Bal­ti­more’s ‘Joe Louis of law’

Billy Mur­phy, the lawyer who is rep­re­sent­ing the fam­ily of Fred­die Gray, has long fought for the city’s dis­en­fran­chised

The Washington Post Sunday - - METRO - BY KEITH L. ALEXAN­DER IN BAL­TI­MORE

It was the day af­ter his step­son, Fred­die Gray, suf­fered a se­vere spine in­jury in the back of a po­lice van fol­low­ing an ar­rest, and Richard Ship­ley was still in dis­be­lief. Gray was in Univer­sity of Mary­land Shock Trauma Cen­ter breath­ing through a ven­ti­la­tor, his mother in tears at his bed­side, pray­ing for what to do next.

Ship­ley shook off the anger and the fear, and told his wife to do one thing: Call Billy Mur­phy.

As a kid, Ship­ley didn’t know much about the law or lawyers. But he knew Billy Mur­phy. It seemed Mur­phy, with his sig­na­ture pony­tail, was al­ways on TV or in the lo­cal news­pa­per. Ship­ley and his friends would bet money, a bot­tle of soda or even sand­wiches on whether Mur­phy emerged vic­to­ri­ous in his latest case.

“He was our Joe Louis of law,” Ship­ley said.

For nearly 45 years, Mur­phy has been the lawyer to call, es­pe­cially among the dis­en­fran­chised look­ing for some­one to fight for them. Now as Bal­ti­more tries to re­cover from the ri­ot­ing that fol­lowed Gray’s death in April, and Gray’s fam­ily mem­bers try to move be­yond their grief, Mur­phy is there again.

Lawyer, spokesman, cru­sader. It’s a po­si­tion the 72-year-old Mur­phy is fa­mil­iar with. The long­time crim­i­nal de­fense lawyer is a re­spected and feared lit­i­ga­tor who has se­cured mul­ti­mil­lion-dol­lar set­tle­ments in po­lice bru­tal­ity and racial dis­crim­i­na­tion cases.

But the Gray case has thrust Mur­phy and his team of lawyers into a dif­fer­ent sphere. In early May, Mur­phy fa­cil­i­tated a meet­ing with U.S. At­tor­ney Gen­eral Loretta E. Lynch, Gray’s fam­ily and lo­cal civic lead­ers and preach­ers. Weeks later, Mur­phy worked with rep­re­sen­ta­tives of

Prince as the su­per­star mu­si­cian or­ga­nized a ben­e­fit con­cert for the city.

“This case gripped this na­tion. It be­came a wa­ter­shed mo­ment,” Mur­phy said.

The Gray case may be un­like any other that Mur­phy has taken sim­ply be­cause the stakes are so much higher. While six of­fi­cers have been in­dicted in Gray’s death, there is grow­ing skep­ti­cism among some res­i­dents over whether there will be con­vic­tions. And many are fear­ful that if the city erupted af­ter Gray’s death, then what might hap­pen if the of­fi­cers are ac­quit­ted.

“This case has been like noth­ing we have ever imag­ined,” Mur­phy said. “This was a man ar­rested for noth­ing, for run­ning while black and then an ex­traor­di­nar­ily, deadly in­jury hap­pened to this kid while he was in cus­tody. Thank God some­one had video.”

Since Gray’s death, Mur­phy has seen his sched­ule be­come more chal­leng­ing, and he says he of­ten works 12- to 15-hour days. Be­fore the ri­ots ig­nited April 27, Mur­phy spoke to the thou­sands at­tend­ing Gray’s fu­neral and then shep­herded Gray’s fam­ily through the city to the ceme­tery. But as the 25-year-old was be­ing laid to rest, the city erupted as some protesters turned vi­o­lent and be­gan loot­ing and burn­ing build­ings. Mur­phy rushed to the fore­front, speak­ing on be­half of the fam­ily, to en­cour­age the ri­ot­ers to stop and demon­strate peace­fully.

Dur­ing the next sev­eral days, Mur­phy made the rounds on ca­ble news shows, and he met with city lead­ers, preach­ers and de­mon­stra­tors, try­ing to help quell the un­rest while con­tin­u­ing to in­ves­ti­gate Gray’s death.

The gru­el­ing sched­ul­ing that week be­came so in­tense that Mur­phy van­ished from sight for two days. Over­come with ex­haus­tion, he stopped do­ing TV in­ter­views and put him­self on bed rest. “I thought I had pneu­mo­nia,” he said.

Mur­phy has since re­sumed a sim­i­larly tax­ing sched­ule as he takes the train to New York to meet with clients charged with crimes such as rack­e­teer­ing and flies across the coun­try to meet with fam­ily mem­bers of those who died in po­lice cus­tody. On Satur­day, for in­stance, he flew to Mem­phis, where he met with the fam­ily of Dar­rius Stewart, an un­armed 19-year-old who was fa­tally shot by a po­lice of­fi­cer on July 17 dur­ing a traf­fic stop.

