James Murphy III was starting to sweat his first appearance as an assistant district attorney on his drive to Saratoga County Court.
Then a 26-year-old antitrust lawyer hired out of New York City, he was en route to a preliminary hearing in which he’d face a seasoned defense attorney recently retired from the homicide bureau of the Westchester County District Attorney’s Office. His apprehension over facing the formidable opponent was only trumped by his concern over having almost no practice in criminal procedure.
“I had no idea what a preliminary hearing was,” confessed Murphy, now 52. “I was praying for red lights along the way because I was able to open the penal law and read what I was about to go do.”
The affable prosecutor gutted through the hearing, emerged successful and from it built a storied career in the District Attorney’s Office that extended from the late 1980s until his resignation Thursday morning. Murphy, who is the odds-on favorite to replace retiring Saratoga County Court Judge Jerry Scarano next year, vacated the post he’s held since 1998 and the office where he’s served since 1988.
Re-elected last November, Murphy leaves office with three years left on his term and more than three months before Scarano will vacate the bench. In doing so, he’ll leave roughly $45,000 in salary on the table, abandon his benefits as a county employee and place himself at the mercy of voters in November.
But the decision was easy, Murphy said. If he didn’t resign, and then won the as-yet uncontested election Nov. 4, the Republican would leave a vacancy to be filled by Gov. Andrew Cuomo — a Democrat likely to win a new term in November — until an election could be conducted in November 2015.
“There would be turnover at that point,” said Murphy, standing with some of his office’s 21 appointees. “Many if not all of the appointed positions — the at-will positions — would likely be terminated and replaced by the political appointee’s people.”
And that could mean potential delays in cases, Murphy said. Or possibly even changes in plea agreements that are now being drawn up by his assistants.
“I just can’t imagine saying to that person ‘well your case has slipped through the cracks’ or ‘there’s been hiccups in the case’ or ‘there’s been delays’ because the district attorney has been replaced with a political appointee,” he said during a news conference Thursday.
This morning, Karen Heggen, Murphy’s second-in-command, will be sworn in as the county’s acting district attorney and continue overseeing the prosecution of the roughly 500 felony cases now in progress. Heggen, a Republican, also happens to be the only announced candidate to succeed Murphy in November’s election for district attorney — a sprint race he touched off with his resignation.
Heggen came to the District Attorney’s Office as a part-time prosecutor 22 years ago. When Murphy was first elected in 1997, he called on her to be a full-time assistant district attorney.
“He said ‘Karen, I’d like you to close your private practice and join me full-time here,’ ” she recalled. “He said ‘I need a right hand to help me around the office,’ and I say to you today there’s never been a day I’ve regretted the decision to do that.”
The District Attorney’s Office has evolved and grown substantially during Murphy’s 26-year stint. Since taking over the top post, he has substantially expanded the number of assistant prosecutors in the office and placed an enhanced focus on serving victims of crime.
One case he prosecuted in 1994 — against Sylvain Turcotte, an Essex County man who murdered his wife and mother-in-law with two blasts from a 12-gauge shotgun in Moreau — resulted in two consecutive life terms in prison, the longest sentence ever handed out in County Court.
“It is certainly a bittersweet day for me. I have loved this job … but I have left it in a wonderful place.” Murphy said. “I can rest assured the right thing has been done.”
The Saratoga Springs resident is married with two daughters.
His departure left his staff with heavy hearts, but proud for their boss and expectant they’ll see him again on the bench. Assistant District Attorney Jim Davis — who secured a guilty plea last year from Dennis Drue for a double vehicular homicide case on the Northway in 2012 — said Murphy’s skill as the county’s top prosecutor will serve him well as a judge.
“I know his judgment and I know his temperament,” he said. “The same skills that are important in managing an office this size are going to serve him well as a judge.”
Though announced Thursday, Murphy’s decision was anything but a surprise to county Democrats, who suspected he’d leave in time to trigger an election this November. Earlier this week, county committee chairman Todd Kerner bristled at the prospect of Murphy’s resignation, accusing him of playing politics to protect his appointees.
The Democrats were expected to meet Thursday evening to discuss the district attorney’s seat in addition to discussing whether they’ll field a candidate to oppose Murphy for county judge.
Heggen’s challenger may well be a familiar face from the District Attorney’s Office. Republican David Harper — Murphy’s former first assistant, now retired — is mulling a run if he can get backing from the Democrats.
“It’s under consideration,” he said. “It would have to be a major party line, so that would have to be the Democrats.”
Harper isn’t considering changing his affiliation, though he doesn’t see that as an issue. He believes the District Attorney’s Office should be neutral, much in the way the bench remains outside of politics.
“Personal political views should have no impact on the way a district attorney’s office is run,” he said.