Bothe-Murphy clash hits a third jolt

In a nasty clash of legal personalities, Judge Elsbeth L. Bothe and Baltimore defense attorney William H. Murphy Jr. locked in a courtroom fracas yesterday that led to the lawyer's third jailing in less than two weeks for contempt of court.

PTC Mr. Murphy spent about 10 minutes alone in a lockup behind Judge Bothe's courtroom yesterday, once again halting the trial of John H. Johnson, who is accused of murder. Before ordering the veteran lawyer jailed for the third time during the trial, Judge Bothe described Mr. Murphy's conduct as "highly, highly, highly contemptuous, wrong, unprofessional and a derogation of the duties of this court and the purpose of this trial."


Mr. Murphy responded: "This is absolutely outrageous. You have gone well over the line and I resent it as a human being, as a member of the bar and on behalf of Mr. Johnson. You are making a mockery of this trial because you are not handling yourself in a judicially appropriate way."

The Johnson trial, which has served as the flash point for both antagonists, is offering conflicting versions of the killing. Prosecutors paint Mr. Johnson as willfully gunning down a fleeing shoplifter. Mr. Murphy contends the shooting was accidental.


The lawyer and the judge last did battle when Mr. Murphy asked Judge Bothe to step down from the trial of former Comptroller Jacqueline F. McLean.

Over recent days, Mr. Murphy has repeatedly told the judge that she impatiently cuts short his legal arguments and that she improperly interjects herself into the trial. At one point, he complained that the judge makes faces and uses "an evil tone of voice" before the jury.

Judge Bothe says Mr. Murphy's demeanor is disrespectful and his complaints are unfounded, and that his arguments deserve to be cut off because they are more like speeches.

Mr. Murphy insists that he must voice his objections to create a court record for any potential appeal. Judge Bothe insists that she runs her courtroom -- and that she is not afraid to enforce her rules by banishing Mr. Murphy to a cell.

On Dec. 22, Judge Bothe and Mr. Murphy clashed over many of the same contentious points.

"If you thought more about your client rather than trying to be contemptuous and grandstanding in front of the jury, doing things no proper lawyer should do, these things wouldn't happen," the judge said. "To try to goad me, as you seem to be doing, into doing something improper, thereby giving reason for a mistrial, is what your aim seems to be."

Just a day earlier, Judge Bothe jailed Mr. Murphy.

Throughout the trial, Judge Bothe has denied Mr. Murphy's repeated motions for a mistrial.


Yesterday, Mr. Murphy said, "No matter what the court says, the court is not going to intimidate me to the extent that I will not do my proper duty as an attorney. . . . You're losing sight of the fact that this isn't Bothe vs. Murphy, this is a trial involving Mr. Johnson and you have ceased to become a partial and fair judge and, Judge, you've got to change back."

The jailing on Dec. 22 took place before the jury in the case, further enraging Mr. Murphy. The day before, he was locked up for about 20 minutes after a loud argument over whether he could show a document to a prosecution witness.

Judge Bothe said her charges of contempt would be aired at a hearing at the conclusion of the trial, which began Dec. 14. Mr. Johnson is charged with murder and kidnapping in the July 24, 1993, fatal shooting of a 24-year-old Andre L. Burton. Mr. Johnson, owner of a Northwest Baltimore 7-Eleven, allegedly believed the man was shoplifting and chased him and shot him. The defense says the shooting was accidental.

The bickering in the Johnson trial comes six months after the high-profile fight between Mr. Murphy and Judge Bothe during McLean's case. Mr. Murphy's law partner, M. Cristina Gutierrez, also clashed with Judge Bothe during that case before it was postponed and assigned to another judge.

Ms. Gutierrez has filed a complaint alleging misconduct by Judge Bothe in the McLean case with the state's Judicial Disabilities Commission, which has the power to sanction judges, court records show. Ms. Gutierrez also has filed a motion asking Judge Bothe to recuse herself from a case in which Ms. Gutierrez represents a man charged with vehicular homicide.