Saturday, July 12, 2008

Judge overturns death penalty in 1997 murder

Staff writer

DAYTONA BEACH -- In a rare ruling, a judge Friday overrode a jury's recommendation that a man should be put to death for killing a 39-year-old mother of three in 1997.

Gregory Murphy, 45, was convicted of the first-degree premeditated killing of Erleen Albright in a March jury trial. When the same jury later recommended by an 8-4 vote that Murphy should die, the killer's 24-year-old son broke down as he left the courtroom. The elder Murphy showed little reaction Friday when his fate was announced by Circuit Judge J. David Walsh.

"On reflection and great consideration, the court has determined the ultimate penalty of death is not appropriate in this case," said the judge, adding he considered the aggravators and mitigators and put "great weight" on the jury's recommendation. "He shall serve the balance of his natural life in the custody of the Department of Corrections without any chance of parole."

In spite of no immediate reaction from Murphy, the feelings of his attorney were clear.

"I will appreciate that for the rest of my life, sir," Assistant Public Defender Matt Phillips said.

Asked later how Murphy reacted to the decision, Phillips said, "My client is glad he's not going to death row."

Albright was found on her kitchen floor strangled, beaten with a hammer and stabbed in the chest. Friday, family members had mixed feelings.

"I'm disappointed," Albright's husband, John Albright, 61, said. "But I'm happy he'll never get a chance to get out. He'll never get a chance to hurt anyone else. I'm OK with that."

Statistically, judges don't depart from jury recommendations for the death penalty very often, although the margin of the jury's votes might be one factor. According to research, the vast majority of override cases in Florida have historically seen judges overruling life sentences and imposing death.

While U.S. Supreme Court rulings in recent years have made it more difficult for judges to override jury recommendations for life, overruling jury-recommended death sentences could become a trend, some experts say.

Peter Cannon, an attorney with Capital Collateral, which defends inmates on death row, said he thinks all involved in the process have grown "more sophisticated" in determining how mitigating factors might effect a person's criminal actions. As a result, the trend is toward less death sentences than in the past.

Phillips said he credited the judge's "character and temperment" in going against the jury recommendation, which still remains rare in a state where juries are considered more "death prone" than others.

State Attorney John Tanner said the outcome shows how difficult it is to obtain the death penalty in Florida, under the system that's in place, "and I agree it should be."

"In this case, we have a woman who is raped in her own home, brutally strangled, stabbed and beaten to death with a hammer, " Tanner said. "We know that legally it was an appropriate case as well as factually a proper case in which we should seek the death penalty. We had a strong majority of jurors who agreed with us after they heard all the aggravators."

Any one of a number of factors may have been on the judge's mind. In one apparently likely scenario, "he disagrees with the jury," Professor Bob Dekle of the University of Florida Law School said. "He doesn't feel the aggravating circumstances outweigh the mitigators."

Tanner, who said he asks for the death penalty in "only the most heinous and brutal of killings," said he had nothing critical to say of the judge's decision.

"He has fulfilled his role as he saw fit," Tanner said, "and that's what he's supposed to do."

All agree the decision of whether or not to impose a death sentence under the law is a very difficult one to make and that the outcome echoed how the law is supposed to be followed.

"It's easy to sit in the coffee shop and say what you should have done," Dekle said. "But when you're sitting in the shoes of that prosecutor, judge and jury, and you're making those awful decisions, the world looks totally different."

Albright's son Tony Bobbitt, a talented 17-year-old basketball player at the time, discovered his mother's battered and bloodied body on her kitchen floor on April 13, 1997.

Bobbitt later left the area to play basketball for the Los Angeles Lakers and other professional teams. For nearly a decade, he and his two sisters, Sabrina and Monique Albright, were left wondering who killed their mother.

In early 2006, detectives resubmitted to a national database a small amount of DNA evidence left at the scene. The sample matched Murphy, police said. He later wrote a letter to a Daytona Beach police detective, police say, in which the slaying was described.

"She kept swinging that steak knife and I snapped, grabbing her and began to choke her until she was dead," the letter states.

At his trial, Murphy testified that "he'd made love to his wife." Prosecutors used that to show the killing was motivated by a sexual attack. Defense lawyer Phillips, however, argued the testimony by Murphy highlighted his mental illness.

Tanner said he respected the verdict of the majority of jurors, who felt death was appropriate for Murphy. "But we also respect the judge's role in the process, under the law."

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