I Am a Killer 2: Joseph Murphy

'I was kind of happy to be sent to Death Row because I was treated better there than at home. I just wish it wouldn’t have taken a victim to get me sent there.'

- Joseph Murphy, former Death Row inmate #199042

Murder is abominable. Those that commit the truly atrocious act of taking another’s life by violence are all monsters. They’re an evil that blights society and represent only the lowest depths of humanity.

It’s a pretty commonly held way of thinking. One that can be difficult to argue with at times. After all, killing a person is abhorrent to any right-minded person. Murder is a sin - or equivalent - in all major world religions and faiths for a reason. But can it ever be excused?

Of course, there are ‘reasons’ to kill. The concept of 'justifiable homicide' allows for some murders, excuses them almost. Allows or at least accounts for them. Self-defence and duress are perhaps the two most famous examples. How about when there is no real legal justification, though? We're talking about the idea of responsibility here. Responsibility and mitigation.

Just how personally responsible can someone be for their own actions when they've never been taught the true meaning of ‘right and wrong’? When all they’ve ever seen is violence, neglect and abuse? 

This really isn’t an easy question to answer.

Joseph Murphy knew that robbery was wrong. He knew that setting fires was wrong. He knew that hanging dogs from trees was wrong. And he knew that slitting an old lady’s neck was wrong. 

What he didn’t know was why he should care.

As a follower of true crime, you’ll no doubt have heard some true horror stories in your time. Oftentimes the upbringings of the Big Bad Boogeymen behind these awful crimes are almost as unspeakable as the murders they commit (that’s not a coincidence, by the way). Yet it’s unlikely that you’ve heard about a childhood much worse than Joseph Murphy’s.

Beatings, burnings, isolation, starvation… the things the younger Joseph had to deal with in his small corner of the crowded and bathroomless wooden shack of a house he grew up in were simply atrocious. Chained to the foot of his parents’ bed at night, he was kept away from his siblings, ignored and ridiculed. 

Things didn’t improve outside of the house, either. In his episode of I Am a Killer, he tells a particularly jarring and upsetting story of being prostituted at just six years old for moonshine by his chronic alcoholic father.

is it fair to judge all killers as though they’re exactly the same? 

There’s no wonder that little Joey grew up into such an unbalanced man.

In 1987, Ohio Police arrested West Virginia-born Joseph some 48 hours after he had ended 72 year-old Ruth Predmore’s life with extreme violence. Charged with ‘aggrevated murder’, it took a jury no time at all to agree that the death sentence was to be his fate.

The question is, how do you take the life of someone who never really had one to begin with?

Thanks to a hard-working public defendant, that’s a question that didn’t need answering here in the end. Only after 24 years awaiting execution, Joey Murphy had his sentence downgraded because of the extreme brain-scrambling neglect and abuse he suffered as a child.

On September 26th 2011, Ohio Governor John Kasich decided to grant clemency to Murphy, commuting his death sentence to the lesser one of life without parole. In doing so, he cited the truly unimaginable childhood that Joseph Murphy suffered. The decision came some three weeks before he was scheduled for execution. 

Governor Kasich issued the following statement in relation to the clemency some eight years ago:

'Joseph Murphy’s murder of Ruth Predmore was heinous and disturbing and he deserves to receive severe punishment. Even though as a child and adolescent Murphy suffered uniquely severe and sustained verbal, physical and sexual abuse from those who should have loved him, it does not excuse his crime.'

'After examining this case in detail with counsel I agree with Chief Justice Moyer, the National Association of Mental Illness and the Parole Board’s unanimous 8-0 decision that considering Joseph Murphy’s brutally abusive upbringing, and the relatively young age at which he committed this terrible crime, the death penalty is not appropriate in this case. Thus, I have commuted his sentence to life in prison with no chance for parole.'

Murder is detestable, there’s no argument. No matter who commits it. But is it fair to judge all killers as though they’re exactly the same? To ignore circumstance and nuance? Surely not.

Think about it. Is the serial sex killer with a 30 year murder spree behind him the same as the beaten wife driven to kill her abusive spouse out of desperation? Is the person who poisons an elderly relative to inherit their estate comparable to the nurse who mercy kills a similarly elderly - but terminally ill - patient?

Joseph Murphy wasn’t raised by his parents. He was dragged up by them in the tight confines of a living Hell. To hear him talk about his past, with almost childlike matter of factness, to hear his story… it’s utterly heartbreaking. It doesn’t excuse nearly beheading an innocent old lady and it certainly doesn’t justify it. What it does do, however, is go some way to explain it.

'It’s something that I never intended to do, I wish I didn’t do. If there was anything I could do to change it, I would. But there’s obviously not.'

I Am a Killer continues on Crime+Investigation, Tuesdays at 9pm.