Defense lawyer Murphy rejects belief that Baltimore police can be believed

November 07, 1999|By GREGORY KANE

BILLY MURPHY never did get to eat lunch.

It's not that he didn't try, you understand. He set out from his Calvert Street office looking quite unlawyerly, dressed in beige jeans, a blue jean shirt open at the collar, his braided ponytail cascading over his brown jacket.

He walked two blocks over and took a left at Charles Street, stopping in front of an East Indian restaurant where he pulled out a pack of Winstons, tapped one from the pack and lighted up. On a pleasingly warm late October afternoon, Murphy confessed he just wanted to enjoy the weather a bit more before going in to eat.

FOR THE RECORD - In some editions of The Sun yesterday, a column about defense attorney Billy Murphy in the Maryland section appeared under the wrong writer's name. The column was written by Gregory Kane, not Michael Olesker. The Sun regrets the error.

Within minutes, a 30ish black man driving up Charles Street pulled over to the curb and exchanged greetings with Murphy. The smoke break was over. The driver praised Murphy for representing the family of Larry Hubbard, the young man who died in a police shooting last month in East Baltimore, in what is sure to be a major lawsuit. This led to a discussion of crime and police tactics. The young man said he was in favor of zero tolerance as a law enforcement tool.

"I own several houses in East Baltimore that have been broken into several times," the man said.

Murphy would have none of it. As if to assure the guy he had no monopoly on being a victim of crime, the attorney gave details of his own brushes with the criminal element.

"I've had my car broken into about nine times," said Murphy, 56. "I've been stuck up about three times. I've had a gun right in my face. But do you really want zero tolerance enforced by guys who live in Dundalk?"

Lawyer Murphy had suddenly turned into Professor Murphy, lecturing the motorist about the need to hold police accountable. There he was, standing, waving and gesturing with his hands for emphasis. Then he was kneeling, squatting directly in front of his new-found pupil as he exhorted him to see the folly inherent in zero tolerance. A better plan, Murphy proposed, would be to force officers to carry tape recorders.

"Cops carrying audiotape recorders would force them to be more courteous," Murphy said. "They would be less inclined to commit perjury."

The phrase "at a loss for words" will never be used to describe William H. Murphy Jr. But get him started on the subject of police perjury, and he could go on for weeks. The questioning motorist soon left, but Murphy talked at length to two black men who came out of the restaurant. Then his cell phone rang. Murphy had to return to his office for a television interview. But at its end, the subject of police perjury was still on his mind. How often does it happen, Murphy was asked.

"In almost every case I've handled," he answered. "Everybody knows it's serious. The judiciary can't acknowledge it's serious because it would have to admit it's powerless to do anything about it."

His father, recalled Murphy, while a city judge, had a case and said in open court that he didn't believe a police officer.

"The captain came to see him," Murphy said. "The commissioner came to see him. [Former city Comptroller] Hyman Pressman called him." The message from all three was clear: Comments about perjury among cops were off limits.

"Debate on this issue is discouraged," Murphy said. Judges, especially in Baltimore's traffic courts, almost always believe the police officer. Murphy abhors the absurdity of that practice.

"Judges have no enhanced ability to discern who's telling the truth and who's not," Murphy said. He has a challenge for judges who disagree: They should have themselves blindfolded and, in open court, have two people tell two different stories. The judges would then have to accurately tell at least 80 percent of the time who's telling the truth for the public to have confidence in their findings.

Some of Murphy's clients are police officers.

"They've been very candid with me," he said. "They tell me how much they lie." When he was a judge, he spoke at a police seminar on officer perjury.

"Half said I was right, and the other half were in denial," Murphy recalled. He predicted that members of the judiciary will say that his statements about police perjury are irresponsible. But Murphy said cop perjury is the reason he's a defense lawyer today and a persistent thorn in the side of the Baltimore Police Department.

The first time he was arrested in Baltimore, Murphy said, a police officer lied about him.

"It inspired me to become a defense lawyer," Murphy said.

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