The Georgia Supreme Court on Monday reversed the life sentence and murder conviction of a Columbus man found guilty of beating to death a 15-month-old girl in 1998.
Timothy Murphy, 41, will be granted a new trial due to an inappropriate comment made by Superior Court Judge Doug Pullen, a retired jurist whose trial errors have led to at least four similar reversals over the past three years. The appellate court again ruled that Pullen, who resigned last year amid a Judicial Qualifications Commission investigation, improperly expressed an opinion from the bench that may have influenced the jury.
“That was just his nature,” said Bill Mason, the Columbus appellate attorney who represented Murphy. “He liked to talk during the trial, and now it’s coming back to bite him.”
Prosecutors said they would retry the case.
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“We’re disappointed in the opinion of the Supreme Court, however, we look forward to trying the case again and reinstating the conviction,” said Assistant District Attorney David Helmick, acknowledging that “it’s always more difficult when time has passed.” The Supreme Court ruled the evidence in Murphy’s case was sufficient for a conviction. It was Pullen’s commentary during the testimony of a Columbus police detective that prompted the reversal.
In responding to an objection, Pullen referred to Detective Drew Tyner as “a good detective.”
Georgia law forbids judges from expressing an opinion “as to what has or has not been proved as to the guilt of the accused.” That law, according to the high court, is meant to prevent jurors from “being influenced by any disclosure of the trial court’s opinion regarding the credibility of a witness.”
“The jury could have interpreted the trial court’s calling Tyner a ‘good detective’ as expressing a favorable opinion on his abilities and thus bolstering that witness’s credibility,” the Supreme Court said. “ It is impossible to say that, after hearing the trial court’s statements, the jurors were not influenced to some extent.”
Public defender Bob Wadkins said Pullen’s appellate record has been marred not by his lack of knowledge of the law but his tendency to talk too much.
“I think these are just a series of cases where Judge Pullen has insinuated his own personality into the case without any intent to truly prejudice the case,” Wadkins said. “He’s prone to make all kinds of statements and jokes during a trial, which keeps the trial going and moves it along. But sometimes he (went) too far -- probably without realizing it.”
The charges against Murphy stemmed from the death of Tytanna Jackson, a 15-month old child who was found unresponsive Sept. 19, 1998. Murphy lived with his co-defendant, Carmen Jackson, and her two children at the time, and said he had been baby-sitting while Jackson was at work. According to trial testimony, Jackson came home about 8:30 p.m. and said she found the baby sleeping soundly. Around midnight, however, Murphy heard the child whining and found her struggling to breathe.
The pair said Jackson called 911 while Murphy tried CPR on the child. Emergency responders and doctors tried to revive the baby, but Tytanna died shortly after arriving at the hospital.
The baby was found to have extensive injuries, including some consistent with sexual abuse. Medical experts testified the baby had been beaten so severely that her pancreas ruptured. She also had two broken ribs and bruising throughout her body. Tried together, Murphy and Jackson were convicted of murder and sentenced to life in prison plus 20 years. The Georgia Supreme Court upheld Jackson’s conviction in 2007, and Monday’s ruling will not affect her sentence, attorneys said.