It’s a moment that some thought would never arrive. But after almost three years of legal wrangling, a former Air Force Judge Advocate General, Colonel Michael Murphy, is finally facing a courts-martial.
Murphy was head of the USAF Legal Operations Agency (and on the fast-track to Brigadier General) back in 2006, when the service made a shocking discovery that derailed his career.
Based on an anonymous tip, Air Force investigators found that Colonel Murphy did not have a valid law license, a basic requirement for any military attorney. An inquiry revealed that Murphy was disbarred in Texas in 1983, and received similar punishment in Louisiana, when that state learned of his past problems with the Texas bar.
Somehow, Murphy managed to conceal his disbarment for over 20 years, and advanced steadily in the JAG Corps. Before his stint at the legal operations agency, Murphy was the senior legal officer for two Air Force commands and directed the school that trains the service’s new JAG officers. Sources suggest that Murphy’s checkered professional past was finally discovered during his screening for flag rank.
Colonel Murphy was summarily fired from his post and prosecutors filed a host of charges against him. But the disgraced JAG hired a first-class defense team, and they were successful in persuading prosecutors–and the judge–to reduce charges against their client. But most importantly, they launched a unique legal strategy, based on the “good airman” defense.
In a nutshell, the “good airman” rule says that military judges and juries must hear about the defendant’s positive military achievements before considering a potential verdict and punishment. Because the White House (where Murphy worked until 2003) refused to release details of Colonel Murphy’s “classified” work in Iraq, the defense argued that it could not present the “good airman” defense.
And the judge in the case, Army Colonel Stephen Henley concurred. Last September, he ruled that Murphy could not be punished for his crimes, even if convicted. Henley’s decision was later upheld by the Air Force Court of Criminal Appeals.
Which brings us to this week’s courts-martial at Bolling AFB in Washington, D.C. Colonel is now facing a total of two charges; three counts of conduct unbecoming an officer (related to his law license fraud) and one count of larceny. That later charge is presumably related to trips that Murphy took while claiming to be a licensed attorney.
On one hand, Air Force prosecutors deserve a nod for doggedly pursuing Colonel Murphy, despite the devastating rulings that largely destroyed their case. However, many legal experts wonder what the service can actually accomplish in that military courtroom. A conviction on some–or all–counts is possible, and Murphy could be sentenced to dismissal from service, the equivalent of a bad conduct discharge for enlisted members.
But analysts believe the more likely scenario goes something like this: Murphy is convicted on some counts and is reduced in rank to Lieutenant Colonel. That sort of sentence would allow him to retire from the Air Force, pension and health care benefits intact.
And it’s anything but a long shot. In one of the more infamous officer courts-martials in Air Force history, another Colonel (commander of an electronic combat squadron in Arizona) was found guilty on multiple counts of sexual misconduct. He actually spent a year in Leavenworth for his crimes, but was not dismissed from service. The Colonel emerged from the brig and retired. Today, he runs a large non-profit organization in a major U.S. city.
With that sort of precedent, Murphy has every reason to be optimistic. He fooled the USAF for more than two decades and beat the service’s best efforts to punish him for that deception. True, he’ll never practice law again, but Colonel Murphy has some very powerful friends who can help him secure civilian employment.
They are the same, former Bush Administration officials who declined to divulge Murphy’s duties in Iraq, establishing the grounds for that successful motion that undermined his courts-martial.