Expert witnesses took the stand on the third day trial for a man accused of shooting his neighbor, firing about 200 rounds at police and killing his girlfriend’s dog in early 2020, offering conflicting testimony about why Benjamin Thomas Murdy acted the way he did that day.
Murdy’s defense attorneys have contended that he was suffering from a nonspecific form of bipolar disorder, while the state has argued that Murdy’s behavior during a standoff with police was due to his temperament and alcohol consumption, rather than any mental illness.
Murdy, 45 of Street, is charged with five counts each of attempted first- and attempted second-degree murder and over a dozen counts of assault in addition to 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. He has pleaded not criminally responsible — Maryland’s version of the insanity defense.
Testifying for the defense Thursday morning, forensic psychiatrist Neil Blumberg said the events of Jan. 21, 2020, were motivated by untreated mental illness and a variety of stressors in Murdy’s personal life. He pointed to the 2018 suicide of his brother and a messy, lengthy divorce, among other stressors, and inappropriate medication of his condition.
In reviewing discovery material and interviewing people in Murdy’s life, Blumberg reached the conclusion that Murdy was not criminally responsible at the time of the offense, suffering from “persecutory delusions,” and acting manic. He noted that there was a long history of mental health issues in Murdy’s family, and it was likely his mental illness predated the incident.
“He was clearly in a psychotic state” at the time of the incident, Blumberg testified.
Blumberg also pointed out that the medication Zoloft, which Murdy had been prescribed but stopped taking two days before the alleged shooting, is not used to treat bipolar patients, and it can precipitate mania or psychosis in them.
“It seems likely that is the scenario that took place,” he said.
Questioned by defense attorney Stephen Tully, Blumberg said that the lack of documentation about Murdy’s state of mind was likely due to the fact that he had not sought mental health treatment. He noted that Murdy’s boss said that, while an excellent plumber, Murdy would go through weeklong periods where he was “off the wall” that he had to overlook.
Annette Hanson, the director of forensic psychiatry at Cliffton T. Perkins psychiatric hospital, testified for the prosecution that Murdy displayed logical behaviors after the incident, and said the incident was more motivated by his intoxication. Earlier in the trial, prosecutors pointed out that Murdy’s girlfriend had told Maryland Department of Health investigators that Murdy was a heavy drinker — consuming between 12 and 18 beers a day.
Hanson noted that in years of doctors visits and examinations, there was no documentation to suggest Murdy was manic. Further still, days after the incident, Murdy was thinking logically, demonstrated by phone calls to his family where he worried about his finances and losing his plumber’s license.
“In several years of notes, that was never an issue,” she said.
Hanson determined that Murdy seemed more affected by alcohol and possible other substance abuse than mental illness but agreed that he had a “mental alteration” at the time of the alleged incident. She said he smoked marijuana sometimes and was able to describe it’s precise potency to her, and several members of his family told her they were concerned by his drinking.
During interviews after the incident, Hanson said Murdy was calm and thinking rationally; she also said his girlfriend brought him a book about bipolar disorder to read in jail, after which he requested an examination and said he had bipolar disorder. He also said he thought it was likely he would be found not criminally responsible, she testified.
Questioned by Tully if the hallucinations Murdy claimed to experience during his interview with police were consistent with bipolar disorder, Hanson said they were not, but that they were more consistent with intoxication.
Tully pointed out that Gardner testified Murdy had not smoked marijuana that night to her knowledge, and that he had no alcohol in his system when he was given a toxicology screening at the hospital. Hanson said the toxicology screen could have come after the approximately 8 hour half-life of alcohol.
He also noted that the medicine given to Murdy at the Harford County Detention Center could be used to treat bipolar disorder and Hanson said that was not out of the question. However, she further testified that it is common for defendants to self-report symptoms and for the jail’s medical staff and psychiatrists to believe them. Their role is to treat, not investigate, Hanson said. She did acknowledged that stressful life events can bring on bipolar episodes.
Murdy has opted for a bench trial, rather than trial by jury; Harford County Circuit Court Judge Kevin Mahoney is hearing the case.
Trials in which a defendant pleads not criminally responsible, as Murdy has, are often divided into a guilt portion and a criminal responsibility portion — whether or not he appreciated the criminality of his conduct or could conform his behavior to the law.
Because a judge is hearing the case rather than a jury, the trial will not be split up — Mahoney said he will deliver his verdict on Murdy’s guilt and criminal responsibility at the same time instead of ruling on each separately. That verdict may come next week, he said.
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 are scheduled to be heard in court Friday.