Success puts prosecutor in Howard on his mettle

THE BALTIMORE SUN

County prosecutor Joseph Murtha keeps a note a judge gave him during a jury trial last year as a reminder that he can do better.

Mr. Murtha has the note at his desk in the Howard State's Attorney's Office in appreciation of a judge who was once a top trial lawyer giving him something to learn.

Howard Circuit Judge James Dudley wrote in large letters on yellow legal stationery, advising Mr. Murtha to stand still before a jury, and to avoid using the word "I" during his closing statements.

"It's always good to get guidance," the 34-year-old Towson resident said. "I know there are always areas of improvement."

The note is a keepsake of a career that has seen Mr. Murtha streak from a Howard District Court prosecutor to a senior assistant state's attorney in the county's Circuit Court in just three years.

He has gone before a jury more than 30 times. Five cases ended in acquittals.

Mr. Murtha handled the case of a pharmacist who set a string of arson fires in Ellicott City and Catonsville, prosecuted a teen-ager for murdering his tutor and served on the team that prosecuted two Washington men for the Pam Basu carjacking murder, a case that received national attention.

Mr. Murtha has a slate of major cases coming up, including the prosecution of a Baltimore man accused in the execution-style slaying of another man outside the Woodstock post office in October 1992. He also is preparing a case against an Ellicott City accountant charged in the chloroform inhalation death of his 20-year-old girlfriend.

"A lot of people work hard to be where Joe is now, that is getting assigned to the good cases," Judge Dudley said.

The swiftness of Mr. Murtha's success has come without him losing the respect of co-workers, judges and defense lawyers. ,, Many say he is a good trial attorney who could become an excellent one.

"I regard Joe highly as one of our up-and-coming prosecutors," said Senior Assistant State's Attorney Michael Rexroad, a prosecutor for nearly 15 years. "He shows many of the requisite qualities."

State's Attorney William Hymes said that when nine assistants left the office in 1991 and 1992, Mr. Murtha took on many complex cases that a prosecutor with his few years of experience normally would not have handled.

"It obviously gave him an opportunity to display his talents at a much earlier time than he would have," Mr. Hymes said. "He responded beautifully."

And all of it almost never happened.

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Mr. Murtha was on a track he set for himself in college. He was in his second year of law school and working as an aide to former Baltimore County Council President James Smith Jr., now a Circuit Court judge.

By age 30, he expected to be married with children, working as a private attorney and hoping to run for public office. But the plan unraveled.

When his fiancee broke off their relationship, Mr. Murtha dropped out of law school. He took a job as a waiter and lived part of the time at home with his parents. He was, in his word, meandering.

"I became disinterested in a lot of things," Mr. Murtha said. "I was not responsible."

But, he said, he grew tired of feeling sorry for himself. He saw others getting ahead while he was standing still. He decided he had to make things happen for himself.

After a two-year break, Mr. Murtha returned to law school, finishing in 1989. He worked as a law clerk in Howard District Court and then as a clerk for Judge Dudley before becoming a prosecutor.

And it was no small accomplishment. "I'm confident if you get out of the process, it's extremely difficult to get back in," said Judge Dudley. "It's an accomplishment when people can do that."

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The one area Mr. Rexroad said Mr. Murtha needs to focus on is trial experience. "Joe, as any young prosecutor, needs trial experience," he said. "I don't think he's reached his potential yet."

Mr. Murtha describes his courtroom style as a constant experiment, borrowing from other prosecutors and seeing what works best for him.

He said that his favorite part of a trial is the closing statement, a time to bring together the facts and the law with a punch of passion for the jury.

Defense attorneys say Mr. Murtha presents a forceful personality, but risks appearing overbearing.

While some attorneys strive to be orators in their statements to jurors, and others try to reason with the jury, Mr. Murtha takes a different approach.

"He's the fire and brimstone approach," said Richard Bernhardt, an assistant public defender who represented Alton Romero Young, the teen-ager convicted of murdering his tutor, Dayton resident Shirley Mullinix. "He's got a very strong and forceful approach."

