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
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.”