Archive for Monday, March 7, 2005

Professor presents study in contrasts

Thomas Murray alternately presented as mild, charming — and cold-blooded

March 7, 2005

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Professor Thomas E. Murray told police his father-in-law, Danny Ross, once made fun of him for being too meek and mild-mannered.

Now, Murray is on trial for what prosecutors allege was one of the most brutal killings in Douglas County's history: the bludgeoning and repeated stabbing of his ex-wife, Carmin D. Ross.

On Friday, during a trial recess at Douglas County District Court, Murray and his former father-in-law stood facing each other in the courtroom about six paces apart. Murray talked with his team of attorneys gathered around him. Danny Ross stood alone and stared straight at Murray.

Prosecutors have spent the past three weeks trying to convince jurors that the man Danny Ross once knew as mild-mannered is someone not only capable of killing, but fiendish enough to plot the perfect murder, destroy evidence and create an elaborate alibi.

Even when interviewed by police in November 2003, the professor seemed to be thinking ahead to what might happen at a trial. He told detectives he knew he was a likely suspect and that if he ended up on trial, he'd make the best of it.

"I'll look right at the jury, and I'll tell them the same story," he told two skeptical police officers at his interrogation. "If I get 12 people like you, well, woe is me."

Scholar in the courtroom

Murray today will begin his fourth week on trial in District Court on a charge of first-degree murder. More than 40 witnesses have testified so far, including police, family friends and Kansas State University students who took classes from Murray.

During breaks in the trial, Murray is polite -- even charming -- with the sheriff's deputies who lead him in and out of the courtroom.

"Are you my escort today?" he asked a female deputy on Thursday as they walked out of court together.

Murray writes notes to himself on a yellow legal pad during trial. He often grimaces and shakes his head at testimony, and his chin trembled when prosecutors showed photos of Ross' disfigured upper body.

It's unknown whether Murray will take the stand in his defense, as he told detectives he would.

The bookends of the prosecution's case are the video of Murray's interrogation by police, which was one of the first pieces of evidence shown, and evidence from Murray's computers that showed he searched the Internet for terms including "how to murder someone and not get caught."

The detective who examined Murray's computer is expected to be one of the last witnesses.

Defense attorneys have hired a local psychologist to help advise them about how to present the case. They've argued there is no physical evidence that ties Murray to the crime -- not a single hair, shoeprint, fiber or fingerprint; not even the blood from Ross that Murray told police they'd find in his car.

In opening statements, defense attorneys said all police have is a hunch, and they repeatedly use the words "hunch" and "guess" as they question the witnesses.

'Kicked in the teeth'

Throughout the trial, jurors have seen evidence that paints Murray as a man who preferred his life to be predictable and routine.

In the police interview shown to jurors, Murray called himself a "cheapskate." His mother-in-law, Judi Ross, testified Murray didn't like to waste gasoline and once returned a watch given as a gift because he already had a watch.

Murray stands about 6 feet 2 inches. He told detectives he worked out regularly in his home and said he played semi-pro baseball -- pitcher and first base -- as a teenager.

One of Murray's colleagues from the Kansas State University English department testified that Murray once said he never wanted to have children.

But in 1998, after he and Ross were married for 13 years, Ross gave birth to a girl, Ciara.

Ross, an attorney and mediator who became a stay-at-home mother, grew more unhappy with Murray and felt she was being controlled, a friend testified. Eventually, she filed for divorce and moved to Lawrence after meeting a man at an alternative-healing conference.

Murray said Ross was attracted to Lawrence because it was more "countercultural and funky" than Manhattan.

"She told me that I was no longer integral to her life path," Murray told police.

Once Ross left, all Murray had was his career and his daughter, he told police. He told them he didn't want to start dating because he had "baggage" and had "been there, done that ... been kicked in the teeth."

Too smart

Prosecutors allege Murray snapped when Ross told him she wanted to move to California and gain primary custody of their daughter.

"I never wanted Carmin dead," Murray told detectives. "I wanted her reasonable."

Prosecutors say Murray dropped off his daughter early with a baby sitter in Manhattan, drove to Lawrence, struck Ross in the head repeatedly, pursued her as she crawled across her living room, grabbed a knife from the knife block in her kitchen, then stabbed her again and again in the front of her neck.

No murder weapon has been recovered, and the baby sitter insists the jacket and shoes police seized from Murray's home based on her description weren't the same clothes he was wearing that day.

Three family friends have described a horrible smell in Murray's home. Detectives searched his fireplace for traces of evidence but found nothing that could be linked directly to the crime.

In the nine-hour videotaped interrogation -- what could be jurors' only chance to hear from Murray -- he told police he knew he'd be a likely suspect.

But he gave a variety of reasons why police shouldn't consider him. One was that he was simply too smart to do what police suggested he had done.

If he'd killed Ross, he said, he wouldn't have done it in a physically violent way likely to leave evidence behind. And he wouldn't have changed his story at key points -- such as initially telling police he'd been home all morning, then changing the story to say he'd gone driving toward Topeka.

"I've had a day and a half to think the whole thing through," he told them. "I wouldn't wait until the 24th hour to come up with an explanation. That's not the way a thinking man works."

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