A federal judge has rejected an exonerated woman’s claim that the city of Tulsa violated her civil rights when she was prosecuted for murder in connection with the 1994 stabbing death of her son.
Chief U.S. District Judge Gregory Frizzell granted summary judgment on Tuesday in favor of the city of Tulsa, finding that attorneys for Michelle Murphy failed to produce evidence that the city had a policy or custom that led to violating her rights.
“Although Murphy has provided some evidence of a constitutional violation, a municipality cannot be liable under Section 1983 solely because its employees cause injury or damage,” Frizzell wrote in his opinion and order, referring to a section of the federal Civil Rights Act.
Tulsa City Attorney David O’Meilia said Wednesday that the city was “very pleased” with the outcome.
“The state court in releasing her from prison never found that the city or TPD was responsible for her not receiving a fair trial, and neither did the federal judge,” O’Meilia said. “This ruling ensures that Ms. Murphy is not going to profit from the state’s error by targeting the city and our Police Department as a deep pocket.”
David Keesling, an attorney for Murphy, said an appeal to the 10th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals is planned.
“This just presents us with the next step, which is not the last step in this process,” Keesling said.
Murphy was convicted in the 1994 murder of her infant son before a judge vacated her conviction and life-without-parole sentence based on newly discovered DNA evidence. She served 20 years in prison before being freed.
Murphy told police she awoke Sept. 12, 1994, to find her 3-month-old son, Travis Wood, with his throat slashed in a pool of blood on her kitchen floor.
Former Tulsa District Attorney Tim Harris, lead prosecutor at Murphy’s murder trial in 1995, suggested to Murphy’s jury that she could have been the source of some of the blood found at the crime scene. Forensic tests have since proved that none of the blood at the scene was hers.
Murphy sued the city in 2015, claiming prosecutors, police and the city of Tulsa committed various wrongful acts during her prosecution and subsequent efforts to be freed from prison.
Murphy later amended her lawsuit to limit the target of her allegations to the city of Tulsa. Murphy claimed the city violated her Fifth Amendment right against self-incrimination through the use of her allegedly coerced statement to police at her criminal trial. She also alleged a violation of her 14th Amendment right to a fair trial.
Frizzell, in his ruling, found while evidence from Murphy had established “a genuine issue of material fact” as to whether former TPD Detective Michael Cook violated Murphy’s Fifth Amendment right against self-incrimination when he interrogated her, there was no evidence that the city had a policy or custom of supporting civil rights violations.
Rather, Frizzell cited testimony from former TPD Chief Ron Palmer that indicated the TPD had policies which prohibited interrogators from violating the constitutional rights of citizens.
Murphy’s lawsuit did not denote a specific monetary claim for damages. However, the lawsuit did note another case in which the city of Tulsa agreed to pay $12.25 million to settle a lawsuit filed by a man who was wrongfully convicted.
In the noted case, Arvin McGee Jr. was convicted of the 1987 rape and kidnapping of a Tulsa woman and was released from prison in 2002 after DNA evidence proved his innocence.
A jury found in favor of McGee and awarded him $14.5 million after the he spent 14 years in prison for crimes that he didn’t commit.
That amount was reduced to $12.25 million in a settlement agreement that eliminated the city’s ability to appeal.
Unlike the Murphy case, the federal judge in the McGee case rejected the city’s pretrial motion for summary judgment in its favor. In his order, the judge ruled that a jury might reasonably infer from evidence that the city had violated McGee’s constitutional rights.
Murphy did receive $175,000 from the state of Oklahoma in 2015 after filing a tort claim. The payment amount is the maximum permitted for wrongful felony convictions in the state of Oklahoma.
Keesling, meanwhile, said the ruling was “obviously disappointing” for Murphy.
“Michelle has lived for 25 years now with disappointment at the hands of the city of Tulsa and the Tulsa Police Department, specific officers particularly,” Keesling said. “She’s made it that long. If we have to wait a few more years to get this thing back on track, then I think she can.”
O’Meilia said the city was confident in the judge’s ruling on appeal.
“Settlement was never an option in this matter,” O’Meilia said. “We evaluated Ms. Murphy’s claims from the very beginning and determined the city had no liability whatsoever.
“Obviously the federal judge agreed and ruled that her case had no merit, dismissed it and held that she recover nothing from the city.”