A highly intoxicated Thomas Murphy turned down multiple offers for a ride home from a sober friend on the afternoon he drove into a group of Boy Scouts in Manorville — killing one of them and severely injuring another — prosecutors told jurors Tuesday during opening arguments in the case against the Holbrook man.
But a defense lawyer questioned the integrity of that friend and witness, and cautioned jurors that they should be prepared for the Suffolk County District Attorney’s office to omit certain facts that hurt their case.
The opening statements, delivered in front of an overflowing crowd of more than 100 audience members, set the expectation for the testimony and legal strategy that will follow in a highly publicized trial that could last through the end of the year.
Mr. Murphy, 60, and wearing a grey suit, blue shirt and beige tie, observed from the defense table, just a few feet from Alisa McMorris, who asked a reporter to switch seats with her so she could watch the trial of the man accused of driving drunk and killing her 12-year-old son Andrew from the first row of Judge Fernando Camacho’s courtroom in Riverside. Ms. McMorris, wearing a red shirt and scarf, like many of her family’s supporters who filled the courtroom, clutched a package of tissues as she listened to prosecutors describe in graphic detail the manner in which her son died on Sept. 30, 2018.
“Andrew McMorris was the last [of four Scouts] struck by Mr. Murphy,” said assistant district attorney Raymond Varuolo, who delivered the prosecution’s 30-minute opening remarks on behalf of the three lawyers trying the case.
“The defendant’s SUV struck Andrew’s 100-pound frame … his small body flew in the air and he was vaulted and launched, his body spun around and he landed face down in the grass and the dirt,” Mr. Varuolo said. “In a split second, children saw their friends tossed around like rag dolls.”
Mr. Varuolo suggested the crash could have been avoided if Mr. Murphy made better decisions earlier that day, as he and three longtime friends played a round of golf at the nearby Swan Lake Golf Club, with three of them drinking from a bottle of vodka one of them had packed. The men teed off around 8:30 a.m., Mr. Varuolo said, and by the third hole they were drinking. By the sixth hole, Mr. Murphy stopped playing golf and continued to drink from his cart, Mr. Varuolo said. He alleged Mr. Murphy had not eaten that day.
After the round of golf ended, Mr. Murphy’s friend, Steven Meola, who Mr. Varuolo said does not drink but had a suspended license for unpaid parking tickets, offered several times to drive Mr. Murphy home, fearing his friend could not drive safely.
“He knocked on the window and offered to drive,” the prosecutor said. “[Mr. Murphy] waved him off. He told him he was fine. Mr. Meola would try a second time … the defendant this time responded by locking the doors of the car and rolling up the window. He said, ‘Go get a ride with [fellow friend] Ray [O’Brien]. That was the moment that changed everything. From that point on, Mr. Murphy’s conduct was shockingly reckless.”
Mr. Varuolo said Mr. Murphy’s first words after the crash were “Oh [expletive], I’m in trouble.”
The incident occurred in front of 20 David Terry Road, just 1.7 miles from the golf course, where Andrew was among a group of Scouts who had embarked that morning on a 20-mile hike that began at Shoreham-Wading River High School. He was walking single file in a pack of six Scouts from Troop 161 in Shoreham and several adult supervisors, including his father John, who Mr. Varuolo said watched as his son — his legs mangled and his neck and spine internally severed — lay injured on the side of the road. He later died at Stony Brook University Hospital.
Defense attorney Steven Politi, in a 45-minute response to the prosecution’s opening remarks, laid partial responsibility on the parents supervising the Scouts that afternoon and denied his client ever crossed over the white line and left the roadway when the crash occurred shortly before 2 p.m.
“We contend that the boys, unfortunately, were poorly supervised and were in the roadway when the accident occurred,” he said.
Mr. Politi also doubted the Scouts were hiking “military style single file,” saying they were already 11 miles into the hike, some were wearing earbuds and he believed they would have been tired and distracted at that point. He also said the manner in which they were struck suggests they were more spread out and that they were not hiking in the order they were assigned by their supervisors.
Mr. Politi repeatedly told jurors that while the burden in a criminal case lies with the District Attorney’s responsibility to prove a defendant’s guilt, he’ll be forced throughout the trial to say the things prosecutors won’t.
“I’m going to get you the truth,” he said.
On Tuesday, Mr. Politi questioned lead investigator Genevieve Vesely’s relationship with the other two injured boys, Thomas and Dennis Lane, siblings who live next door to the Suffolk County police detective. He said Ms. Vesely also has sons who were involved with Troop 161 and he said jurors should wonder why she did not hand the case off to another investigator.
Mr. Politi also disputed the claim that his client did not eat on the day of the crash and said prosecutors failed to disclose in their opening arguments certain details from that afternoon, like Mr. Murphy’s performance in a roadside sobriety test and the fact that investigators did not record his statements given at the 7th precinct.
It was there that police officer Daniel Brecht, who is expected to testify Wednesday, secured a warrant to draw blood from Mr. Murphy, who prosecutors said declined to submit to a breath test three times in the first two hours after the crash. The blood test showed a blood alcohol content of .13 nearly four hours after the crash, Mr. Varuolo said, adding that a toxicologist will testify during trial that Mr. Murphy’s likely BAC was .19, more than twice the legal limit, at the moment of impact.
Following opening statements, jurors heard audio from five separate 911 calls from the scene and testimony from the trial’s first witness, a dispatcher working that afternoon. The rapid series of calls were made within one minute of each other. In the fifth call, made by Scout leader Bob Dougherty, children could be heard screaming in pain in the background.
“You better not go nowhere,” Mr. Dougherty could be heard yelling to Mr. Murphy after the dispatcher asked if the driver remained on scene.
Anthony Higgins, 12, a Scout and classmate of Andrew’s at Prodell Middle School in Shoreham was the second witness to testify Tuesday. He recalled Andrew hiking single file in front of him as they walked away from the road around a jeep parked on the side of the street when he saw Mr. Murphy’s SUV come around the bend and “plow” into the group.
“[Andrew] went up in the sky and came down sprawled on the ground, I was stunned for a second, didn’t think it was real,” said Anthony, who at 11 years old was the youngest member of the group that day. “I started crying and ran to find my [dad] at the back of the line.”
Anthony testified that he didn’t observe any Scouts wearing earbuds or on their cell phones as Mr. Politi had suggested. He also said the Scouts were not assigned any particular hiking order.
Testimony in the case will continue Wednesday and Thursday before reconvening next week. Mr. Varuolo said each of the men Mr. Murphy was golfing with that day will testify along with more Scouts, investigators and medical and scientific experts.
Among the evidence prosecutors are expected to present at trial are text messages Mr. Murphy sent to his wife — who was present Tuesday along with their daughters — following the crash and videos he shot on the golf course, which Mr. Varuolo said will show him slurring his speech about an hour before the crash.
Mr. Murphy is facing a top charge of aggravated vehicular homicide, which carries a maximum sentence of 8 1/3 to 25 years in prison.
Speaking to a pack of more than a dozen media members outside the courtroom Tuesday, Ms. McMorris said “today begins an awful, awful journey into reliving this nightmare over and over.”
She declined to answer specific questions, asking instead for prayers for Andrew’s fellow scouts and their families.
Caption: Defense attorney Steven Politi outside the courtroom Tuesday. (Credit: Tara Smith)