Success puts prosecutor in Howard on his mettle

November 21, 1993|By Alan J. Craver | Alan J. Craver,Staff Writer

County prosecutor Joseph Murtha keeps a note a judge gave him during a jury trial last year as a reminder that he can do better.

Mr. Murtha has the note at his desk in the Howard State's Attorney's Office in appreciation of a judge who was once a top trial lawyer giving him something to learn.

Howard Circuit Judge James Dudley wrote in large letters on yellow legal stationery, advising Mr. Murtha to stand still before a jury, and to avoid using the word "I" during his closing statements.

"It's always good to get guidance," the 34-year-old Towson resident said. "I know there are always areas of improvement."

The note is a keepsake of a career that has seen Mr. Murtha streak from a Howard District Court prosecutor to a senior assistant state's attorney in the county's Circuit Court in just three years.

He has gone before a jury more than 30 times. Five cases ended in acquittals.

Mr. Murtha handled the case of a pharmacist who set a string of arson fires in Ellicott City and Catonsville, prosecuted a teen-ager for murdering his tutor and served on the team that prosecuted two Washington men for the Pam Basu carjacking murder, a case that received national attention.

Mr. Murtha has a slate of major cases coming up, including the prosecution of a Baltimore man accused in the execution-style slaying of another man outside the Woodstock post office in October 1992. He also is preparing a case against an Ellicott City accountant charged in the chloroform inhalation death of his 20-year-old girlfriend.

"A lot of people work hard to be where Joe is now, that is getting assigned to the good cases," Judge Dudley said.

The swiftness of Mr. Murtha's success has come without him losing the respect of co-workers, judges and defense lawyers. ,, Many say he is a good trial attorney who could become an excellent one.

"I regard Joe highly as one of our up-and-coming prosecutors," said Senior Assistant State's Attorney Michael Rexroad, a prosecutor for nearly 15 years. "He shows many of the requisite qualities."

State's Attorney William Hymes said that when nine assistants left the office in 1991 and 1992, Mr. Murtha took on many complex cases that a prosecutor with his few years of experience normally would not have handled.

"It obviously gave him an opportunity to display his talents at a much earlier time than he would have," Mr. Hymes said. "He responded beautifully."

And all of it almost never happened.

*

Mr. Murtha was on a track he set for himself in college. He was in his second year of law school and working as an aide to former Baltimore County Council President James Smith Jr., now a Circuit Court judge.

By age 30, he expected to be married with children, working as a private attorney and hoping to run for public office. But the plan unraveled.

When his fiancee broke off their relationship, Mr. Murtha dropped out of law school. He took a job as a waiter and lived part of the time at home with his parents. He was, in his word, meandering.

"I became disinterested in a lot of things," Mr. Murtha said. "I was not responsible."

But, he said, he grew tired of feeling sorry for himself. He saw others getting ahead while he was standing still. He decided he had to make things happen for himself.

After a two-year break, Mr. Murtha returned to law school, finishing in 1989. He worked as a law clerk in Howard District Court and then as a clerk for Judge Dudley before becoming a prosecutor.

And it was no small accomplishment. "I'm confident if you get out of the process, it's extremely difficult to get back in," said Judge Dudley. "It's an accomplishment when people can do that."

*

The one area Mr. Rexroad said Mr. Murtha needs to focus on is trial experience. "Joe, as any young prosecutor, needs trial experience," he said. "I don't think he's reached his potential yet."

Mr. Murtha describes his courtroom style as a constant experiment, borrowing from other prosecutors and seeing what works best for him.

He said that his favorite part of a trial is the closing statement, a time to bring together the facts and the law with a punch of passion for the jury.

Defense attorneys say Mr. Murtha presents a forceful personality, but risks appearing overbearing.

While some attorneys strive to be orators in their statements to jurors, and others try to reason with the jury, Mr. Murtha takes a different approach.

"He's the fire and brimstone approach," said Richard Bernhardt, an assistant public defender who represented Alton Romero Young, the teen-ager convicted of murdering his tutor, Dayton resident Shirley Mullinix. "He's got a very strong and forceful approach."

Deputy Public Defender Louis Willemin describes Mr. Murtha's courtroom style as "bombastic" and says he uses harsh commentary, often going beyond what is supported by the evidence in his summations.

L "He's got the finesse of a sledgehammer," Mr. Willemin said.

But Mr. Rexroad disagrees with that description. Instead, he uses words like emotional and compelling to describe Mr. Murtha's style.

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