DENVER (CN) – When Michelle Murphy was 17, she awoke to find her 3-month-old baby nearly decapitated on the kitchen floor. Police told her confessing was the only way she would see her 2-year-old daughter again. She did so and spent 20 years in prison before DNA evidence exonerated her.
The state of Oklahoma compensated Murphy $175,000 in 2014, but she still wants to hold the police department and city of Tulsa accountable for what her attorney described as a “miscarriage of justice.”
Before a 10th Circuit panel in Denver on Monday, Murphy’s attorneys asked the judges to overturn a federal judge’s 2018 summary judgment in favor of Tulsa.
With no clear written policy against using coercion in police interrogations, the question is whether a reasonable jury could be convinced that coercion was an accepted tactic employed by the Tulsa Police Department in interrogations during the 1990s.
“You are reviewing the record to see if a reasonable jury could find a policy of coercion,” explained Murphy’s attorney John Carwile, acknowledging “the record is challenging.”
Tulsa City Attorney Michelle McGrew pointed out clearly marked rules against making threats in what she called a training document – but was actually a 1987 legal bulletin on Miranda rights.
“Miranda is a specific set of rights, but you can maintain Miranda and still coerce a confession in interrogation,” countered U.S. Circuit Judge Robert E. Bacharach, a Barack Obama appointee.
McGrew nevertheless underscored that a policy cannot be inferred from a lack of policy and questioned why Murphy would only register a complaint now, more than two decades after the fact.
“At the time her constitutional rights were being violated, she never said she was being threatened,” McGrew said. “We only have her statements 20 years later and a reasonable jury would have to believe her.”
U.S. Circuit Judge Carolyn McHugh, also an Obama appointee, removed her glasses and said she found the whole case troubling.
“It’s troubling there isn’t more evidence in the record on specific policies.” McHugh said. “The testimony of detectives who do interrogations on a regular basis said they were unaware of any constitutional limitations to interrogations. Isn’t that bothersome?”
To her left, Bacharach agreed.
“If we have no evidence pointing to training against making threats,” Bacharach asked, “why couldn’t a reasonable fact finder conclude coercion was accepted?”
Carwile pressed this point on two minutes of reserved time.
“If you drill down and read all of the policies the city provides, they say nothing other than that the police got training at the academy and then they looked in a box for supportive documents,” Carwile said. “That flies in the face of their argument for summary judgment.”
Carwile practices with the Tulsa firm Baum Glass Jayne & Carwile.
U.S. Circuit Judge Allison Eid, a Donald Trump appointee, rounded out the panel. The judges will review the complete record and decide whether to remand the case to the Northern District of Oklahoma for a jury trial or uphold the summary judgment. They did not indicate when they would reach a decision.
According to Murphy’s brief, she is still working on rebuilding her relationship with her daughter and hopes to meet her granddaughter.
The 1994 murder of 3-month-old Travis Wood remains unsolved.