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Queens Chronicle

QUEENS VOTES: 2019 Meet the GOP’s Queens DA candidate

Former NYPD cop Joe Murray talks criminal justice issues, background

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Posted: Thursday, October 3, 2019 10:30 am | Updated: 12:13 pm, Thu Oct 10, 2019.

Republican candidate Joe Murray didn’t start officially running for Queens district attorney until late in the summer. But the ex-cop, now-defense lawyer had long been thinking of going for the job.

“I was thinking about it before the [Democratic] primary because I just didn’t like the way the office was operating,” Murray said in a sitdown interview with the Queens Chronicle last Friday. He will face Borough President Melinda Katz, the Democratic nominee, in the Nov. 5 general election.

The longtime Queens DA, Richard Brown, announced in January that he wouldn’t run for re-election. He died in May.

The Queens County Republican Party selected Murray to run over the summer and secured a place for him on the ballot with a Wilson-Pakula certificate.

The Howard Beach native took issue with the Queens District Attorney’s Office’s controversial felony plea policy — under which defendants must waive their rights to a speedy trial and be indicted or prosecutors won’t negotiate with them. It would also refuse to consider mitigating factors and in other ways lacked “compassion,” Murray said.

“Things like that were bothering me,” said the defense attorney, who lives in Bellerose.

A registered Democrat from a union family, Murray agrees with criminal justice advocates on certain issues, like discovery reform and changing the laws to ensure defendants have speedy trials.

But on other major issues, he’s a staunch conservative. For example, he’s totally committed to working closely with U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement — a policy that some of the Democratic primary candidates said they would never follow if elected.

Unlike Katz, he wouldn’t sign on to a lawsuit from state Attorney General Letitia James and Brooklyn District Attorney Eric Gonzalez seeking to ban ICE agents from making arrests in and around courthouses.

“There is no legal basis whatsoever for a state official to file an action to preclude the federal government from acting on federal law,” Murray said.

Katz also wants to shut down the Rikers Island jail system.

Her Republican opponent — who has often gone to the penal complex to meet clients — doesn’t quite agree.

“Closing Rikers Island? Why?” he said. “Does anybody realize what they’re talking about? I don’t get it.”

The de Blasio administration plans to shut down Rikers and replace it with four borough-based facilities, including one at the site of the former House of Detention in Kew Gardens.

Murray agrees that the existing jail complex is extremely violent and needs to be reformed, but he says the problems can be addressed without moving the facilities off of the island.

The candidate said the buildings with the highest levels of violence should be renovated. He also noted that the same correction officers who are now at Rikers would be working at the borough-based jails.

Another policy area where he and Katz disagree is cash bail, which she wants to end for all cases. Murray disputed the idea that a majority of Rikers inmates are there because they cannot afford bail — many are facing multiple cases and others have families who feel they need to be taught a lesson by languishing in jail, he said.

The candidate works on a different side of the law now than earlier in his career, when he was a city cop. Murray worked in Midtown, and then Downtown, Manhattan; Central Harlem’s 32nd Precinct; the 115th Precinct in northwestern Queens; and the Queens North Task Force.

“I came on the job in ’87. Times Square was a disaster. Crime was rampant,” he said. “You’d have tourists walk into a restaurant, sit down, take their coat off, and you’d have someone sitting next to them going through their pockets.”

Murray’s hopes of a future rising in the department’s ranks were dashed in late 1993. He punched a detective in the face in Manhattan and broke his jaw. He said he was acting defensively, that the other man attacked first. According to the candidate, they were arguing because he was defending a friend.

He was charged with felony assault, but a grand jury declined to indict him. The NYPD tried to fire him, but Murray had defense lawyer legend Bruce Cutler defend him against the departmental charges. Ultimately, he accepted a 60-day suspension and a year of probation without admitting guilt.

Legal fees for the criminal and departmental charges added up, as did the bills for lawyers working on his divorce. So, when the civil suit from the detective whose jaw he broke finally went to trial, Murray was forced to represent himself.

He won.

“I did not have a losing day,” he recalled of the trial.

Upon his victory, the judge complimented him, suggesting that he consider law school. Murray did, graduating from the CUNY School of Law in 2006. While studying there, he interned at the Queens District Attorney’s Office. After graduating, he worked at a mid-size criminal defense firm and then started his own practice, which is based in Kew Gardens.

After entering the legal profession, Murray bumped into Michael Scotto, the man who in 1993 prosecuted him, at a social event. They became fast friends, with Murray helping Scotto in his unsuccessful 2015 Democratic primary campaign for Nassau County district attorney.

If successful in the election, Murray plans to have Scotto work with a team of prosecutors at the District Attorney’s Office focused on political corruption in Queens.

“He’s definitely somebody I want to bring in: the most ethical, honest guy,” the candidate said. “He’s a straight shooter.”

As a political novice, Murray said he’s enjoying campaigning but admits he’s still learning how it works. The Queens County Republican Party leadership has helped him in some ways, though Murray said he’s had to raise funds and conduct other campaign activities without much help.

“I’m really disappointed,” he said. “I thought this was a party that is used to doing all this.”

Murray realizes the steep disadvantage he has against Katz, a longtime politican with a deep campaign chest and wide name recognition. But he said he’s identified a path to victory that lies with the moderate Democratic voters who’ve shown support for his campaign.

“These are Democrats. But they’re homeowners, they’re family people, they have kids. They’re concerned about public safety. So they may be concerned and loyalists to the party when it comes to certain issues. Public safety hits home.”

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