Friday, October 15, 2010
by Donna Pendergast
The Frank Murphy Hall of Justice is the home to the prosecutor's office and the Criminal Circuit Courts in Wayne County, Michigan. Named for a former Michigan governor and, later, a United State Supreme Court justice, "the Murph," as it is known for short, is a twelve-floor concrete structure surrounded on two sides by jails. It looms over Gratiot Avenue, a main artery leading into downtown Detroit.
A stark example of the appropriately named Brutalist style of architecture, the raw concrete high-rise is symbolic of the gritty nature of the business that takes place inside its walls. If those walls could only speak, the stories that they could tell. Having spent three years as a prosecutor at the Murph, I can tell you that it is a universe unto itself. I often used to say that a book a day could be written about what transpires within those walls. That is probably a conservative estimate. Things happen within the Murph on a daily basis that cause the uninitiated to drop their jaws in disbelief. A common saying for those desensitized to the drama is "only at the Murph" as they shake their heads over yet another bizarre story.
An introduction to the Murph begins at the multiple glass entry doors in the front, guarded by sheriff's deputies, through which all visitors (other than judges) must enter. Prosecutors, police officers and court staff wearing identification are waved through a lane on one side of the entrance. Defense attorneys, jurors, defendants and other visitors wait in lines often out the doors to pass through several lanes of metal detectors, much like those at an airport.
Once through the bottleneck, a bizarre parade of characters jumble together in a mob race to enter the bank of elevators just around the corner. People often stand two or three deep waiting for the privilege of packing themselves tightly into the elevator cars. There are no distinctions on the elevator; attorneys, defendants and court personnel pack together like sardines to travel to their intended destinations.
The characters who troll the Murph's hallways are often straight from central casting. Everyone knows "The Chief" a distinctively raspy voiced defense attorney named Robert Mitchell who often walks around cigar in mouth and takes no guff from his clients. And no one who has been initiated to the Murph bats an eye when Assistant Prosecutor Luke Skywalker announces his name on the record in court. Yes, there truly is an assistant prosecutor who legally changed his name to Luke Skywalker. Only at the Murph
The top four floors of the Murph house the prosecutors offices. Levels two through eight are taken up by courtrooms, four to a floor, two at each end of the hallway. Wooden benches line each side of the hallway between those courtrooms. Victims, families, lawyers and defendants camp out on those benches while awaiting court hearings and during breaks in the action. On any given day, TV crews from the local or even national news can be seen moving through those halls, equipment in hand, rushing to cover the the drama unfolding in one courtroom or another. Robbery, rape and murder are the standard fare for any courtroom at the Murph, and there is never a dull moment. Bomb threats requiring evacuation and building disasters like the overflowing toilet that recently flooded out two courtrooms are commonplace and barely cause comment as people scurry about their business.
The tension can often be felt in the air. Placing defendants, victims and their families in close proximity often makes for a volatile situation. Emotions are often raw and the drama can be intense. Fights and brawls can break out in a flash in the halls or even courtrooms. The sheriff's deputies assigned two or three to a courtroom are well trained to respond in a split second. They are so used to trouble and so attuned to the mood of their surroundings that a raised voice in the hallway brings them to their feet and out the door in a split second. When the all-too frequent fight or brawl breaks out, multiple deputies appear seemingly out of nowhere to squelch whatever situation is about to boil over or has boiled over already. Yet, despite the fights and drama, I've never felt threatened or unsafe while working at the Murph.
Despite my lack of fear, dangerous situations can and do occur in the Murph. Recently, a potential disaster was avoided when the chief judge received a note advising him that a defendant scheduled for trial in his courtroom the next day was armed with a knife and intended to go after the judge to kill him. A search of the prisoner's holding cell just a short distance from the judges bench revealed a homemade knife. As it turns out, the informant sending the note had been prosecuted by the judge years earlier when the judge was an assistant prosecutor and had felt he had been treated fairly. He wanted to make sure that the judge who had once put him in prison was warned about the potential danger to his life. Only at the Murph.
On another occasion, a defendant who was out on bond during trial did go after the judge. As soon as the jurors were taken out of the courtroom post-verdict, the defendant jumped over a table and lunged at the judge. The defendant had secreted a large razor blade in the cuff of his leather jacket and managed to make it through the metal detectors undetected. The courtroom deputies brought the defendant to the ground before he reached the judge, but, in the process, one deputy was badly cut in the arm. The hysterical jurors who heard the courtroom commotion from the sanctuary of their jury room had to be calmed down by another judge, while the first judge insisted on traveling to the hospital with his deputy. Only at the Murph.
Maybe that's why the movie "Presumed Innocent" and scenes from the new TV hit "Detroit 187" were filmed in the Murph. When it comes to drama, it doesn't get any better.
Just another day at the Murph.
Statements made in this post are my own and are not intended to reflect the views, thoughts or position of the Michigan Attorney General or the Michigan Department of Attorney General.