Florida judge seeks leniency following PTSD outburst with public defender

By Legal News Line | Jan 8, 2016

Brevard County Courthouse  

TALLAHASSEE, Fla. (Legal Newsline) – Former Brevard County, Fla., judge John Murphy, who denied that post traumatic stress disorder rendered him unfit, now admits it as he seeks sympathy from Supreme Court justices who ordered his removal in December.

Murphy proposed to convert his removal to involuntary retirement on Jan. 4, asking the justices to treat his disorder the same as any physical disability.

His lawyers wrote, “Some might even argue that, because his condition stems from his military service, it should be given greater consideration.”

Murphy spent 29 years in military service, including combat in Afghanistan, and he retired as a colonel.

He became a judge in 2006, and he ruined that career on June 2, 2014.

He lost patience with assistant public defender Andrew Weinstock, for responding slowly when Murphy asked if defendants waived speedy trials.

He told Weinstock that if he had a rock he would throw it at him.

“Stop pissing me off,” Murphy said. “Just sit down.”

Weinstock asserted a right to stand and defend his clients.

“I said sit down,” Murphy snapped. “If you want to fight, let’s go out back and I’ll just beat your ass.”

They left the courtroom. A camera had caught the action, but it couldn’t catch what happened next.

Deputy Byron Griffin left Murphy and Weinstock alone in the hall, until everyone in earshot heard Murphy shout, “You wanna (expletive deleted) with me?”

A commotion ensued, and Griffin burst into the hall to find Murphy and Weinstock clutching each other’s garments.

Griffin wedged his arms between them and pried them apart.

Weinstock demanded Murphy’s arrest, claiming the judge hit him in the face.

He looked none the worse for wear, however, and no one arrested anyone.

Murphy returned to the courtroom, and Weinstock did not.

Murphy then dispensed justice to eight defendants who had showed up expecting the public defender’s office to represent them. 

Two days later, he began to undergo evaluation by Scott Fairchild, an expert in post traumatic stress syndrome.

Two days after that, he began anger management counseling with psychologist Michael Ronsisvalle.

On June 23, 2014, Fairchild completed a report finding “no diagnosable post traumatic stress disorder.”

Murphy applied for Veterans Affairs disability benefits four days later.

The Judicial Qualifications Commission filed charges on Aug. 13, 2014.

The commission’s hearing panel reviewed the case for two days last March, and watched video of the proceedings.

Murphy testified that he resumed the docket without Weinstock because Weinstock’s clients were also his clients.

A panel member asked how that could be, and Murphy said, “This is county court. It’s people’s court. They’re my people.”

He admitted he should have waited for a new public defender to arrive.

Ronsisvalle testified that Murphy appeared positive and humble.

He said that when the incident happened, Murphy was fatigued, his father had recently died, and a defendant had recently been killed outside the courthouse.

He said Murphy could return to work without risk of repeating his behavior because he understood his emotions and developed skills to cope with anger.

Fairchild did not testify, but he offered his report.

Last May 19, the panel unanimously recommended a $50,000 fine, public reprimand, and suspension for 120 days.

The panel prescribed mental health therapy and courses in a Florida Judicial College program for new judges.

Two days later, Murphy submitted an initial post traumatic stress disorder disability benefits questionnaire to Veterans Affairs.

On July 8, VA found 30 percent disability from a disorder resulting from combat.

VA found that the disorder manifested in disturbances of mood and motivation, chronic sleep impairment, anxiety, and social impairment.

VA identified “symptoms which decrease work efficiency and ability to perform occupational tasks only during periods of significant stress.” 

At the Supreme Court, the panel’s $50,000 fine and suspension found no favor.

In October, the justices ordered Murphy to show cause why they should not remove him.

His lawyers responded that, “the behavior of the person on that video was wholly out of character and never will recur.”

They wrote that Murphy was obliged to inform the Court that, during the pendency of the case, VA issued a 30 percent disability finding.

The qualifications commission replied that the new diagnosis cut against his fitness, and the Supreme Court saw it the same way.

“The severity of Judge Murphy’s behavior and the VA finding leave open the possibility of future misconduct,” the Justices wrote on Dec. 17.

“Based on the clear erosion of public faith in our court system caused by Judge Murphy’s misconduct and the unmistakable possibility that he could have a similar outburst in the future, we must find that Judge Murphy is presently unfit to serve,” they wrote.

Murphy gave up on keeping his job, but his lawyers pleaded for a more graceful exit in his Jan. 4 motion for reconsideration.

“Through no fault of his own, and in fact because of voluntary service to this country, Judge Murphy is suffering a disorder that this Court identifies as a reason for his inappropriate conduct on the bench,” they wrote.

“His onetime transgression, with PTSD as a root cause per this Court’s determination, should not be grounds for a disciplinary removal when it is a permanent disability affecting his performance,” they wrote.

“Numerous judges have involuntarily retired due to disability,” they wrote.

The qualifications commission’s Jan. 6 response complained that Murphy wanted to amend the charges, amend his defenses, and accept new evidence.

The commission argued that it found Murphy unfit “for numerous reasons other than a PTSD disability.”

Ronald Kozlowski, Larry Turner, and Peggy-Anne O’Connor, all of Turner O’Connor Kozlowski in Gainesville, represent Murphy.

Wallace Pope Jr., of Clearwater, represents the commission as special counsel to general counsel Michael Schneider.

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