The legal system that put Jennifer L. Murphy in prison for trying to murder her boyfriend offered her a chance last week to erase her criminal record. But Murphy turned down the offer.
A new trial carried the risk of another conviction. It would have forced her to relive a dark episode in her life. Finally, her first trial had destroyed her trust in the judicial system. Passing up the chance for exoneration, Murphy opted for a felony record--and immediate freedom.
The decision was difficult, she said. The state’s 2nd District Court of Appeal had already overturned her 1988 conviction and 10-year prison sentence. And Murphy’s appeal lawyer was so confident of her innocence that she offered to try the case for free.
But on May 9 before Pasadena Superior Court Judge Charles C. Lee, Murphy, 33, turned down the new trial. In an agreement with prosecutors, she pleaded guilty to a lesser charge--assault with a deadly weapon--and received a four-year sentence. Because of the time she has already spent in prison, she qualified for immediate release.
In an interview Tuesday, Murphy said a new trial would have reopened painful emotional wounds for herself and for Mark Harrington, 32, of Highland Park, who was blinded by the single shot that Murphy fired at him. At her first trial, she testified that she shot Harrington because he had physically abused her repeatedly, and she believed that he was about to kill her.
“I would have liked to have cleared my name, and my lawyers were very much in favor of retrying the case,” said Murphy, who was staying with friends in La Canada Flintridge. “But I had to think about my future and his future.
“I don’t think I could have handled it. I don’t think I could have raked that relationship over the coals again. I don’t want to suffer anymore. I don’t want him to suffer any more.”
Murphy, who had a successful career before the shooting, ruled out a second trial for another reason. She said her first trial and more recent court appearances had eroded her faith in the legal system.
“I believed in the system. I’ve been paying taxes for years,” she said. “I became a victim of the system. I pulled the trigger. I never denied that. But I was scared to be in that courtroom. I knew I was not going to be able to get any justice in that courtroom.”
Murphy’s case had its roots in an emotionally charged relationship that culminated in a violent confrontation. It ended amid a tangled web of legal maneuvers and judicial decisions.
Marilee Marshall, the attorney who handled Murphy’s appeal and negotiated her plea agreement, said her client’s greatest concern was that she had blinded Harrington. Clearing her name was secondary, and Murphy accepted the plea bargain because it would put an end to both her prison term and further court proceedings, the attorney said.
“She went through hell on Earth. But she loved him,” Marshall said. “I saw so much remorse because she had hurt someone she loved, not because she was in prison.
“I offered to retry it for her pro bono. But I can understand why she did what she did. It was an opportunity to get it behind her and get on with her life.”
Murphy and Harrington, an aerospace assembly worker, were childhood friends who grew up to become lovers. They began living together intermittently beginning in 1983. Murphy said she moved out when she became pregnant and feared that the child would be injured. The boy died in 1985 of sudden infant death syndrome, she said.
Murphy was living by herself on April 15, 1987, when Harrington came to visit. She testified that a long, heated argument took place, moving in and out of the apartment. She locked Harrington out at one point, then stepped outside with a handgun because she feared that he was about to break down the door and injure her. She told jurors that Harrington, standing near his motorcycle, threatened to take the gun away and use it on her. She said he moved toward her.
Murphy said she fired once in self-defense, then immediately called police and paramedics. The bullet struck Harrington in the head, permanently damaging his optic nerve.
Harrington and his family were in the courtroom last week to witness resolution of the case. Deputy Dist. Atty. Robert C. de Carteret, who prosecuted Murphy in 1988, said he endorsed the plea agreement in part because Harrington did not want the case tried again.
The victim’s father, John Harrington, said in a brief statement relayed by De Carteret that his son was having psychological problems coping with his blindness and may have suffered brain damage in the shooting. He did not want to testify, and his family supported that decision.
“They are happy with the settlement,” De Carteret said.
But not everyone is pleased. After Murphy’s conviction was overturned, Pasadena Superior Court Judge Jack B. Tso, who presided over the original trial, rejected the four-year plea agreement. In an interview Tuesday, he said that the sentence was not severe enough for the crime.
“I said no, I won’t accept that because of the injury to the victim,” Tso said. “I really wanted a seven-year sentence if she would plead guilty. Otherwise I would retry it. . . . This case really galls me. You shoot out a person’s eyes, you should be punished for it.”
The judge said he did not believe that Murphy was in mortal danger when she fired at Harrington.
The appeals court reversed Murphy’s 1988 conviction in December because Tso did not tell jurors that they could find the woman guilty of attempted voluntary manslaughter, which carries a lesser penalty than attempted murder, and that they could consider Harrington’s history of violence toward Murphy.
The appeal also included a psychologist’s report concluding that Murphy suffered from battered women’s syndrome. The condition refers to women who lash out after years of harsh abuse from a spouse or boyfriend. Marshall said the appeals court did not address this issue, but she was ready to introduce it if the case was retried.
Attorney G. Michael Pogue, who represented Murphy at her 1988 trial, said battered women’s syndrome was not a widely accepted defense at the time. He also said he did not alert the jury to the voluntary manslaughter option because he was seeking an acquittal and did not want to undermine his self-defense argument.
“In retrospect, my client suffered a conviction,” Pogue said Tuesday. “I don’t know if the conviction was the result of my trial tactics or the judge’s ruling or the makeup of the jury itself. It’s hard to say that X caused Y.”
After the appeal was upheld, the case was returned to Tso. Despite the ruling, the judge said he did not believe that the incident fit the guidelines for attempted voluntary manslaughter. He also said battered women’s syndrome was not an appropriate defense because Murphy and Harrington were not living together at the time of the shooting.
After Tso rejected the plea agreement, Murphy’s attorney asked that the case be assigned to another courtroom. Lee approved the agreement last week, allowing her release.
“I’m still going through culture shock,” Murphy said. Her first goal after leaving the California Institute for Women in Frontera was “to eat normal food--and I’ve been doing it ever since. The food in prison is terrible. I’ve had steak, Mexican food, the normal things you never get there.”
Her upper-middle-class background did not prepare Murphy for prison. She grew up in the Eagle Rock-Highland Park area, graduating from Franklin High School. She earned an associate of arts degree from Ambassador College in Pasadena. At the time of her arrest, she was administrative manager of a development company.
Murphy can’t explain why she had a long-term relationship with a man she describes as violent and abusive.
“I just know that I loved him, and I wanted to make a life together with him,” she said. “I started to get weak, and I lost my self-esteem. My family wanted me to leave. They were afraid I would be killed. . . . I had a vision of the perfect family. I just had the wrong people involved.”
Meeting other abused women in prison helped her recognize how destructive and how common such relationships are. “These men are all from the same mold,” Murphy said. “That was very helpful to find out.
“Just getting over the man and a relationship that was so intense and so volatile took a lot of time. I’m not recovered from the night in question. I can look back and see how much abuse I accepted, and I’m ashamed of myself.”
Murphy said her family and friends supported her during the trial and prison term, and she is weighing offers to go back to work. Nevertheless, she remains bitter about the legal system. If she could go back to the day of the shooting, she said, she would probably put the gun aside and let Harrington harm her.
“Why defend yourself?” she asked. “Why pull the trigger? You’re going to go to prison anyway. I don’t feel that was something that was worth it.”