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Long IslandCrime

Dozens of prospective jurors in Boy Scout death case say they can't be fair

Thomas Murphy leaves courtroom at Suffolk County Court

Thomas Murphy leaves courtroom at Suffolk County Court in Riverhead on Thursday, after jury selection wrapped up for the day. Murphy faces a trial on charges that he drove drunk and killed Boy Scout Andrew McMorris. Credit: James Carbone

Jury selection in the trial of the Holbrook man accused of driving drunk and fatally striking a Boy Scout began Thursday with dozens of prospective jurors saying they couldn't be impartial due to the case's publicity and the emotional toll of considering evidence of a child's death. 

Defendant Thomas Murphy, 60, has pleaded not guilty to charges including aggravated vehicular homicide in connection with the Sept. 30, 2018, Manorville crash that killed Andrew McMorris, 12, and injured another Scout. The trial is set for next month. 

Out of a pool of more than 80 prospective jurors interviewed by acting Supreme Court Justice Fernando Camacho in a Riverhead courtroom Thursday, just 17 said they could be fair and impartial in the case. They were instructed to return to court later for additional screening. 

While jury selection is often a staid process, emotions were on display at times Thursday. One woman sobbed as she told the judge she was a neighbor of the slain Scout's aunts. Others cited their own children as reason for their inability to put aside their feelings about the death of a pre-teen boy and consider the facts of the case. Some people said they would be biased due to a connection to the Boy Scouts organization.

"Oh my God," Raymond MacMorris, a Port Jefferson resident who works in construction, said quietly to himself as the judge recited details of the allegations against Murphy. 

MacMorris, in a later conversation with the judge, recalled that he read newspaper articles about Andrew McMorris' death. 

"When I read that, I started crying," said MacMorris, who was dismissed.

Camacho told the prospective jurors that the trial is slated to begin next month and could last anywhere from three to five weeks.

Prosecutors Brendan Ahern and Raymond Varuolo, as well as defense attorneys Steven Politi and Caroline Mayrhofer, took notes as each prospective juror was quizzed by Camacho on whether they had heard about the case. Camacho asked them to detail where and what they heard and whether they could put aside that information and carefully consider the evidence at trial.

While a few people said they had not heard about the case previously, the overwhelming majority said they had seen or read news accounts, read about it on social media or discussed it with family or co-workers.

Ibrahim Avuvakar told the judge he heard about the allegations from his co-workers at a Smithtown steakhouse.

“It just gave me a bad judgment” of the defendant, Avuvakar said. He was dismissed.

Politi said he is likely to ask for the trial to be moved from Suffolk County, citing pre-trial publicity.

"After the first day, I think it was pretty evident that it's going to be extremely difficult, if not impossible, to empanel a jury that hasn't read news accounts that would prevent them from being impartial,"  Politi said. "Based on today, it's becoming increasingly apparent that a change of venue may be necessary." 

The district attorney's office declined to comment. 

Three of the prospective jurors who were screened Thursday referenced the Scouts being struck or McMorris being killed “on the side of the road,” which Politi said showed an acceptance of the prosecution’s theory of the case. Politi said he would probably present an alternate theory to jurors – that the Scouts were in the road when they were struck.

Ahern has previously called that assertion “false information.”

Before the questioning of prospective jurors began, Murphy, who was seated at the defense table with his lawyers, briefly fell ill. After a short break, Murphy returned to the courtroom and assured the judge that he was ready to proceed.

“I’m fine, your honor,” Murphy said. “You can keep going.”

Jury selection continues Friday and is expected to last several days.

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