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Defense attacks friend's account of Thomas Murphy drinking before crash that killed scout

Alisa McMorris, mother of Andrew McMorris, leaves Suffolk

Alisa McMorris, mother of Andrew McMorris, leaves Suffolk County Court in Riverhead on Thursday, alongside the family's pastor, the Rev. Michael Staneck, after the third day of trial for Thomas Murphy. Credit: James Carbone

Calling him an "attention-seeking" liar, a defense attorney Thursday attacked the testimony of an Astoria man who said he witnessed Thomas Murphy downing vodka shortly before his friend crashed into a group of Boy Scouts, killing a 12-year-old boy.

Attorney Steven Politi spent more than three hours cross-examining Steven Meola, an unemployed doorman who has known Murphy for 35 years, during the third day of Murphy's trial in Riverhead.   

Prosecutors contend that Murphy, 60, of Holbrook, spent the morning of Sept. 30 downing vodka at the Swan Lake Golf Course in Manorville before driving his Mercedes SUV into a group of hiking Boy Scouts from Troop 161. The crash killed Andrew McMorris of Manorville and injured three others.

Meola, who doesn’t drink, told the jury of seven men and five women that Murphy and two other golfing buddies first polished off about eight ounces of vodka from a bottle that one of the men had brought to the course. Murphy, he said, then purchased three more mini vodka bottles on the 16th hole for himself and the two other golfers.

Meola said he offered to drive Murphy home because his friend was "drunk," slurring his words and having difficulty walking before leaving the golf course. 

But Politi said Meola "embellished" key details in his testimony for the prosecution, including the extent of Murphy's intoxication. He accused Meola of altering testimony from what he told a grand jury last year and exaggerating the depth of his friendship with Murphy to gain attention. Meola, he said, rarely spent time alone with Murphy and was invited to the golf outing at the last minute by two mutual friends.

"You are not [Murphy's] buddy," Politi said to Meola. "You are nobody's buddy."

Politi attempted to discredit Meola, accusing him of posting "perverted, disgusting and depraved" memes on Facebook — behavior that has caused him to be repeatedly suspended from the social media site. The posts, Politi said, were racist, homophobic and mocked the disabled.

"His testimony was untruthful, inconsistent, misleading and not worthy of being believed," Politi told reporters after court. "He is an attention-seeking disgrace. The fabrications that he makes about what he said to my client should not be believed. They are not backed up by anything."

Meola said he took no pleasure in testifying against his friend because "I didn't want to hurt Tom. But I need to tell the truth."

Politi disputed Meola's account, suggesting that a man of Murphy's size — roughly 350 pounds — would not be intoxicated after the amount of alcohol he is accused of drinking.

"The jury is going to be in charge of determining … whether or not it would be possible, based upon the consumption that comes out in court, for individuals of that size to be intoxicated," Politi told reporters.

Meola told prosecutors Thursday that he has trouble forgetting the fatal crash, which he witnessed from a car directly behind Murphy's SUV. 

"I keep reliving the moment of the accident," he said. "I keep waking up in a cold sweat."

Murphy has pleaded not guilty to a 16-count indictment charging him with aggravated vehicular homicide, assault and driving while intoxicated. If convicted, he faces 8 1/3 to 25 years in prison.

Alisa McMorris, Andrew’s mother, said the focus should be on her son and the pain he endured in the final hours of his young life.

"My baby screamed when he got hit and flailed his arms and landed awkwardly," McMorris told reporters after court. "He screamed in horror and then landed."

The trial, which is expected to last three to five weeks, will continue Tuesday.

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