Still `the same Joe' despite Tripp case

Style: Former prosecutor Joseph Murtha brings a low-key approach to high-profile cases even after his success with a famous wiretap case.

April 01, 2003|By Lisa Goldberg | Lisa Goldberg,SUN STAFF

In early 1998, Baltimore-area lawyer Joseph Murtha walked into a room in Washington's St. James Suites hotel and met a wary woman disguised in a wig.

It was Linda R. Tripp, who had taped a friend's confidences about her sexual trysts with President Bill Clinton and was facing the possibility of criminal charges in Maryland because of the tapes.

Two years later, Murtha concluded a successful, low-key defense of Tripp and became one of the few winners to emerge from the highly publicized legal battles surrounding the Clinton scandal.

In the years since, he has built on that pivotal defense, burnishing his reputation for taking on the defense in some of the Baltimore region's highest-profile criminal cases.

It is not uncommon to see Murtha's name attached to such cases as those of a defendant in a no-body murder prosecution, a business owner who shot an intruder or a high school student accused of fatally poisoning a classmate.

"People treat him now differently than five years ago," said David B. Irwin, one of Murtha's mentors and former partners. "He's a force now."

In the Lutherville office he shares with new law partners Jay Miller and George Psoras Jr., mementos from the Tripp case - a photo of Tripp's family, a copy of independent counsel Kenneth W. Starr's report - co-exist with bulging files from more recent cases and photos of his wife of 11 years, Teri, a nurse at Johns Hopkins Hospital.

The two live on a minifarm in Freeland with four horses, two goats, two dogs and two cats.

Big black binders from his representation of one of the "Hot Boys," a violent East Baltimore gang implicated in five killings, line the top of the cabinet behind his desk. That federal case ended with a guilty plea to conspiracy to distribute narcotics.

Other cases are continuing, including the Howard County murder prosecutions of Tavon Donya Sands, accused of fatally shooting a young computer student during a botched robbery, and Ryan Furlough, accused of spiking a friend's soda with cyanide.

In the courtroom, lawyers say, Murtha, a 43-year old former Howard County prosecutor, is a formidable opponent - aggressive, well-prepared and charming. He takes challenging cases, they say, and often comes up with innovative, but plausible, arguments on his clients' behalf. Outside, he is known for his late hours at the office.

"I'm sick of losing to him," joked Howard Assistant State's Attorney Jim Dietrich, who faced Murtha during the Internet-solicitation trial of a former Dundalk minister accused of trying to arrange a sexual liaison with a girl. Murtha's client was acquitted.

"He's willing to take the tough case and willing to work the tough case," Dietrich said. "I think his clients get their money's worth whether he wins or loses."

It would have been easy, say those who know him, for Murtha to have followed the path of lawyers who have earned their celebrity by representing famous clients.

But even as the Howard County-based Tripp case threatened to overwhelm him, Murtha says, he made time to represent other clients and keep up his court appearances. He always knew, he said, that the Tripp case was only a piece of his legal career.

"I always looked at Linda's case as temporary," he said. "I had observed how other people had become infatuated with their own temporary fame and allowed that to interfere with their responsibilities as a lawyer. My goal was not to become a talking head."

It was that sort of low-key approach that Baltimore lawyer Anthony "Zack" Zaccagnini - who was hired to represent Tripp in her dealings with Starr - was looking for when he called Murtha in January 1998.

Zaccagnini had known Murtha since their grade-school days in Reisterstown, when both played Little League football. They grew apart during their high school years but reconnected in late 1993 or early 1994, when Zaccagnini went to Howard County to try a civil case and met up with Murtha, who was prosecuting a murder case next door.

In the Howard County state's attorney's office, Murtha, a 1989 graduate of the University of Baltimore School of Law, had been a rising star, singled out as a competent, unassuming, hard-working lawyer capable of handling some of the office's toughest cases, including the Pam Basu carjacking murder and the killing of a Dayton tutor by her teen-age pupil, both in 1992.

"Joe was one of the best prosecutors ever to come through this office. That was apparent immediately," said Senior Assistant State's Attorney Michael Rexroad, his supervisor there.

By 1998, Zaccagnini was representing Tripp and had his hands full representing her in federal investigations into the Clinton scandal. He asked Murtha to handle the Howard-based wiretap investigation.

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