The Gray case has po­si­tioned Mur­phy in what could amount to a wa­ter­shed mo­ment in the con­ver­sa­tion about al­leged po­lice bru­tal­ity. The Rev. Frank M. Reid III, pas­tor of Bethel AME Church in Bal­ti­more, said that “the world is watch­ing” how the Gray case will be re­solved, and for Mur­phy, that adds to the pres­sure as he fights for Gray’s fam­ily and oth­ers like them.

“The world is faced with how to deal with vi­o­lence against the un­der­served, the least, the lost and the left out,” Reid said. “Billy Mur­phy has be­come their voice.”

Within sec­onds af­ter Wil­liam “Billy” Mur­phy Jr. climbs out of his driver’s SUV at the bustling Lex­ing­ton Mar­ket, dozens of Bal­ti­more­ans walk up to him want­ing to shake his hand, pat him on the back and even ask for a few dol­lars.

Many peo­ple know him by name. With a toothy smile and chest-lead­ing swag­ger, Mur­phy has emerged as one of his home town’s fa­vorite sons, a hero of sorts among the African Ameri- can pop­u­la­tion here.

Ho­race Stew­ard, 48, who was in a wheel­chair, rec­og­nized Mur­phy and asked him for a busi­ness card. Stew­ard said a Bal­ti­more po­lice of­fi­cer stomped on his leg while he was be­ing ar­rested on drug charges.

“He’s for the black peo­ple. Man, black folks would be thrown in the wa­ter and for­got­ten about if it wasn’t for him,” Stew­ard said.

The Gray case is ar­guably Mur­phy’s big­gest since 1998, when he was part of the team that de­fended box­ing pro­moter Don King on mul­ti­ple counts of fed­eral mail and wire fraud. King was tried twice. The first time, the jury was un­able to reach a unan­i­mous ver­dict. For the sec­ond trial, Mur­phy joined the de­fense team, and King was ac­quit­ted.

“When I heard they got Billy Mur­phy, I jumped for joy,” King, 83, said in a tele­phone in­ter­view. “They have some­body who at least knows how to fight.”

King says that Mur­phy uses a plain-talk­ing, down-home style to ap­peal to jurors, re­gard­less of ed­u­ca­tional back­ground.

“Billy Mur­phy not only is a great ad­vo­cate of what the law is, he un­der­stands the lawand in­ter­prets the la­won how it was made, so he can be able to de­fend and prove the law by us­ing the right words with­out be­ing di­vi­sive or hos­tile,” King said.

Mur­phy is ac­cus­tomed to fights. In 2011, he won a $3.5 mil­lion suit af­ter Bal­ti­more of­fi­cials set­tled on be­half of a teacher who died af­ter a po­lice cruiser rammed the back of his mo­tor­cy­cle dur­ing an unau­tho­rized chase. In 2002, he won a $276 mil­lion ver­dict against the for­mer First Union Na­tional Bank in a breach-of-con­tract case.

In 2001, Mur­phy joined with famed at­tor­neys John­nie Cochran and Wil­lie Gary to rep­re­sent Mi­crosoft and beat a $8.5 bil­lion racial dis­crim­i­na­tion class-ac­tion suit against the com­pany.

In 2009, Mur­phy suc­cess­fully rep­re­sented the fam­ily of Ron­nie White in a $153.6 mil­lion law­suit against Prince Ge­orge’s County af­ter White’s body was found in a jail cell. White, 19, was charged in the death of a Prince Ge­orge’s po­lice of­fi­cer. Jail of­fi­cials said White com­mit­ted sui­cide, but White’s fam­ily blamed jail guards. De­tails of the set­tle­ment were not re­leased.

In 1999, Mur­phy, along with Cochran, won a $2 mil­lion set­tle­ment for the fam­ily of a Wheaton man who was ac­ci­den­tally killed by a Mont­gomery County po­lice of­fi­cer. As part of the set­tle­ment, Mont­gomery of­fi­cials also agreed to spend $1 mil­lion on racial sen­si­tiv­ity train­ing, mi­nor­ity re­cruit­ment and the in­stal­la­tion of video cam­eras on pa­trol cars.

Mont­gomery County Ex­ec­u­tive Isiah Leggett was pres­i­dent of the County Coun­cil at the time of the law­suit.

“When I saw the two of them walk into the room, I thought to my­self, ‘Oh my God,” Leggett (D) said with a slight laugh. “Billy Mur­phy is ex­tremely ef­fec­tive and knows ev­ery as­pect of the law.”

