Even The Guiltiest

According to the Lockport Union-Sun & Journal, Matthew Murphy was “[b]itten by the ‘prosecutorial bug'” when he got a job as an assistant United States attorney.

“I liked it. You feel like you’re helping people there,” Murphy said. “You can see in a tangible way that you’re helping people when you serve as a prosecutor.”

After a brief stint on the dark side, he was elected Niagara County District Attorney, and served in that office for 16 years, longer than anyone else.  But time came when he began to feel old, and needed a new challenge. So Matthew J. Murphy III became a judge.

What’s that sound?  It’s the assumption that anyone who was weaned on ham sandwiches from the grand jury can’t possibly be fair or do right?  It’s the sound of exasperation and anger that another hangman has been handed a robe?  Not so fast.

From the Buffalo News:

Niagara County Judge Matthew J. Murphy III threw out a drug indictment against two men Friday, accusing a Niagara Falls police officer of engaging in “racial profiling” for a traffic stop that resulted in the seizure of drugs.

Murphy said repeatedly he didn’t believe the testimony Officer Thomas V. Rodriguez gave in a pretrial hearing.

Murphy said he thought the stop of the maroon Hummer on May 9 at 18th and Niagara streets in the Falls was a case of “driving while black.”

Sometimes, the very “type” of person one would assume to be blind to police misconduct and abuse is exactly the “type” of person who can see it, appreciate it, when it happens because he has the experience of distinguishing between the tales cops tell to cover their tracks from the truth.  And sometimes, that’s the “type” of person with the guts and sincerity to deal with it.

And this was no “easy” case, where the defendants were likeable, innocent sorts.

However, the driver of the Hummer, Shateek L. Payne, 36, of Fillmore Avenue, Buffalo, pleaded guilty Friday to running a stop sign and was fined $150 after Murphy ruled that all the evidence connected to the drug charges had to be suppressed.

That included the 7 pounds of marijuana officers found in the back seat of the Hummer, as well as 27 oxymorphone pills and a stack of counterfeit money on a passenger, Joachim S. Sylvester, 38, of Ontario Avenue, Niagara Falls. Both defendants are black.

The third man arrested in the incident, Payne’s brother Michael A. Payne, 29, of Buffalo, was shot to death June 14 in Buffalo.

It’s no stretch to suggest that these defendants weren’t the poster boys for the Innocence Project, but more likely to have their pictures in the dictionary under the words, “bad dudes.”  Judge Murphy was well aware of this.

“No court is ever pleased that guilty men go free because the constable has blundered,” Murphy said. “Even the guiltiest of men are entitled to the protection of the laws.”

As much as these words are easily enough muttered around here, the fact remains that there is a strong culture of innocence that pervades the sensibilities of those who feel greater empathy toward the defense side of the equation.  We all feel far more comfortable with the knowledge that the defendant saved wasn’t guilty, or at least not as guilty as they say.  We want to believe that there are angels smiling at us for the work we do.

Judge Murphy got it right. “Even the guiltiest of men are entitled to the protection of the laws.”  If this troubles you, then you may not be well suited for the law.

The judge’s disbelief in the police story is classic:

The judge’s opinion was that Rodriguez “saw a shiny, expensive vehicle driven by young, black, African-American males in a neighborhood where it had never been seen before. He was bound and determined to search that vehicle.”

This is the classic joke (what do you call young, black males in a shiny, expensive car?), and the punchline didn’t elude Judge Murphy.

Rodriguez said he saw Michael Payne, the front-seat passenger, reach into the waistband of his pants and thought he might have a weapon. He didn’t.

And again, the facile, yet inexplicable, reach for the waistband. Perfect explanation, as it justifies whatever comes after in the name of officer protection, and can’t be disputed.  So what if it turns out that there was no gun there? Who would require a cop to take the chance?

