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Woman Won't Risk Freedom on Retrial : Courts: Her conviction in boyfriend's shooting was overturned, but she decides against seeking exoneration.

May 16, 1991|PHIL SNEIDERMAN | TIMES STAFF WRITER

The legal system that put Jennifer L. Murphy in prison for trying to murder her boyfriend offered her a chance last week to erase her criminal record. But Murphy turned down the offer.

A new trial carried the risk of another conviction. It would have forced her to relive a dark episode in her life. Finally, her first trial had destroyed her trust in the judicial system. Passing up the chance for exoneration, Murphy opted for a felony record--and immediate freedom.

The decision was difficult, she said. The state's 2nd District Court of Appeal had already overturned her 1988 conviction and 10-year prison sentence. And Murphy's appeal lawyer was so confident of her innocence that she offered to try the case for free.

But on May 9 before Pasadena Superior Court Judge Charles C. Lee, Murphy, 33, turned down the new trial. In an agreement with prosecutors, she pleaded guilty to a lesser charge--assault with a deadly weapon--and received a four-year sentence. Because of the time she has already spent in prison, she qualified for immediate release.

In an interview Tuesday, Murphy said a new trial would have reopened painful emotional wounds for herself and for Mark Harrington, 32, of Highland Park, who was blinded by the single shot that Murphy fired at him. At her first trial, she testified that she shot Harrington because he had physically abused her repeatedly, and she believed that he was about to kill her.

"I would have liked to have cleared my name, and my lawyers were very much in favor of retrying the case," said Murphy, who was staying with friends in La Canada Flintridge. "But I had to think about my future and his future.

"I don't think I could have handled it. I don't think I could have raked that relationship over the coals again. I don't want to suffer anymore. I don't want him to suffer any more."

Murphy, who had a successful career before the shooting, ruled out a second trial for another reason. She said her first trial and more recent court appearances had eroded her faith in the legal system.

"I believed in the system. I've been paying taxes for years," she said. "I became a victim of the system. I pulled the trigger. I never denied that. But I was scared to be in that courtroom. I knew I was not going to be able to get any justice in that courtroom."

Murphy's case had its roots in an emotionally charged relationship that culminated in a violent confrontation. It ended amid a tangled web of legal maneuvers and judicial decisions.

Marilee Marshall, the attorney who handled Murphy's appeal and negotiated her plea agreement, said her client's greatest concern was that she had blinded Harrington. Clearing her name was secondary, and Murphy accepted the plea bargain because it would put an end to both her prison term and further court proceedings, the attorney said.

"She went through hell on Earth. But she loved him," Marshall said. "I saw so much remorse because she had hurt someone she loved, not because she was in prison.

"I offered to retry it for her pro bono. But I can understand why she did what she did. It was an opportunity to get it behind her and get on with her life."

Murphy and Harrington, an aerospace assembly worker, were childhood friends who grew up to become lovers. They began living together intermittently beginning in 1983. Murphy said she moved out when she became pregnant and feared that the child would be injured. The boy died in 1985 of sudden infant death syndrome, she said.

Murphy was living by herself on April 15, 1987, when Harrington came to visit. She testified that a long, heated argument took place, moving in and out of the apartment. She locked Harrington out at one point, then stepped outside with a handgun because she feared that he was about to break down the door and injure her. She told jurors that Harrington, standing near his motorcycle, threatened to take the gun away and use it on her. She said he moved toward her.

Murphy said she fired once in self-defense, then immediately called police and paramedics. The bullet struck Harrington in the head, permanently damaging his optic nerve.

Harrington and his family were in the courtroom last week to witness resolution of the case. Deputy Dist. Atty. Robert C. de Carteret, who prosecuted Murphy in 1988, said he endorsed the plea agreement in part because Harrington did not want the case tried again.

The victim's father, John Harrington, said in a brief statement relayed by De Carteret that his son was having psychological problems coping with his blindness and may have suffered brain damage in the shooting. He did not want to testify, and his family supported that decision.

"They are happy with the settlement," De Carteret said.

But not everyone is pleased. After Murphy's conviction was overturned, Pasadena Superior Court Judge Jack B. Tso, who presided over the original trial, rejected the four-year plea agreement. In an interview Tuesday, he said that the sentence was not severe enough for the crime.

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