De­spite the seven-fig­ure set­tle their ments, Mur­phy says he can re­late to the vic­tim­iza­tion some peo­ple say they feel at the hands of po­lice. It’s part of what fu­els him.

In 1995, Mur­phy was ar­rested af­ter a hear­ing of­fi­cer in Anne Arun­del County held him in con­tempt of court as he tried to ar­gue on be­half of a friend who was charged with drunken driv­ing. Mur­phy re­fused to leave the court­house.

A po­lice of­fi­cer was sum­moned and the of­fi­cer, Mur­phy said, slammed him into a set of lock­ers. “It was my turn to be a fullfledged [ex­ple­tive] in the eyes of the sys­tem,” Mur­phy said. “Ev­ery­body black gets their turn with the sys­tem, no mat­ter how many de­grees you have.”

Most le­gal observers, even for­mer pros­e­cu­tors, think Mur­phy will win a civil suit in the Gray case, but many are un­sure how large a set­tle­ment it might be. This month, New York of­fi­cials agreed to pay the fam­ily of Eric Garner $5.9 mil­lion to re­solve a wrong­ful death claim nearly a year af­ter he died while be­ing put in a choke­hold by po­lice on Staten Is­land.

Kurt L. Schmoke, a for­mer mayor of Bal­ti­more and a one­time city state’s at­tor­ney, said Mur­phy will have to prove that the ar­rest and ride in the van led di­rectly to Gray’s death.

Mur­phy has not filed a civil suit against the city or the of­fi­cers charged in Gray’s death. He says the firm is wait­ing to see the out­comes of the in­ves­ti­ga­tions, in­clud­ing one by the Jus­tice Depart­ment.

Schmoke be­lieves a civil suit win could help as­suage many within the city who are watch­ing the case closely, es­pe­cially if pros­e­cu­tors are un­able to se­cure a con­vic­tion against the of­fi­cers.

“I had hoped the civil case would go be­fore the crim­i­nal case. It’s go­ing to be dif­fi­cult for the crim­i­nal pros­e­cu­tion to suc­ceed,” Schmoke said. “It would be nice for the com­mu­nity to feel some jus­tice has been served for the Gray fam­ily.”

In its 21,000-square-foot of­fice on the 23rd floor of a down­town build­ing, Mur­phy’s firm has 34 em­ploy­ees, in­clud­ing 13 lawyers. One is Mur­phy’s son, Has­san Mur­phy, 45, a Georgetown Law grad­u­ate. The Mur­phys also brought in 32-year-old Jason Downs, a for­mer de­fense at­tor­ney and su­per­vi­sor with the Dis­trict’s Public De­fender Ser­vice.

Dou­glas F. Gansler, for­mer Mary­land at­tor­ney gen­eral, de­scribed Mur­phy as a “bril­liant” lawyer who has been un­der­es­ti­mated by his op­po­nents.

“It’s easy to think of Billy as a street lawyer in Bal­ti­more who comes into the court­room with this pony­tail. But he talks about in­tel­lec­tual prop­erty, pri­vacy rights, In­ter­net law, data pro­tec­tion. Peo­ple un­der­es­ti­mate him and he runs cir­cles around them, on crim­i­nal and the civil side,” Gansler said.

Yet af­ter so many years of prac­tic­ing law, Mur­phy, who stud­ied elec­tri­cal en­gi­neer­ing at MIT, says he is now in the “au­tumn” of his ca­reer, look­ing to pre­pare his son, Downs and oth­ers to one day as­sume the day-to­day oper­a­tions of the firm. Mur­phy says his past cases were lay­ing the ground­work for the chal­lenges of the Gray case.

“Look, this isn’t any­thing new for us,” he said. “Yes, more peo­ple are watch­ing. But this is what we do. What we have been do­ing and that’s fight­ing for those who many in so­ci­ety has deemed voice­less.

“It’s what my fam­ily has done, and it is what we will con­tinue to do when I’m gone.”


Wil­liam H. “Billy” Mur­phy Jr., who is rep­re­sent­ing the fam­ily of Fred­die Gray, sits in his law firm’s of­fice in down­town Bal­ti­more.


Famed de­fense lawyer Wil­liam H. “Billy” Mur­phy Jr. stopped to be pho­tographed with a man at lunchtime near the his­toric Lex­ing­tonMar­ket in Bal­ti­more in­May.

The Fred­die Gray case file sits on a ta­ble in a con­fer­ence room in the of­fices of Mur­phy, Fal­con & Mur­phy, which is rep­re­sent­ing the fam­ily of Fred­die Gray. “This case gripped this na­tion,” says Bil­lyMur­phy, the law firm’s founder. “It be­came a wa­ter­shed mo­ment.”

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