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