Alan Murrell, lawyer for poor, dies

Mandel selected him in '71 to create public defender's office

May 05, 1999|By Rafael Alvarez | Rafael Alvarez,SUN STAFF

Alan Hamilton Murrell, a renowned defense attorney who was hand-picked in 1971 to create Maryland's public defender's office, died of pneumonia early yesterday at an Annapolis nursing home. He was 97.

The longtime resident of Ten Hills in Southwest Baltimore served as the state's top public defender from the age of 69 to 88, when he retired.

"To the end, he was bright as a penny," said Joan Whelihan of Potomac, Mr. Murrell's only child. "He left [the defenders' office] in 1990 when my mother became ill. But he loved his work so much, he would have liked to have been carried out."

The son of a Welsh sea captain, Mr. Murrell was a well-dressed, crew-cut man who served in both world wars. One of Maryland's pre-eminent defense attorneys, his passions were his family, cruising around town in a Jaguar roadster and providing the poor with the best legal defense taxpayer's money could buy.

"The person at the bottom is now going to get what he's entitled to -- competent representation," he said upon his appointment by Gov. Marvin Mandel to establish the state's first office to defend indigent citizens.

The system Mr. Murrell nurtured was created with liberal zeal to level the field of justice. Yet in time, it grew into another overworked and bloated bureaucracy and Mr. Murrell -- as combative in the courtroom as he was pleasant in private -- often fought with legislators for the money he believed necessary to run a first-rate law office.

"Murrell was named by Mandel because the governor wanted that office to have instant recognition and prestige," said Edward J. Angeletti, a Baltimore Circuit Court judge who served on Murrell's inaugural staff of public defenders. "I think Alan Murrell took the job reluctantly, but Mandel persuaded him by promising it would be a meaningful law firm for the disadvantaged."

Said Judge Angeletti with admiration: "He had an acerbic wit and method of questioning witnesses that would wither most people, yet he had the elegance of a gentleman."

Born in the Welsh town of Barry near Cardiff, Mr. Murrell came from a long line of sea captains and arrived in America with his family at about age 7. Landing first in Boston, the Murrells moved to Eutaw Place in Baltimore when Mr. Murrell's father became ill and sought out doctors at Johns Hopkins Hospital.

Mr. Murrell, who dropped out of both Boys' Latin and City College, spent summers working as a lifeguard in Ocean City and enlisted in the Navy during World War I when his father died.

After the war, he sailed to Cuba in the merchant marine but hated it, according to Mrs. Whelihan, ending six generations of seagoing Murrells.

In 1929, he married Mildred Deering, who died in 1997. The couple lived from 1929 to 1990 in a house they had built in Ten Hills.

At age 41, Mr. Murrell again joined the Navy after the bombing of Pearl Harbor. He was discharged with the rank of lieutenant commander. Between the wars, his family said, he worked as a door-to-door collector for a local insurance company.

"It was a fluke that he became an attorney," said Mrs. Whelihan. "A family friend told him that only lawyers can collect money, so he earned his GED and went to the University of Baltimore for eight years at night. Right after he graduated law school, they bombed Pearl Harbor and he re-enlisted."

Mr. Murrell, never an especially political man, did not register to vote until he became an assistant state's attorney in Baltimore after World War II. Soon after, he went into private practice and spent nearly the next four decades as a criminal defense attorney until tapped by Mr. Mandel to defend the poor.

"He selected a lot of women for his staff because he believed they were detail-minded and very precise," said Mrs. Whelihan. "He did not believe in the death penalty because he said a lot of mistakes were made along the way and [he] didn't want to be responsible for killing someone."

Mr. Murrell died at Spa Creek Center in Annapolis, where he had lived for the past year. Before then, he and his wife lived at the Charlestown retirement community in Catonsville.

The family is planning a private memorial service.

In addition to his daughter, Mr. Murrell is survived by four granddaughters and seven great-grandchildren.

Memorial donations may be made to the Alan H. Murrell scholarship fund at the University of Baltimore Law School, 1420 N. Charles St., Baltimore 21201.

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