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Concerns raised over social media comments in Murphy case

The role the media and social media might play in influencing a pool of prospective jurors has been raised as a potential obstacle in the trial of a Holbrook man accused of killing a Wading River boy in an alleged drunken driving crash in Manorville last year.

More than 100 potential jurors have been invited back for a second round of jury selection next week following five days of pre-screening, a process that has seen hundreds more asked if they had heard about the case, what details they learned and where they heard them. Those with knowledge of the case were then asked by Acting Suffolk County Supreme Court Justice Fernando Camacho if they could still be fair and impartial.

The pre-screening process was put in place in an effort to assure Mr. Murphy is given a fair trial in a high-profile case that has received extensive coverage from regional print, online and television media outlets. Mr. Murphy’s defense team has previously stated it might seek a change of venue considering, among other concerns, the amount of pre-trial media attention over the past year and the impact that could have on potential jurors.

The pool of jurors that will return for the second round of selection beginning Tuesday consists of a combination of individuals who stated they had no prior knowledge of the case and others who said they don’t believe the information they heard would prevent them from giving Mr. Murphy a fair trial.

The majority of the hundreds of potential jurors who were dismissed over the first five days of jury selection were sent home because they stated they could not be impartial.

“I just don’t think anyone who gets drunk and gets behind the wheel should think they can get away scot-free,” said a South Huntington man who had read about the case in Newsday and was dismissed Wednesday.

Prior to dismissing jurors, Judge Camacho has been asking if they believe it’s media coverage or personal beliefs that prohibit them from being fair. Many have said it’s their personal feelings that give them cause for concern and not necessarily what they’ve read or seen on television.

The concerns discussed in court this week were not just limited to traditional media, but also comments made on Facebook.

On Thursday, Assistant District Attorney Brendan Ahern said prosecutors were looking into a specific Facebook account they believe might have ties to Mr. Murphy’s defense team. He said the account was created at 2 a.m. on Oct. 2 and had been posting comments in support of Mr. Murphy on stories about the case, including defense theories that had not been discussed in open court. He said the only other activity from the account was to like the Facebook pages of media outlets covering the trial.

The American Bar Association’s Model Rules of Professional Conduct prevent a lawyer from making public statements likely to prejudice a court proceeding they are involved in.

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Mr. Ahern, who has twice asked the judge to issue a gag order preventing the attorneys in the case from speaking with the media, did not publicly share the name on the account. He did, however, write it on a piece of paper he shared with defense attorney, Steven Politi.

On Friday, Mr. Ahern reported that the account had since been deleted from Facebook and that prosecutors were pursuing subpoenas to learn the IP address where the account was created. He asked Judge Camacho to inquire if the account was created by a member of Mr. Murphy’s defense team.

Mr. Politi said he believes he knows the person involved, but that it’s not a member of the defense team. He said he was more concerned with the “thousands of postings” from the public that paint his client in a negative light.

“Many of them [being] heinous threats,” he said.

Judge Camacho declined on Friday morning to ask Mr. Politi to disclose the identity of the individual making comments in support of Mr. Murphy despite a request from Mr. Ahern to do so.

The judge said that if the person making the comments is not a member of the defense team he does not know how he could prevent them from posting to social media, though he said he would research the issue further.

Mr. Politi offered his own concerns of potential misconduct this week when he accused a potential prosecution witness of “mingling” with potential jurors. Judge Camacho said he would inquire individually of potential jurors during the next round of selection if they had contact with that employee. (Correction: An earlier version of this story stated that it was an employee of the district attorney’s office who may have “mingled” with jurors. The individual in question is a potential witness for the prosecution and not an employee of the District Attorney’s office.)

Efforts to assemble a jury in the case against Mr. Murphy, who is facing a top charge of aggravated vehicular homicide for the crash that led to the death of Wading River scout Andrew McMorris, will continue Tuesday. Mr. Murphy, 60, is facing up to 25 years in prison.

Mr. Ahern had requested an extension of the pre-screening period saying he’d like to build up the pool of potential jurors who stated they could be fair and impartial and had limited or no scheduling conflicts to 225.

Judge Camacho said he did not wish to change the date he had already given potential jurors to return and so the next round of jury selection will begin Tuesday. If a full jury cannot be made from the current pool, a second round of pre-selection will begin later this month.

“We’re not in a rush,” Judge Camacho said, adding that he does not expect opening statements to be made until Nov. 12. Testimony is expected to last three to five weeks, the judge has said.

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