After 18 years of working to put suspected criminals behind bars, former Forest Park police sergeant Michael Murphy found himself on the wrong side of the law Wednesday, and was sentenced to spend one year in a federal prison. The sentence was handed down in a courtroom on the 14th floor of the Dirksen Federal Building in downtown Chicago and stems from a beating Murphy inflicted on a suspect in 2003.
The prison term represents the maximum penalty available to U.S. District Court Judge David Coar who commented from the bench that a plea bargain reached in April is the sum of the court’s mercy.
“All of the mitigating circumstances have already been taken into account,” Coar said.
Murphy pled guilty to a misdemeanor civil rights violation in April just as his criminal trial on felony charges was to begin. An October 2007 indictment accused Murphy of using excessive force in effecting an arrest on Sidney Hooks nearly five years prior. The grand jury also agreed with prosecutors that Murphy may have falsified police records in an effort to hide his actions. For those charges, Murphy, 43, faced a possible 30-year prison term.
Defense attorney Rick Halprin said there are no plans to appeal the sentence.
“A misdemeanor in federal court is anything but severe,” Halprin said following the hearing. “You don’t see them that often. It’s hardly a severe sentence.”
As part of the plea agreement prosecutors dropped the charge that Murphy lied about the beating. However, the subject was raised as an aggravating circumstance during the July 9 sentencing hearing.
Sergio Acosta, chief of the General Crimes Section for the U.S. Attorney’s Office in Chicago, reminded the court of the manner in which Murphy beat Hooks on Aug. 6, 2003. After spraying Hooks with pepper spray, Murphy used his police baton to break Hooks’ wrist before taking him into custody.
“But it goes beyond that,” Acosta told the court.
Murphy filed a false report and tried to coerce a subordinate officer who was at the scene to do the same. Murphy was also prepared to go to court and lie under oath to win a conviction against Hooks, according to Acosta. The charges of resisting arrest and assaulting a police officer brought against Hooks were later dropped by county prosecutors, and in 2004 the village paid Hooks $50,000 to settle a civil suit filed against Murphy.
Halprin said his client doesn’t deny that his actions were “not justified,” but reminded the judge that more than 40 people submitted letters to the court vouching for Murphy’s integrity. Further, since undergoing therapy for job-related stresses that Halprin claimed prompted his client’s aggressive behavior, the officer enjoyed a spotless record of exemplary service.
“He’s a good cop. He’s a courageous cop,” Halprin said of his client. “That doesn’t change the fact that five years ago he injured an innocent citizen.”
Murphy briefly addressed the judge directly and stated his regret for his handling of the 2003 arrest and the damage it has caused the police department and his family.
For the duration of the approximately 40 minute hearing, Murphy stood beside his defense attorney in front of the judge. Behind him, the gallery was filled with supporters. His wife, Dora Murphy, sat surrounded by family in the first row with a white handkerchief pressed to her face. When her husband turned from the bench after receiving his sentence, she embraced him, sobbing openly.
Murphy’s younger sister, Katie, left the courtroom in tears as the judge spelled out the terms of her brother’s punishment. Both Katie and Dora Murphy are employed by the village of Forest Park, Dora as the administrative assistant to Police Chief Jim Ryan.
Interspersed among family members were Commissioner Mike Curry and roughly a dozen uniformed officers from the Forest Park Police Department, including Ryan and Deputy Chief Tom Aftanas. Both men wrote letters to the court asking that Murphy be permitted to avoid prison. Immediately after the hearing adjourned, a tearful Murphy stood outside the courtroom receiving hugs from supporters and former colleagues. No witnesses were called to address the court on his behalf.
Murphy is scheduled to surrender himself on Sept. 8 to begin serving his sentence at a medium security prison in Oxford, Wis. Upon his release he must complete 200 hours of community service and will remain under the court’s supervision for one year. A fine of $1,000 was also handed down.
As a condition of his earlier plea agreement, Murphy is prohibited from working in law enforcement ever again.
The prison, some 60 miles north of Madison, houses approximately 1,100 male inmates. At the same location is a minimum security prison camp where former governor George Ryan began serving a multi-year term in November.