A Harford County judge said he would deliver a verdict next week on the guilt and criminal responsibility of a man accused of shooting at his neighbor, firing more than 200 rounds during a standoff with police and killing a dog in early 2020.
After three days of witness testimony, closing arguments were heard Friday in the matter of Benjamin Thomas Murdy, who is facing five counts each of attempted first- and attempted second-degree murder and over a dozen counts of assault in addition to charges of destruction of property, reckless endangerment, animal cruelty and use of a firearm, in connection to the roughly 90-minute incident outside his home in the 4500 block of Oak Ridge Drive in Street that took place on Jan. 21, 2020.
Murdy, 45, has pleaded not criminally responsible — Maryland’s version of the insanity defense.
Defense attorney Stephen Tully has argued that Murdy was suffering from undiagnosed and untreated bipolar disorder exacerbated by personal stress and his use of Zoloft, an antidepressant not meant to treat bipolar patients.
Pointing to voluminous text messages sent the day before and of the alleged offense, as well as video of the incident, assistant state’s attorney Charles Fitzpatrick has contended that Murdy was acting rationally and clearly understood the criminality of his conduct.
Judge Kevin Mahoney said he would reconvene the court next Friday, Aug. 20, with a verdict on both Murdy’s guilt and whether or not he appreciated the criminality of his conduct or could conform his behavior to the law. Murdy has opted for a bench trial, rather than trial by jury, which is why Mahoney is hearing the case.
While it is the state’s legal burden to prove Murdy’s guilt of the underlying crime, it is the defense’s burden to prove he was not criminally responsible for the alleged offense.
Closing arguments Friday began with Fitzpatrick, who said Mahoney should carefully evaluate the messages Murdy sent the day before and day of the incident. He said they offered a glimpse into what was going on in the defendant’s head and showed he was in his right mind. In the messages, Murdy discussed plumbing regulations, exchanged angry messages with family members and expressed worries about work.
“You have a minute-by-minute breakdown of what is going on in the defendant’s mind,” Fitzpatrick told the judge. “You do not always get that.”
Video of the incident also showed Murdy’s intent to kill, Fitzpatrick argued. As his neighbor Robert Schell was backing down his driveway to take the trash out, cameras on Murdy’s home captured a phone conversation where he said he was going to shoot him — just before the gunfire starts. That, Fitzpatrick said, illustrated a clear intent to harm Schell, as well as the police officers in the vicinity, who also testified to hearing bullets whiz around them.
“He is giving you rational reasons; he is angry and maladaptive,” Fitzpatrick said.
Murdy was angry, Fitzpatrick said, when things were outside his control and blamed others for family issues. He also said it is possible he could have been under the influence of high-potency marijuana or even LSD. When he was given a toxicological screen at the hospital, he tested positive for marijuana, but he was not tested for hallucinogens. Murdy also brought up LSD to the Harford County Sheriff’s deputies several times. Marijuana can be detected up to 30 days after using, Tully said, and its presence is not suggestive that he smoked it the night of the incident.
The state’s expert forensic psychiatrist, Annette Hanson, testified Thursday that she believed Murdy’s alleged behavior was more suggestive of intoxication than mental illness.
On the first day of trial, Fitzpatrick introduced multiple videos into evidence where gunshots are heard, as well as photos of the damage to Schell’s truck, boxes of ammunition piled under the window Murdy allegedly shot from and the guns themselves.
Tully, the defendant’s lawyer, said the incident should not be minimized, but that his client was not in his right mind as a combination of medication, personal stress and bipolar disorder. He said that Murdy, after months of his condition worsening, was not able to appreciate the criminality of his actions the night of Jan. 21, 2020.
In addition to a family history of mental illness, Tully said Murdy had stopped taking his Zoloft days before the alleged incident and was suffering side effects the drug’s manufacturer recommended seeking professional help for — symptoms like acting on negative impulses, contemplating suicide and aggression, among others.
“He seems to have gotten every single one of them,” he said.
Tully also questioned Murdy’s intent to harm and level of intoxication, noting that only three bullets hit a deputy’s cruiser and that he had no alcohol in his system when tested the day after the incident, despite the fact he told officers that he had been drinking all night. Witnesses for the defense further testified that they had never seen Murdy in the state was in on Jan. 21.
Witnesses testified that Murdy was disjointedly rambling about strange things and claimed to see his dead brother during and directly before the alleged incident. Tully also said his client’s statement made to police directly after his arrest was “as bizarre a statement a defendant can give as I’ve ever seen.”
Video of Murdy in the back of a sheriff’s cruiser directly after the alleged shooting showed him rambling about a variety of topics — from how he had drunk alcohol to naming famous baseball players.
Tully was skeptical of the prosecution claiming marijuana intoxication played a part in the incident, saying more risk came from a drunk person than someone who was high. Hanson, state’s forensic psychiatrist, said that she had advocated against legalized marijuana as part of a professional association and that forensic psychiatrists were seeing more and more cases of marijuana inducing criminal behavior. Murdy had said he had used marijuana to calm down and sleep.
“Her explanation of what took place .... almost reminds me of the 1950s,” Tully said.
The possibility of LSD influencing the event, Tully said, was also unexplored and unsubstantiated by evidence. He also pointed out the Murdy said he was scared, raising the issue of an imperfect self defense, which he asked the judge to consider. Fitzpatrick countered that it was rational for Murdy to be scared that police were in front of his house.