Lawyer Murphy successfully fights contempt charge

March 23, 1994|By Robert A. Erlandson | Robert A. Erlandson,Sun Staff Writer

Baltimore defense lawyer William H. "Billy" Murphy, Jr., has gotten many clients off in tough cases. But he spent yesterday in the dock himself -- and successfully fought off a career-damaging charge of contempt for failing to appear at a specially scheduled trial Jan. 25 in Essex District Court.

With the help of vigorous arguments by his law partner, M. Cristina Gutierrez, who acted as his attorney, Mr. Murphy won acquittal with his testimony that he had received no notice of the trial. He also produced office scheduling records to back up his claim.

Judge I. Marshall Siedler, who brought the charge and heard the case over defense protests, said he was "99 and 44/100 percent sure" that a notice went to the Murphy-Gutierrez law office.

But after all had testified -- including a court clerk who said there was no record in the file of when the trial date was set or if Mr. Murphy had agreed to it -- Judge Siedler ruled in Mr. Murphy's favor.

"I have to find him not guilty; I can't reach beyond reasonable doubt," the judge declared. The reasonable doubt standard prevailed because contempt of court is a criminal charge.

At the outset of the two-hour trial, Judge Siedler and Ms. Gutierrez clashed when he rejected two requests: that the case be moved to Circuit Court and that Judge Siedler withdraw from hearing it. She argued that the judge had already decided the case in his mind.

"I have not made up my mind and I can be fair," Judge Siedler responded.

He also rejected Ms. Gutierrez's attempts to call him as a witness.

Once the sparring ended, Judge Siedler noted that except for Mr. Murphy, everyone involved in the 2-year-old traffic case -- including Mr. Murphy's client -- showed up for the specially scheduled trial. Mr. Murphy did not call the court.

Mr. Murphy said trial notices sent to his office are computerized by a scheduling secretary who resolves conflicts in court dates. Mr. Murphy said he carries a lap-top computer that allows him to see the schedule constantly.

The schedule print-out Mr. Murphy produced in court carried no mention of a Jan. 25 trial in Essex.

"It was not contemptuous because I would have had to have known about it, and I didn't know," said Mr. Murphy.

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