Air Force Times is reporting new developments in the case of Colonel Michael Murphy, the former commander of the service’s legal operations agency. Readers will recall that Murphy was removed from that post last fall, after it was discovered that he served as an Air Force JAG for more than 20 years–without a law license. He was subsequently charged with multiple counts of conduct unbecoming an officer, larceny, and failure to obey a general order. If convicted on all counts, Murphy could be sentenced to almost 60 years in jail.
But earlier this month, the Air Force announced that it was dropped nine of the 22 charges originally filed againt Murphy, who had previously served as commander of the Air Force JAG school, and senior legal officer for two major commands. When Murphy’s lawyers were informed of the reduction in charges, they requested–and received–a waiver of his Article 32 hearing. An Article 32 is (roughly) the military equivalent of a grand jury investigation.
With the Article 32 hearing out of the way, it’s now up to the commander overseeing the case, Brigadier General Frac Gorenc, to decide whether to send the case to trial. General Gorenc, commander of the Air Force District of Washington, D.C., also has the option of dropping all the remaining charges, or referrring some of them to trial by a general courts-martial.
There is no word on when General Gorenc might reach a decision.
At this point, Colonel Murphy is still facing nine counts of conducting unbecoming an officer, three counts of larceny, and one count of failure to obey a general order. The latter count apparently stems from Murphy’s inability to provide proof that he was a member of the bar when allegations against him first surfaced. The “conduct unbecoming” charges are related to his JAG career without a law license, and the larceny counts reflect travel reimbursements that Murphy received for conferences he was unqualified to attend (as a disbarred attorney).
While a plea deal is still possible, most military legal experts still expect the case to go to trial. In wake of the scandal involving the Air Force’s former JAG (Major General Thomas Fiscus), the service’s legal community remains under something of a cloud. To avoid appearances that another senior legal officer got off easy (Fiscus received a demotion and fine for years of tawdry personal conduct), it seems likely that General Gorenc will send the case to a general courts-martial.
And that raises another question, namely, how will the Air Force ensure a fair trial for Colonel Murphy? As a former MAJCOM judge advocate general and commander of the service’s JAG school, Murphy had ties to a number of judges and prosecutors. Given those connections, there has been some speculation that the Air Force may “farm out” the courts-martial to the Army. However, we expect that option would be utilized only as a last resort.
As for Colonel Murphy, the reduction in charges was certainly good news; announced just days before the Article 32 hearing was set to begin, the move suggested a slight weakening of the Air Force’s case. But with 13 counts still remaining, Murphy still faces a serious legal challenge, with the very real possibility of a courts-martial conviction, prison time, and the loss of his military pension.