Assistant District Attorney Peter M. Wydysh raised his hands in apparent astonishment as Murphy said Hennegan “reminds the court of Sgt. Schultz,” a character from the 1960s sitcom “Hogan’s Heroes,” who famously said in a German accent, “I know nothing.”

After all, when in doubt, what works better than ignorance?

As for permission to search, Shateek Payne testified that the officers never asked him, and Murphy said he believed Payne, not Rodriguez.

But, they found drugs?  How could the judge not believe?

“Hunches cannot retroactively legalize police conduct that was improper,” Murphy said. “This court simply does not find Officer Rodriguez credible on certain key aspects of his testimony.”

It’s not that the prosecution’s case, the shiny car, the reach, the ignorance, the claimed consent, couldn’t have happened. It’s that this judge, this former prosecutor, the longest elected district attorney in Niagara County history, did his job and rejected testimony and allegations he found not to be credible.  And he did so with some remarkably unsavory defendants, for whom a great many would not feel any particular qualm had they gone down hard.

“Even the guiltiest of men are entitled to the protection of the laws.”  Amen.

H/T Our hinterlands correspondent, Kathleen Casey


14 comments on “Even The Guiltiest

  1. Karl Erich Martell

    In my (mostly defense) experience, I’ve found it’s not uncommon that former prosecutors turn out to be superb judges for upholding rights. I’m sure we all could quaff many a beverage in a discussion considering why this may be the case.

    Nice to see this post – cheers to Judge Murphy.

    1. Jeff

      From my defense experience, I have also seen some former public defenders turn out to be less than superb judges.

      1. noah

        There are too many examples and counter-examples from both sides to draw any conclusion. The best we can hope for is that like Thomas a’Becket, when the judge puts on the robe, there is a sacred trust and responsibility that transcends the the prior role they may have played.

  2. Charlotte

    I made the mistake of reading the comments on the Buffalo News article and it’s really depressing to see that people can’t see that the Judge made the right decision here. But then again, it’s my fault for expecting reasonable discourse on a newspaper comments page.

    1. SHG Post author

      Much as I find such ignorance intolerable here, I similarly find it informative to appreciate what goes through the minds (and I use that word in its broadest sense) of the mob, a/k/a jurors.

  3. Brett Middleton

    I think the angels DO smile on what you do. And they grin like skunks eating beans when you manage to convince the state to follow the rules in cases like this one where there is such a sore temptation to make an end run around them. I read this blawg and a few others despite being a non-lawyer because they are pervaded by the attitude expressed by the statement you “amen”. It gives me heart to know that the toxicity in the system has not yet killed all of the healthy cells.

  4. Dale Savage

    This is a great example of a former prosecutor holding law enforcement to a high standard and not tolerating certain practices even if they do result in arrests. Sometimes former prosecutors expect, strike that, demand law enforcement operate in an ethical manner and if they waiver, they have the authority to send a message that ti’s not going to be tolerated.

  5. Warren

    I’ve even more impressed that the judge threw out an invalid search after an apparently legit (pleaded guilty, anyway) stop. Bravo to Judge Murphy for hearing out both sides rather than automatically assuming the cop was telling the truth.

  6. Bill

    I clicked through to the comments after reading Scott’s reference to jurors. With a little luck, 400 years from now maybe civilization will progress to the point we believe ‘better 10 guilty men go free..” I thought that sort of lock ’em all up mentality was reserved to Police1 – it’s terrible to see it on a so called mainstream sight.

  7. Allen

    That’s a great story. And it’s the fact that they probably were criminals, and not at all sympathetic, that makes it great. Very few care about the sum total of petty lies by officers, the rationalizations by prosecutors and other state officials, in all but the most egregious of cases. There’s no political advantage in it for a judge, certainly. So it’s heartening to hear when something unusual like this happens.

    That said, I admit I don’t think I could have done it. They were driving a Hummer. It’s hard to overcome the prejudice that Hummer drivers must be guilty of something–if not outright criminality, then perhaps of being just an roaring asshole, or at least having a small penis.

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