Spotlight On: Kathy H. Murphy

Please tell us something about your background, where you practice, and what drew you to practice criminal law.

I took criminal appellate practice at Wayne State with Gail Rodwan, who was a SADO attorney at the time. I loved all my criminal classes, but hers was by far my favorite class. I clerked for Justice Charles Levin after law school, then worked as a prehearing attorney for the Court of Appeals. After that, I applied for a job at SADO, was offered the job, but turned it down because my husband got a scholarship to Northwestern. We moved to Chicago, where I was one of 23,999 other lawyers, many of whom had gone to top 10 law schools. While doing well at Wayne opened doors for me in Detroit, in Chicago, people were like, “Wayne what?” I ended up doing commercial transactions. When we finally moved back home, commercial transactions were all I knew how to do, so I continued in that field until the bankers ruined the world economy. I lost my job, went on unemployment for a while, and then did foreclosure defense litigation with ferocious people’s lawyers Vanessa Fluker and Jerry Goldberg. Barb Smith, a Wayne County Prosecutor, and I played tennis on the same league. I told her I really regretted moving to Chicago and not taking the job at SADO. She told me about CAP and that I ought to get on the assigned counsel list. Around the time I started attending CAP seminars, the MAACS list opened up for the first time in years. I got on the MAACS list, started hanging around Frank Murphy, got on the appointed counsel list, and the rest is still unfolding.

Please tell us about one of your interesting cases.

I second-chaired a child abuse/felony murder case with Wendy Barnwell. Our client was 17 at the time she was accused of murdering her 13-month old baby. The first trial lasted nearly three weeks and ended in a hung jury, 11 to 1 for guilty. Judge Ulysses W. Boykin had a heart attack on the third day of the case and was replaced by Judge Dalton A. Roberson. The second trial, presided over by Judge Michael J. Callahan, lasted nearly three weeks, and we got an acquittal in 15 minutes.

What were the main issues?

Between the first and second trials, I attended some seminars about litigating shaken baby/abusive head trauma cases. A biomechanical engineer was at the first one.  I contacted him but he was too busy to work on our case. He recommended Steve Rundell, PhD. Judge Roberson would not approve our request for funds to pay a biomechanical engineer. On the morning of that hearing, just after the denial, Dr. Rundell called me to talk about the case. I told him that “they don’t give a shit about poor people around here” and started to cry. He said, “She’s indigent?  I’ll do it for free.” Dr. Rundell (who is a saint!) prepared an excellent report, which caused the prosecutor’s office to file a Daubert motion to prevent him from testifying. Judge Callahan granted their motion. We filed an emergency interlocutory appeal and the Court of Appeals reversed in six hours.

Were experts involved in the case?

Dr. Ljubisa Dragovic and Dr. Steve Rundell, were involved. They both worked really hard on the case. We had frequent phone calls and meetings with them, and they provided excellent reports and testimony.

Have you noticed any significant trends in criminal jurisprudence in recent years?

Just that the pendulum continues to swing away from the great decisions of the Warren Court. I am happy, however, to see reforms in the money bail system and the growing understanding that too many people are in cages.

What can be done to improve our Michigan criminal justice system?

We need to work toward restorative justice and the abolition of prisons. I highly recommend the following article from a recent issue of the New York Times Sunday Magazine entitled, “Is Prison Necessary? Ruth Wilson Gilmore Might Change Your Mind,”

We are fortunate to have the Detroit Justice Center working on these very issues.

I think judges and prosecutors ought to have to spend a few days in a jail or prison as part of their training.

Prosecutorial charging discretion needs to be checked, and hard. I like the reforms being implemented by the DA’s in Philadelphia and other cities.

It is my understanding that prosecutors in some of the out-counties will not accept pleas to lesser offense in a first-degree murder cases unless they think the evidence is weak. I think people charged with first-degree murder ought to be given a chance to see the light of day and plead, if that is what they want to do.

Any particular advice for practitioners new to criminal defense?

Learn as much as you can about your clients so that you can advocate for them well. Understand the court rules and the rules of evidence. Ask for help when you need it. Don’t be afraid to go to trial. Get all the training you can.

by Neil Leithauser
Associate Editor