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Murphy Battles In Court Like A Boxer

BY Robert Mladinich ON June 28, 2008
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Most people will agree that Stephen G. Murphy is the most pugnacious criminal defense attorney in the city of New York. For decades he has walked one client after another out of courtrooms after getting them acquitted of such charges as murder, racketeering, hijacking and kidnapping.

A longtime member of the Veteran Boxers Association, Ring 8, in New York, Murphy has never fought in the ring, but his demeanor in the courtroom has been described as gladiatorial.

In the New York Daily News, columnist Denis Hamill wrote, “Murphy’s trials are high drama – funny, ferocious, full of surprises, emotional, convincing.”

In the midst of a racial murder trial in the 1980s, Murphy was attacked by a stranger as he walked on the street outside of the court house. In the Daily News, the late columnist Mike McAlary wrote, “The right hand, and it was a good one, came hard and anonymous out of the pack. The punch landed squarely on Steve Murphy’s chin. The defense lawyer staggered, then whirled around. The attacker retreated into the mob.”

Not long afterwards, Murphy’s client, one of several young men charged with a senseless killing, was acquitted of murder charges.

“People always call me a fighter, and I like to hear myself described that way,” said the 64-year-old Murphy, who has emerged victorious or somewhat victorious in defending over 40 clients charged with homicide.

“Trying a case in a media city like New York can be like fighting for the heavyweight title. I’m fighting so hard because I believe in my client’s innocence. It’s my job to believe in their innocence.”

Murphy’s clients have included rapper 50 Cent, as well as Jimmy “The Gent” Burke, the mastermind of the fabled Lufthansa heist at JFK Airport who was portrayed so brilliantly by Robert DeNiro in the classic film “Goodfellas.”

“If I was going to hire a lawyer, I’d want to hire me,” said Murphy. “I’m not saying I’m the smartest or even the best lawyer out there. But I guarantee that no one wants to win more than I do.”

Murphy has always been competitive, but his intense desire to win was honed during the years he spent working as an assistant district attorney in Queens. While there, he won conviction after conviction, including one against a man who belonged to a militant group that wanted to overthrow the government.

Throughout the trial, the defendant’s brother glared at Murphy. When the man was convicted and sentenced to a long prison term, the brother vowed to seek retribution in ways that can’t be mentioned here.

Several years later, after Murphy had become a defense attorney, he and Burke, who was by then a client, visited a mutual acquaintance at a hospital in Queens. While there they encountered the brother of the defendant who had made such violent threats against Murphy years before. Upon seeing Murphy, he immediately picked up where he had left off.

Burke, who at first glance appeared somewhat harmless, quickly interceded. His eyes turned feral as he instantly transformed into the criminal mastermind that he was.

“You better go the next floor before you get yourself killed,” Burke warned the man, who hurriedly and meekly ambled away.

“Jimmy had crazy eyes,” recalled Murphy. “Robert DeNiro played him perfectly in the film.

As a young man Murphy worked long enough in elevator construction and as a wire lather to realize he didn’t want to toil with his hands for a living. Although he is now a high-priced attorney, and the first to tell you that he is worth every penny, he still comes off as a feisty, blue collar, street guy.

Perhaps that is why he is so fond of fighters. He realizes that continual success never comes easy or without great preparation. That is especially true of battling opponents in a courtroom or in a boxing ring.

He chides multi-mullion dollar athletes who don’t give their all during every second of play. He would never shortchange a client in that way, so he can’t accept athletes who shortchange the fans with lackluster efforts.

“They, like me, are not getting paid a lot of money to give their best effort and get a pat on the butt,” he said. “They are paid to give their best all the time. Out of all athletes, I love fighters the most because, win, lose or draw, most give their all every time.”

Counted among his favorite fighters of all time are Sugar Ray Robinson, Carmen Basilio, Sugar Ray Leonard, Salvador Sanchez, Marvin Hagler, Thomas Hearns, Alexis Arguello and Aaron Pryor. He was ringside in Miami’s Orange Bowl for the sensational first matchup of Arguello and Pryor. He went home with $2,500 more than he came with.

“I bet the guy behind me that the fight wasn’t going the distance,” said Murphy.

Like many observers, Murphy is still suspicious of “The Mix,” the unknown concoction that Pryor’s trainer, Panama Lewis, kept administering between rounds. Many people believe that the mix is what enabled Pryor to bounce back from punches that would have knocked out heavyweights.

“Pryor would look half dead at the end of the round, and then come roaring out for the next one,” mused Murphy.

Like most people, Murphy was a tremendous fan of Arturo Gatti because “he always came to fight.” He also says that Floyd Mayweather Jr. “always gives his best” but believes that Oscar De La Hoya did enough to beat him.

He says that Muhammad Ali was “the greatest fighter who ever lived” and believes that if Salvador Sanchez had not died tragically in an auto accident he “would have been one of the greats of our time.”

What makes a great fighter, says Murphy, are the same qualities that make a good defense attorney.

“You have to stand up to the bully and take the heart out of him,” said Murphy. “You can compare it to barroom fighting. Anyone can go outside and fight. But if you know you’re going to lose, or the odds are stacked against you and you go out anyway, that’s what separates the good from the bad.”

That analogy can be used in all aspects of life. “If I’m hiring a lawyer or I’m betting on a golf tournament or a fight, I want the guy who wants to win the most,” said Murphy.

“Fighters like Ali, Sugar Ray Leonard, Arturo Gatti, they always wanted to win the most. I will never forget Leonard’s fight with Tommy Hearns. Angelo Dundee (Leonard’s trainer) said, ‘You’re blowing it, son.’  Leonard came back and knocked Hearns out.”

That type of mindset is the mantra that Murphy lives by. “The reason why I win so many cases isn’t because I’m smart or good looking,” he explained. “It’s because jurors realize that no lawyer would be trying this hard if he didn’t believe in his client’s innocence.

“Some people tell me I could be more popular if I was nicer to the judge,” he continued. “I couldn’t live with myself if I did that. I’d never lie down and be a nice guy so everyone would like me. I would hate to hear people say I’m a sweetheart, because that would mean I sold my client out.”

Murphy’s web site is: www.stephengmurphy.com

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