The man who allegedly shot nearly 200 rounds at Harford County Sheriff’s deputies responding to an animal cruelty complaint at his home has pleaded not criminally responsible — Maryland’s version of an insanity defense.
Benjamin Thomas Murdy, 43, entered the plea on Feb. 3; the next step for him will be a competency evaluation — the request for which was approved by a judge the following day — and commitment to the Maryland Department of Health for a review of his criminal responsibility.
His competency will be evaluated first in an examination separate from his criminal responsibility for the alleged act, Murdy’s attorney Stephen R. Tully said Friday.
Murdy was arrested in connection to a Jan. 21 standoff with sheriff’s deputies where he allegedly shot nearly 200 rounds at responding officers from a rifle and a pistol.
One neighbor was shot in the knee and groin, and a dog was found dead once the shooting stopped and Murdy surrendered to deputies.
According to charging documents filed in district court, Murdy admitted to shooting at police and killing the dog when interviewed by investigators.
He is charged with attempted first- and second-degree murder, first- and second degree assault, reckless endangerment, aggravated animal cruelty, animal cruelty and malicious destruction of property. The maximum sentence for those charges adds up to life plus 76 years and 90 days in prison.
According to a commitment order filed in Harford County District Court, Murdy will be committed to the Maryland Department of Health for an examination to determine if he is competent to stand trial.
Murdy will be held at the Harford County Detention Center without bond until he is remanded to the department of health for his examination, Tully said.
“He has just been committed to their authority for purposes of evaluation,” he said.
The next step is to wait for the evaluations. Their initial determinations will dictate whether the defense seeks its own evaluation, Tully said. As of now, it is “too early” to tell what the course will be.
“You can never tell,” until the evaluations come back, Tully said.
The health department has 60 days to return a report to all lawyers involved in the proceeding, along with the court and Murdy himself, absent a reason for the court to extend the deadline, according to the court documents.
A defense of not criminally responsible is argued as a pre-trial motion, said attorney, Brian Thompson, a partner at the Baltimore-based law firm of Silverman and Thompson. The firm is not involved in Murdy’s case.
To be not criminally responsible, an examination needs to find that the defendant is “incapable of understanding the criminality of their conduct” or they are “incapable of conforming their behavior to the law” due to a mental illness, Thompson said.
If found not criminally responsible, defendants are committed to a psychiatric institution until they no longer represent a danger to themselves or others, which could be indefinite, Thompson said.
Not criminally responsible defenses have rarely succeeded in Thompson’s experience. And when they do, the defendant usually shows such obvious signs of mental illness that the state elects to drop the case.
“They are a Hail Mary,” he said. “If you are filing it, it is because you have absolutely nothing else.”
With approval by a judge, the trial can also be split in two. The first trial addresses the issue of guilt of the charges, and the second adjudicates the defendant’s criminal responsibility.
In Maryland circuit and district courts, just 368 defendants of 285,000 cases were evaluated for their criminal responsibility in 2006, according to latest data available from the Department of Health and Mental Hygiene Administration obtained by The Capital in Annapolis. Less than a third of those 368 met the criteria for an insanity defense.
Also at issue is Murdy’s competency to stand trial — a separate but related issue, Thompson said.
Competency is a measure of the defendant’s ability to understand the proceedings against them and assist in their own defense. If a defendant is found to be not competent, their case is set aside, and they are treated until they meet the standard.
Sheriff’s deputies responded to the 4500 block of Oak Ridge Drive on Jan. 21 for an animal abuse complaint. When deputies arrived, Murdy allegedly opened fire at them from his home.
Deputies called in help from multiple neighboring jurisdictions, and eventually Murdy left the house and was taken into custody without incident.
Sheriff Jeffrey Gahler previously told The Aegis said that police had encountered Murdy before and knew he owned guns.
Murdy legally owned those guns, despite having two domestic violence offenses on his record, Gahler said. According to the Giffords Law Center to Prevent Gun Violence, those subject to a protective order in Maryland become ineligible to own guns.
Murdy’s court documents indicate his were taken, but they were returned at some point in compliance with the law, according to court documents.
Murdy’s wife went to court to get a protective order twice. Her first request in 2016 was denied, but in October 2018, she was granted a year-long protection order, and Murdy had to give up his weapons.
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She alleged that Murdy was verbally abused her and shoved her onto a bed in 2004, and his behavior had escalated from there. She claimed he had threatened to kill himself and, during one dispute her petition references, shoot police.