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Judge wasn’t perfect, but he was very good

ALBUQUERQUE, N.M. — Years ago, the bailiff for then-state District Judge Albert S. “Pat” Murdoch remarked about how her boss was the judge most sought after by prosecutors, defense attorneys and law enforcement officers alike because of his judicial acumen, accessibility, fairness, firmness and mercy.

State District Judge Albert S. “Pat” Murdoch said the case he struggled with the most during his more than 20 years on the bench involved a former Marine accused of killing a burglar. (Marla Brose/Journal)

“Everyone loves him here,” she said.

But beyond the courtroom was another matter. Those with less loving thoughts knew Murdoch only by rumor and what they heard on radio talk shows or the nightly news.

They held a general disdain for Albuquerque’s judicial system – and for many, Murdoch was the face of that system.

They typically had never met him – or had while in shackles and jail scrubs.

So Murdoch’s bailiff said she often didn’t tell strangers whom she worked for.

It was 2008, the year her boss had shocked the city by sentencing decorated Marine and Iraq War veteran Elton Richard to two years of hard time and heavy restitution for chasing down and killing a would-be burglar. Murdoch reversed his sentence four months later, granting Richard probation and remarking that he had struggled with the case more than any other as a judge for the 2nd Judicial District.

When he was not on the bench, Albert S. “Pat” Murdoch spent much of his time at the gym coaching wheelchair basketball. (Jim Thompson/Journal)

Murdoch weathered the storm of criticism as usual, won his retention election that year and got on with his duties as the presiding judge of the overburdened criminal division in Bernalillo County, carrying one of the heaviest dockets in the state, overseeing grand juries, keeping himself available at all hours to sign warrants and answer media inquiries and helping new judges learn the ropes.

As a longtime criminal justice reporter, I had come to respect Murdoch. I had spent countless hours in his courtroom, wrote his formal name – including the curious “Pat” in quotation marks – so many times that it was second nature.

Nearly every horrible, high-profile case I covered – the rape and murder of Baby Miranda, the fatal shooting of five people across the city in a day, the gangland torture and execution of a teenager in a city park – had been before Murdoch.

He was a good judge, and I was a witness to that.

Two years later, I bumped into Murdoch’s bailiff in, of all places, a Denver restaurant. She had left the courthouse to pursue her dream of going to culinary school.

We talked about how Murdoch had been like a father to her, a kind but demanding boss who worked long, hard hours taking cases no other judge wanted to touch.

Childhood polio required him to use crutches and kept him from growing beyond 5 feet tall, but to her he was a giant among men.

He was that to many of us.

“He’s such a good judge, a brave man,” she said. “If you don’t like him, you don’t know him.”

A year later, Murdoch was also gone from the courthouse. In a stinging, stunning fall from grace, he was arrested in 2011 on salacious charges involving a prostitute suspected of trying to extort him.

The charges never stuck – they were dropped a month later and never refiled – and they had the stink of something retaliatory, shady or weird.

But the damage was done. Murdoch knew that the law he loved and the job he had done so well were lost to him. He immediately stepped down from the bench. He showed up at his arraignment, a rare thing for high-profile defendants who typically hide from the cruel spotlight and scrutiny.

Less than a week later, he agreed to resign and never again serve as a judge in New Mexico.

He left behind 1,433 cases on his docket, a lot of broken hearts and a large hole at the Bernalillo County Courthouse.

Even that did not totally crush Murdoch. He posted occasional jokes, words of encouragement and comments on Facebook, continued his work with a wheelchair basketball team, maintained friendships with the many people who knew that he was much more than his sins and his shortcomings.

He died Monday, almost a month after turning 67 on his St. Patrick’s Day birthday. Those who had practiced before him – judges, prosecutors, attorneys, law enforcement officers, past and present – grieved his passing, paying tribute to his legacy and his friendship on Facebook posts.

Those who didn’t know him were less charitable, the distinction between the righteous and the wicked blurred by time and Google searches.

It was like his bailiff had said years ago: If you didn’t like him, you didn’t know him.

Murdoch was not a perfect man. We knew that. And maybe that’s what made him a good judge.

We knew that, too.


UpFront is a front-page news and opinion column. Comment directly to Joline at 823-3603, jkrueger@abqjournal.com or follow her on Twitter @jolinegkg. Go to www.abqjournal.com/letters/new to submit a letter to the editor.

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