Could pre-deliberation conversations during the trial of Thomas Murphy, the man found guilty of a drunken driving crash that killed 12-year-old Andrew McMorris, have swayed jurors’ opinions in the case?
That key question is the focus of an ongoing hearing before Judge Fernando Camacho that began in Riverside Wednesday.
Defense attorney Steven Politi is seeking to have the verdict overturned on the grounds of improper jury conduct.
At what was scheduled to be Mr. Murphy’s sentencing in Central Islip last month, Mr. Politi cited sworn statements from jurors that suggest some may have engaged in discussions about the case or read media reports before a verdict was reached after a six-week trial last fall.
The tone in the courtroom turned contentious before the hearing got underway as Mr. Politi began raising issues about fairness and the absence of one alternate juror, who was denied entry to the courthouse after failing a COVID-19 screening questionnaire.
Judge Camacho said the 17 remaining jurors, all subpoenaed to attend court, were waiting to testify as he urged Mr. Politi to call a witness.
The exchange ended in Mr. Politi being held in contempt of the court after a series of outbursts that included raising his hands in the air and throwing a pen down at a table.
He’s facing a $1,000 fine for the incident.
Judge Camacho denied that he had been unfair to Mr. Politi or Mr. Murphy and said he has never held anyone in contempt or had to recuse himself from a case.
“You want to talk about fairness?” Judge Camacho asked. “Your client is sitting here at liberty and has been for nine months,” he continued, referencing a motion made by prosecutors to immediately remand Mr. Murphy following his December 2019 conviction, which was denied. “I looked at his daughters, I looked at his wife and said ‘I’m not doing this,’” the judge said of sending Mr. Murphy away in December. His sentencing was initially scheduled for March 17 and he has remained free on a $500,000 bond since his initial arraignment nearly two years ago.
Mr. Politi, however, said he was simply trying to do his job. “I feel awful for the victim’s parents, I feel awful for the little boy, but that doesn’t affect my job,” he said. “I have a job to do. It’s to represent Mr. Murphy and to make sure he gets a fair trial.”
Later Wednesday, jurors began testifying to sometimes conflicting reports about whether they had engaged in or overheard their peers discussing the case before deliberating.
One juror and two alternate jurors testified that they had overheard comments made about witness testimony before deliberating. Three more jurors testified that they had not engaged in or overheard such discussions.
One man, Alternate Juror No. 1, specifically referenced comments made by Juror No. 9 that he had heard certain charges against Mr. Murphy had been dropped after reading a newspaper report.
Juror No. 9, who also testified Wednesday, denied those claims. “I didn’t watch the news or read the newspaper,” he said from the stand.
Another alternate juror testified that he overheard Juror No. 2, who has a science background, make comments disputing scientific claims made by Dr. Jimmie Valentine, an expert forensic toxicology witness called by the defense.
During her testimony, Juror No. 8 referenced comments made by Juror No. 2 such as “That can’t be” or “That isn’t right,” and body language like rolling his eyes that could have suggested he disagreed with the witness.
The woman spent a lengthy amount of time on the stand, recalling “a handful” of incidents where she and other jurors “shushed” their peers if someone began discussing the case.
She said she didn’t consider those instances to be conversations that would have impacted her overall view on the case. “I think the jurors tried hard to maintain the integrity of the process,” Juror No. 8 said.
That juror also claimed there were inaccuracies in her sworn statement written by a private investigator hired by Mr. Politi earlier this year. She said the statement was taken after the investigator interviewed her at her vacation home in Virginia, but there were ultimately differences between what was read back to her and what she ended up signing.
The woman said she made a mistake by not carefully reading the final affidavit before signing the document. “I’m a linguist,” she said. “And there are phrases in here I never would have used.”
The woman continued testifying about her conversation with the private investigator and admitted to feeling some “pressure” to give a statement based on his persistence and willingness to drive more than 10 hours to meet with her.
The investigator also reportedly made comments to the juror that referenced Mr. Murphy’s future. “He said… ‘You and I both know if he goes to jail for a long time, he’s not coming back alive,’” the juror testified.
“Somebody’s lying,” Mr. Politi said at one point during Wednesday’s hearing, adding that he’s trying to get to the truth.
“[A juror today] said a science juror said that the expert witness was wrong in the middle of his testimony against the admonition that you’re not allowed to speak about the testimony during the trial which was read, conservatively, 300 times to them,” Mr. Politi explained to reporters. “Believe me, what’s in the record for a fair-minded person is enough to say that my client was deprived of a fair trial.”
For the McMorris family, whose large crowd of supporters were accommodated in an overflow courtroom, the hearing marks another delay in the legal proceeding.
In December, Mr. Murphy was convicted on nine counts for his role in the 2018 crash that killed Andrew and injured three other Boy Scouts he had been hiking with along David Terry Road in Manorville. The sentencing has faced several delays due to the pandemic. He is facing a maximum sentence of 8 1/3 to 25 years in prison, with a minimum of between one and three years on the top charge of aggravated vehicular homicide.
“It’s a terrible display of what should have ended years ago,” Andrew’s mother, Alisa, said outside of the courtroom.
Andrew’s father, John, said what has ensued since has compounded the family’s trauma.
“Losing our 12 year old boy was enough,” Mr. McMorris said. “But somehow, we will march on.”