In his 26-year career on the bench, he’s had plenty of chances.
That fearlessness and fairness as a judge is what has made him a well-respected figure in the 2nd Judicial District in Bernalillo County, where for years he has carried one of the busiest dockets in the criminal division.
His rulings also often sparked criticism from members of the public who disagreed with some of his high-profile decisions – he was accused of being too harsh in his sentencing of a Marine and being too lenient when he allowed the early release of a criminal who turned out to be a serial killer.
But news of Murdoch’s arrest on rape charges involving a prostitute struck hard among those who have known and worked with him.
“It’s just too much,” said former Children’s Court Judge Marie Baca, a colleague of Murdoch’s not only on the bench but in the days when they both worked for the state Public Defenders Office in the early 1980s. “It’s one of those things when everybody stands back and looks fairly shocked about it all. We are shocked about it all.”
Murdoch, a 1978 graduate of the University of New Mexico School of Law and the youngest person ever appointed in New Mexico as a state district judge, is one of those rare judges who is liked equally by both prosecution and defense, the judge who new members of the bench seek out for guidance and old hands in court seek out to oversee their toughest cases.
“I did my very first trial in front of Murdoch in 1991,” Albuquerque attorney Lisa Torraco said. “He is a great judge, a wise judge, well-respected. He had the courage to stand up when many other people would have faltered.”
Perhaps no better example of that was the 2004 case against Elton Richard, a decorated Marine whom Murdoch sentenced to two years in prison for chasing down and killing a suspected thief.
It’s a case Murdoch called the toughest he ever handled, the one he struggled with more than any other, the one many feared would cost him his career when the public outcry grew louder than his attempts to explain his decision.
“Any decision I make in this case will be wrong,” Murdoch had once predicted.
Murdoch’s decision inspired a barrage of “letters to the editor,” made him the target of conservative talk radio show hosts and even inspired then-Gov. Bill Richardson to publicly denounce him for being too harsh.
Four months after imposing the sentence, Murdoch reversed himself and set Richard free, replacing prison with probation after he said that Richard had finally shown the remorse for his actions that he had failed to show at his sentencing.
Remorse is rarely something Murdoch has shown for his actions on the bench and beyond.
That confidence was honed early on when he learned to rise above the din of negativity and hardship as a child stricken with polio at 8 months old.
For years, he supported and coached a wheelchair basketball team for youths who, like him, wanted a chance to shine in the sports arena. Those efforts received national accolades in the 2003 documentary “Kiss My Wheels.”
Murdoch used crutches to get around the courthouse, preferring not to wear the judicial robes because they tangled with his stunted movements.
Murdoch’s popularity outside the judicial echelons of the Bernalillo County Courthouse was not always as sterling. Last year, he was roundly criticized by Metro Court judges and a wary public for his staunch support of the Community Custody Program. Despite the arrest of a key supervisor of the program on charges of taking bribes, Murdoch publicly announced that he remained confident in its operations.
Murdoch also came under fire in 2008 when the Journal reported he had ordered the early release of Clifton Bloomfield, then on community custody for an armed home invasion in which he held a gun to the head of one of his victims.
At the time, however, no one had realized Bloomfield was a serial killer, connected to three previous homicides or to two homicides that occurred after his release.
Court observers say Murdoch is willing to preside over the hectic and overburdened criminal division, the grand juries and other extra duties that other judges are loathe to volunteer for.
That may be why many fear his arrest will have a severe impact on how the court functions, given how many duties Murdoch performs.
Journal staff writers James Monteleone and Patrick Lohmann contributed to this report.
Other judges under microscope
- Here are some of the judicial misconduct cases that have damaged careers and reputations over the years:
- Appeals Court Judge Robert Robles resigned this year after a drunken driving arrest.
- Bernalillo County Metro Court Judge Victoria Grant retired in 2010, ending an investigation into allegations of judicial misconduct.
- District Judge Bob Schwartz of Albuquerque last year was reprimanded.
- Bernalillo County Metro Judge J. Wayne Griego was removed from the bench in 2008 for fixing traffic tickets.
- Appeals Judge Ira Robinson retired in 2008 rather than face misconduct allegations.
- Third Judicial District Judge Larry Ramirez of Las Cruces resigned in 2006 amid accusations of sexual harassment.
- District Judge Thomas Fitch of Socorro pleaded guilty to drunken driving in 2005 and resigned.
- W. John Brennan, former 2nd Judicial District Court chief judge, resigned in 2004 after he was arrested on drunken-driving and drug (cocaine) possession charges. He had been chief judge for almost two decades. Brennan later resigned and pleaded guilty
— This article appeared on page A1 of the Albuquerque Journal