with the defendant's family. Lee's mother, who would not give her name and refused to comment afterward, was nonetheless visibly disturbed at the ruling.
Murphy said Lee would be represented by the public defender's office.
For two days, Murphy resisted as the prosecutor argued that he should be removed from the case because the conflict could be the basis of a future appeal should the man be convicted.
After the judge's ruling, Murphy said, "It is always in the public's interest to examine the specter of a prosecutor seeking to disqualify his adversary."
He also complained, "This is a case where the state may well have a trial without calling Mr. Harmon but still achieve its goal of having me out of the case."
But Murphy said he was not accusing Whissel of having an ulterior motive in asking for his removal.
Rushworth rejected Murphy's suggestion that a co-counsel be appointed to sit in on the trial and cross-examine Harmon if the situation arose.
Lee said he would appeal the judge's ruling.
Lee, 21, is charged with first-degree murder in connection with the August 1988 shooting death of Richard Oneil Grisby. Grisby, 26, of Severn, was found dead with two gunshot wounds to the back of the head on a wooded pathway connecting Lake Village and Meade Village. Testimony in a previous trial showed the death was related to a dispute over stolen drugs.
In that trial, Olu Basil Carter, 19, of Severn, was convicted of second-degree murder. Carter was sentenced in Aug. to 30 years in prison.
A jury had been selected Tuesday for Lee's trial, but those jurors were excused after yesterday's ruling. A hearing was scheduled for Monday for a report on Lee's progress in finding a new lawyer and to lay the groundwork for a trial.