A Suffolk County judge Wednesday sentenced a Holbrook man -- convicted of driving drunk into a group of Boy Scouts and killing a seventh-grader -- to the maximum allowable punishment, saying the man’s action "caused a trail of unending tears."
Capping a day of raw emotions and heart-wrenching grief from both the victim and defendant's families, Acting State Supreme Court Justice Fernando Camacho sentenced Thomas Murphy, 61, to 8 ⅓ to 25 years in prison, two years to the day after the Manorville crash killed 12-year-old Andrew McMorris and injured three other boys.
The sentence, which was executed immediately, was handed down after Camacho rejected efforts by Murphy's defense team for a new trial after dismissing allegations of juror misconduct during the 5 1/2-week 2019 trial.
Camacho said while Murphy had caused "tremendous destruction" he was not a "a horrible man. Not a monster. Not evil. He led a decent, good life. He was a decent man."
But Camacho, who appeared visibly anguished as family members described the seventh grader's short but far-reaching life, said Murphy was solely responsible for the crash and must take responsibility for his crimes.
"This needless, selfish, reckless act caused the death of a beautiful 12-year-old boy," he said. "This selfish, reckless act caused so much suffering and so much pain."
Murphy looked straight ahead during the proceedings, hands gripped under his gold tie and his face nearly fully covered by a mask. He never looked in the direction of the victim's family members, even as they addressed him directly, and appeared emotionless as Camacho handed down the sentence.
Andrew’s father, John McMorris, an assistant Scout leader who was with his son on the hike and held his lifeless body on the side of David Terry Road, said he has suffered from nightmares for two years.
"Losing Andrew is like losing my own heart," McMorris said during one of eight victim's impact statements delivered inside a Riverhead courtroom Wednesday. "I literally feel like I lost a vital part of my own body."
Suffolk County Assistant District Attorney Brendan Ahern said Murphy deserved the maximum sentence because Andrew's family is suffering a "life sentence" of grief.
"Even today, he has no remorse," Ahern said of Murphy.
Murphy did not speak at the trial or at sentencing, but defense attorney Steve Politi read a letter from the defendant's daughter, who asked the court to show leniency. A court officer brought tissues to Murphy's family as the letter was read.
"My heart breaks for the McMorris family," the letter read. "My heart breaks for my dad."
After the sentence was imposed, Thomas Murphy was immediately taken away in handcuffs, as his wife Jackie screamed out: "This is unbelievable. I can’t even give him a hug?"
Moments later, Jackie Murphy collapsed into the arms of her two daughters as she waited for a courthouse elevator and lay motionless on the floor for several minutes. Court officers administered oxygen to her as reporters were ushered from the area.
Defense attorney Steve Politi said the sentence was "unfair" and excessive, given his client's age, health and previously clean criminal record.
Politi, who plans to appeal, continued to argue that the crash was a "tragic accident" and that his client was not legally intoxicated when he got behind the wheel of his white Mercedes SUV. Before sentencing, Politi submitted 100 letters from community members in support of Murphy receiving the minimum sentence.
Politi said Murphy lived "an exemplary life" before the crash and has not driven a car or drank alcohol in two years. He noted that his client shows up for court every day with his family and has treated the court with respect throughout the process.
"It’s hard to have remorse for something you don’t believe you did," said Politi, who argued that the maximum sentence would amount to a death sentence for his client, citing his heart issues and the risk of contracting coronavirus. "If he could switch place with Andrew McMorris he would do so in a heartbeat."
Prosecutors contended Murphy spent hours before the crash drinking vodka at the Swan Lake Golf Club in Manorville with three friends. Roughly a mile from the golf course, Murphy crossed a white fog line and crashed into the Scouts, who were on a 20-mile hike, prosecutors said.
The crash injured three other Scouts from Troop 161: Thomas Lane and his older brother Dennis Lane, both of Shoreham, and Kaden Lynch of Calverton.
Murphy refused a Breathalyzer test, and blood tests four hours later showed his blood alcohol content to be .13%, well above the legal limit of 0.08%.
Murphy initially expressed remorse for the crash and indicated a willingness to accept responsibility for Andrew’s death.
But he later decided to go to trial after unsuccessfully negotiating a plea deal with Suffolk County District Attorney Timothy Sini’s office, which would have spared the family a painful trial.
"We spent two years essentially arguing what my brother's life was worth," Andrew’s sister Arianna McMorris said.
During the trial, more than a dozen witnesses testified about the moments leading up to the crash, including Murphy's golfing companions.
Steven Meola, the only one of the quartet not to drink alcohol during the round, testified that he attempted to take Murphy's keys and offered to drive him home but his offers were rejected. Politi attacked Meola's character, citing his social media posts, and argued that the alcohol consumption was significantly less than he described.
The defense attorney argued throughout the trial that the boys were walking in the roadway and that the crash was unavoidable. He said Suffolk police officers, medical examiner's office technicians, laboratory experts — and even the Scouts and their parents — had fabricated, manipulated or altered evidence to convict his client and reach a predetermined narrative of his guilt.
But the strategy was unsuccessful.
Murphy was convicted in December of two counts of aggravated vehicular homicide, second-degree manslaughter, second-degree assault, second-degree vehicular manslaughter; two counts of second-degree vehicular assault; driving while intoxicated; two counts of third-degree assault, reckless driving and second-degree reckless endangerment.
On Wednesday, Camacho vacated two counts — an aggravated vehicular homicide charge and second-degree assault — because they were "repetitive" and based on identical evidence to other charges that Murphy was convicted on. The move did not impact the sentence.
Earlier this year, as Murphy was preparing to face sentencing following the court's closure during the coronavirus pandemic, Politi made a new argument — that members of the jury had improperly discussed the case before deliberations, potentially impairing the partiality of the verdict.
One-by-one, the 12 deliberating jurors and six alternates were called back to the courtroom, this time as subpoenaed witnesses to discuss their actions and those of their fellow jurors. While a handful of jurors alleged inappropriate conduct, including one who reportedly criticized the testimony of a defense witness, others denied the allegations.
No juror confessed to discussing the case or that any of the conversations had affected the verdict.
On Wednesday, Camacho denied Politi's request to set aside the verdict, noting that "isolated remarks" by jurors do not rise to the level of juror misconduct and prejudicial behavior.
"Jurors are human beings," Camacho said, adding that individuals stuck in a room together for weeks will talk despite his orders not to. "They are not robots."
More than 100 McMorris family members and supporters, wearing red in solidarity with Andrew, packed the court Wednesday, filling three courtrooms. Tears and sniffles were audible as friends and family struggled to control their emotions.
Andrew's mother, Alisa McMorris, spoke for nearly 45 minutes in graphic detail about her son's horrific injuries and holding his hand as he drew his last breath at 4:07 a.m. on Oct. 1, 2018.
McMorris said the anguish has been "indescribable" as she suffers from stomach pains, headaches and insomnia. She dwells often on the moments in Andrew's life — a first kiss, high school graduation, marriage and fatherhood — that her son will never experience.
"I feel part of me unraveling. My soul is shattered and the pieces of me will never be put back together," she said. "The hole will always be there."
Speaking after the sentencing, Sini said "today, justice was served."
Chris McGrath, an attorney representing the McMorris family in a civil case against Murphy, said the sentencing brings his clients no joy.
"There is no celebration tonight for a heartbroken McMorris family — nothing will bring Andrew back," McGrath said. "We will continue to fight for justice in the civil case, where he will again have to answer for his negligent and reckless decisions made two years ago today."
With Cecilia Dowd