Dennis Murphy passed away at home in his sleep on March 22, 2017, after several years of being progressively weakened by neurodegenerative illness. He was Director of Training at the Legal Aid Society, where he overflowed with more ideas for projects in a single conversation than most people come up with in a whole career. He read widely, knew everybody, and delighted in bringing people together: attorneys, law professors, experts, academics in all fields and anyone whose knowledge he thought would make us better lawyers. Being a lawyer wasn’t just about doing the next case. It was also about ideas: “Never let the urgent drive out the important,” he said. So, training could be anything from how to litigate a suppression hearing to investigating a mock crime scene to looking at paintings at the Metropolitan Museum, the lesson being that there’s always more than meets the eye.
When walking became too difficult, he adopted a bright red golf-cart-like vehicle, adeptly tooling around the office. We never heard him grumble or complain, even when being kept waiting in the lobby for hours to be picked up by Access-a-Ride. “At least they give same-day service,” he’d say.
Dennis was married to Dr. Maureen O’Connor, a lawyer and psychologist who headed the Psychology Department at John Jay College and then the Doctoral Program in Psychology at CUNY. When she was appointed President of Palo Alto University last August, this seemed like a perfect move for them and their daughter Katy, just out of college. Asked about his plans, Dennis happily answered, “I’m going to sit in a jacuzzi and catch up on my reading.”
Here’s his farewell to Legal Aid:
This is goodbye from Dennis. Maureen, Katy, and I leave for California on Tuesday, June 21st. If you count my short tenure as an alcohol tax inspector for ATF in San Francisco in the early 1970’s, this marks my 44th year in the larger world of law and justice. 12 jobs in 44 years. Lots of challenges, friends, mentors, mentees, and lots of clients. Being a public defender – representing poor people in misdemeanors, felonies, and capital cases and providing training to public defenders – has been the highlight of my career. I’ve made monumental mistakes and left some aspirational projects on the table, unfinished. And there have been successes, but I’ll let others do the math.
One thing is certain: any accomplishments owe much to others with whom I’ve worked side-by-side. The list is embarrassingly long [followed by a very long list]. Thanks so much to everyone.
But it’s all about our clients, isn’t it? My “five year plan” – renewed annually – has been for us to change the “talk” at Rikers Island from “I got a public pretender” to a proud thump on the chest “I’ve got Legal Aid!” We’re not there yet, nor is any other PD. But we must keep trying! Love your clients, no matter how they treat you. Go to Rikers and visit them; it’s amazing how that can transform an attorney-client relationship. Even so, you’ll never get the number of “thank you’s” that you deserve. Treasure the ones you receive.
Enough preaching. I love you all. If you are in the Bay area, let me know. And in case you haven’t seen me wrestling Victor the Bear, please review the attached critically.
Dennis (far left)