Deputy Public Defender Louis Willemin describes Mr. Murtha's courtroom style as "bombastic" and says he uses harsh commentary, often going beyond what is supported by the evidence in his summations.

L "He's got the finesse of a sledgehammer," Mr. Willemin said.

But Mr. Rexroad disagrees with that description. Instead, he uses words like emotional and compelling to describe Mr. Murtha's style.

He noted that Mr. Murtha used the phrase "reign of terror" to describe the acts of the men charged in the Basu killing at the trial of the first defendant. Mr. Rexroad borrowed the phrase for the second defendant's trial.

Defense attorneys say they like working with Mr. Murtha. Mr. Willemin calls him fair and honest in his dealings with opposing lawyers, a prosecutor who pulls no surprises. He picks a position and fights for it.

In cases involving minor charges, Mr. Murtha often is willing to cut defendants a break, showing sensitivity for people in trouble, Assistant Public Defender Spencer Gordon said.

But give him the chance to go to trial, and he'll take it. "There's nothing he loves to do more than a jury trial," Mr. Gordon said. "He's constantly trying to better himself."

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For Wayne Mullinix, Mr. Murtha provided a hand of support after his wife, Shirley Mullinix, was raped and strangled by a student she tutored as part of her job for the county Board of Education.

From the beginning, Mr. Murtha explained legal procedures, prepared the Mullinix family for difficult testimony and lent emotional support.

Mr. Murtha went to the Mullinix home and spent several hours, seeing the warm smile of the 57-year-old woman in photographs, seeing the violin she loved to play, hearing stories of family holidays.

"That, I think, is typical of Joe Murtha," Mr. Mullinix said. "I don't think he's your typical prosecutor. He's sensitive to the human side."

But some attorneys cautioned that Mr. Murtha must temper his emotional involvement to avoid being overwhelmed by his feelings.

"He gets too wrapped up in the more serious cases," said one attorney, who spoke not for attribution. "He runs the risk of being burned out."

Even Mr. Murtha acknowledges that it's difficult at times to separate himself from the emotions felt by the victims of crime. To deal with that, Mr. Murtha has talked with counselors to learn how to detach himself so he can concentrate on his job.

But the emotional cases are the ones Mr. Murtha says he will never forget. He recalls when the jury in the Young case returned its verdict at 2:30 in the morning.

"I turned around, and Wayne Mullinix and his family were all sitting there holding hands," he said. "I literally felt absolutely overwhelmed because here were people drawing on the strength of the family.

"It was a touching moment."

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Joseph Murtha was born in Cranford, N.J., the son of a CSX Railroad sales manager and a homemaker-turned-bank teller. He was the couple's youngest child and their only son.

The Murtha family moved to Reisterstown when Joe was 6. He attended Mount St. Joseph High School, where he was a lacrosse and football standout.

Mr. Murtha, who has been married to a Johns Hopkins Hospital nurse for 1 1/2 years, went to Towson State University for a degree in political science and then on to the University of Baltimore for a law degree.

He decided to become an attorney because he was fascinated by how law -- steeped in tradition -- was constantly shaped by society. "I was attracted to the challenge of law," he said. "I like the dynamics of law."

He gave the example of carjackings, a crime once treated like a robbery that attracted national attention when Pam Basu was forced from her car near her Savage home and dragged to death last year. Now, there are state and federal statutes that outline specific penalties for the crime.

Just two weeks after the Basu killing, Mr. Murtha was the first county prosecutor to handle a carjacking case -- in September 1992 -- winning a conviction on robbery and other charges before the specific laws were passed.

Mr. Murtha compares his $41,000-a-year job to that of an athlete who must prepare for a game but has little control over the outcome. But to him, his role as a prosecutor is not just a job, it's a passion.

"People need to be vindicated," he said. "You feel like you're doing something good as a prosecutor. I feel like I am contributing."

In the future, Mr. Murtha said he may enter private practice -- he's already turned down several offers. He said he'd also consider a run for political office.

But for now, Mr. Murtha said he's happy with his work as a prosecutor.

"I make a concerted effort to live in the now," he said. "And I like what I'm doing right now."

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