The Georgia Supreme Court today 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. Georgia's appellate courts have repeatedly found that Pullen improperly expressed an opinion from the bench that may have influenced jurors.
"That was just his nature," said Bill Mason, a Columbus appellate attorney who represented Murphy and other defendants in Pullen cases that have been remanded. "He liked to talk during the trial, and now it’s coming back to bite him."
Pullen resigned last year amid a judicial misconduct investigation by the Judicial Qualifications Commission. Prosecutors, for their part, now face the challenge of retrying the case many years after the fact.
"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. "We do fully plan to retry the case."
"It’s always more difficult when time has passed," he added.
In Murphy's case, the Supreme Court ruled the evidence was sufficient for a conviction. It was Pullen's inappropriate commentary during the testimony of a Columbus police detective that prompted the reversal.
In responding to an objection during Detective Drew Tyner's testimony, Pullen referred to the officer as "a good detective," and also commented that Tyner “has worked a lot of cases and he’s got a recollection, and he’s got a written memorandum, and hopefully between the two of those and his good efforts, we’re going to find the truth of the matter.”
Georgia law forbids judges from expressing an opinion "as to what has or has not been proved as to the guilt of the accused." According to the high court, that law 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."
The "we" in Pullen's remarks, though not cited by the high court in this case, recalled a concern that appellate courts have previously expressed about the means in which Pullen, a former district attorney, addressed prosecutors during trials. In an interview last year, Pullen said he explained to jurors in each of his cases that "it's an editorial 'we.'"
“We have a duty, and I’m the referee,” he said at the time.
Murphy and his co-defendant, Carmen Jackson, were found guilty in the Sept. 19, 1998, death of Jackson's daughter, Tytanna. Murphy lived with Jackson and her two children, and Murphy had been babysitting the child that day while Jackson was at work.
About midnight, after Jackson arrived home, Murphy heard the child whining and found her struggling to breathe. According to testimony, Murphy administered CPR while Jackson called 911.
Medical experts said at trial that the baby had been beaten so severely that her pancreas ruptured. She also had wounds consistent with sexual abuse, two broken ribs and bruising all over her body.
Murphy and Jackson were found guilty and sentenced to life in prison plus 20 years. The Supreme Court upheld Jackson's conviction and sentence in 2007.
While the two were tried together, the Supreme Court ruling in Murphy's case doesn't affect Jackson's sentence. Mason explained that Pullen's comment came while Tyner was testifying about Murphy's statement to the authorities.
In a footnote, the Supreme Court said the blame for the "inordinate delay" in Murphy's appeal "appears to be shared among the trial court,defendant, defense counsel, and the State."
"As a result of the delay, the parties are now faced with the difficult task of reconstructing evidence more than 13 years after the crimes were committed," the opinion says. "Not only is it difficult to locate witnesses many years after the fact and for those witnesses to rememberimportant details, but in some cases, substantive law may even change during the period of delay.
Mason said he also thought it was a "shame" that "Mr. Murphy had to wait 12 years to have his case ruled on." But he added that he didn't receive the case until exactly four years ago, and that Murphy had previous defense attorneys.