Court rejects convicted murderer Thomas Murray’s challenge of prison sentence

A Douglas County judge has rejected a former Kansas State University English professor’s attempt to challenge his prison sentence for the killing of his ex-wife in 2003.

Douglas County District Judge Robert Fairchild issued the decision Tuesday, in a lawsuit that Thomas E. Murray, 56, filed challenging the legality of his prison sentence of 25 years to life. He was convicted in the stabbing death of Carmin Ross, whose body was discovered Nov. 14, 2003, in her home in the near Lakeview, in the 1800 block of East 1150 Road.

In a 2005 trial that Fairchild presided over, a Douglas County jury convicted Murray of first-degree murder.

Thomas E. Murray, left, leans in as he talks with his attorney, Adam Hall, on Jan. 23, during a civil case aimed at overthrowing his 2005 sentencing in the November 2003 murder of his ex-wife, Carmin D. Ross at her rural Douglas County home. On Tuesday, a Douglas County judge rejected Murray's argument that his defense attorneys were ineffective.

In January, Murray’s court-appointed attorney, Adam Hall, argued that the defense attorneys who represented him in the murder trial failed to respond to problems with the state’s DNA evidence and search warrants. The lawsuit proceeded as a civil case under a law that allows prisoners to challenge their sentences.

Hall argued that a DNA expert for the prosecution at trial perjured himself by testifying contrary to his initial report, and that Murray’s trial defense attorneys were professionally ineffective because they did not hire their own expert or object to the testimony. According to this argument, the expert found in his initial report an “unknown contributor” in a blood sample mixed with Ross’ blood on a baseboard in Ross’ bathroom, but later testified that he believed the DNA belonged to Murray.

Murray also claimed the search warrants police obtained for his home, car and computers were defective, and that his trial attorneys should have tried to quash them.

Murray has been in El Dorado Correctional Facility, in Butler County, since he was found guilty. His conviction was upheld on appeal in a unanimous 2008 decision by the Kansas Supreme Court, and his earliest release date under the current sentence is Oct. 4, 2029. The story of Ross’ murder and Murray’s trial has been the subject of a 2009 book and television specials on CBS’ “48 Hours” and Court TV.

At the time of the murder, Murray and Ross, a 40-year-old attorney, conflict mediator and peace advocate, were in a post-divorce custody battle over their daughter, who was 4 at the time.

Ross had been beaten, then stabbed 13 times in the neck and back.

Early on, Murray was a prime suspect, but he wasn’t arrested and charged until nearly a year later. No physical evidence tied him conclusively to the scene of the crime, but prosecutors showed Murray had performed Internet searches for terms such as “how to murder someone and not get caught.” He also had cuts and bruises on his hands and arms and was inconsistent in his story to investigators. Murray was convicted after a five-week trial, but has denied committing the murder.

On Tuesday the judge ruled that Murray’s attorneys did present an acceptable defense and rejected Murray’s challenge of his sentence. In the decision, Fairchild wrote that the defense attorneys were reasonable in not challenging the search warrants and evidence because such challenges would have likely been unsuccessful. Murray was videotaped giving detectives permission to search his belongings and signed consent forms during police interviews the night Ross’ body was found.

The attorneys were also within reason, Fairchild wrote, in not hiring a DNA expert or objecting to testimony of the state’s expert witness. Murray did not produce evidence that the expert had perjured himself, according to Fairchild, and the DNA evidence presented was inconclusive. Murray’s trial attorneys testified they did not hire their own expert because they feared more forensic tests could produce evidence that would hurt Murray’s case.

Adam Hall, Murray’s court-appointed attorney, said Thursday that Murray might appeal Fairchild’s ruling to the Kansas Court of Appeals.