The California State Bar has finally handed down sanctions [PDF] in a case of prosecutorial misconduct that could have landed a defendant with a life sentence.
Last year, a court tossed child molestation charges against a defendant after it came to light prosecutor Robert Murray had altered the transcript of a police interview with the suspect. Murray claimed it was all just a joke. But the “levity” he inserted into the transcript drastically altered the prison sentence the defendant was facing (from 16 years to a possible life sentence), prompting his defense lawyer to push him toward a plea bargain.
All it took was two sentences:
(Detective): “You’re so guilty you child molester.”
(Defendant): “I know. I’m just glad she’s not pregnant like her mother.”
Even if it was just a joke, Murray made no effort to inform the defense lawyer of these additions, despite claiming it was supposed to be something enjoyed equally by the defendant’s legal representation. In fact, Murray didn’t admit anything until he was forced to, a full nine days later and only after the actual interview transcripts were made available to the defense.
The District Attorney’s office didn’t like seeing its prosecution vanish. It argued that dismissing charges was too much of a deterrent — something that should be used only in the most egregious cases of “abject physical brutality.” “Oh my, no,” said the court.
Indeed, there is simply no support for the People’s contention that an act must involve some form of physical brutality in order to support a sanction of dismissal. Meanwhile, there is ample support for defendant’s contention that egregious violations of a defendant’s constitutional rights are sufficient to establish outrageous government misconduct.
Now it’s time for Murray to face sanctions from the bar association for his “joke.” Murray, to his credit, was open and cooperative after being forced to confront his own misdeed. (Indeed, some credit is granted for his cooperation, but it’s nowhere near as expansive as Murray hoped it would be. The bar court doesn’t have much sympathy for the “Well, I’m really sorry now” argument.) Nearly railroading someone into a life sentence was considered to be only worth about 30 days of professional discomfort to the prosecutor, according to the judge who first handled Murray’s case.
Fortunately, the bar itself disagreed. And the state bar court agrees with its harsher assessment. It’s not a straight-up trade of life-for-possible-life, but it’s far more than was originally recommended.
After independently reviewing the record (Cal. Rules of Court, rule 9.12), we agree with the courts of record in this matter. We find that Murray deliberately created and inserted a fraudulent document into a criminal prosecution while he was actively negotiating a resolution by plea agreement. This altered evidence bore no indicia of being a “prank,” and Murray made no prompt effort thereafter to control the consequences. Murray’s behavior is wholly inappropriate and unbecoming of an experienced prosecutor, who is expected to adhere to the highest standards of ethical conduct and to act as a gatekeeper to the fair administration of justice. We therefore recommend a one-year actual suspension to protect the public and to maintain integrity and confidence in the legal profession.
Murray sought the 30-day suspension, feeling that his actions were only “gross negligence,” as the previous judge had ruled. But the state bar court sees it differently. This wasn’t just negligence. It was a purposeful distortion of the justice system — something that cannot possibly described as merely a “joke gone bad.” It was something no one on the prosecution side found even remotely funny, nor could they recall anything like this happening before.
Hinman’s supervisor, Chief Deputy Kang, said he had never seen a prosecutor play a joke like this on a public defender in his office. When asked whether he thought Murray was joking, he testified: “Maybe, in some measure, in Mr. Murray’s mind, this was funny. I don’t see it as a joke.”
Similarly, when Officer Martinez was asked his opinion of Murray’s actions, he testified: “I didn’t think it was funny.” He further testified that in his experience as a law enforcement officer, he had never before seen or heard of a prosecutor doing something like this.
Not only did Murray harm his own case and the reputation of the DA’s office, but he also hurt the very people he’s supposed to be protecting. The dismissal of charges means the 10-year-old victim’s allegations will never be fully addressed. Murray’s “joke” cost her a chance at justice. He doesn’t just have to look the defense in the eye and admit he screwed everything up. He also has to look a child in the eye and try to explain why he single-handedly destroyed her case.