Robert M. Murphy, a colorful trial lawyer who delighted juries with his folksy stories that nearly always got them to see his clients in the best possible light, died Thursday (Feb. 15, 2001) in his Amherst home after a battle with brain and lung cancer. He was 72.
Murphy's wife and eight children were at his side at his death, less than a week after his friends had filled the Connecticut Street Armory to raise money for the mock trial teams he coached at the University of Buffalo Law School.
Earlier that day, in a fitting tribute to the coach who put in hundreds of hours and thousands of dollars in the program since the mid-1980s, UB Law's team beat 21 other teams from law schools across the Northeast.
"It was sort of a modern-day win for the Gipper," said City Judge Thomas P. Franczyk, one of Murphy's fellow coaches.
Murphy was too ill to attend last Saturday's benefit, which featured tributes from Eugene F. Piggot Jr., the presiding justice of the Appellate Division of State Supreme Court, and Vincent E. Doyle Jr., administrative judge for the 8th Judicial District, plus awards from the law school and Erie County Bar Association.
But the lawyers, judges and Murphy friends among the more than 300 at the gathering did not need to hear admiring words from the podium. They were too busy telling dozens and dozens of Murphy stories from his more than 40 years before the bar.
"The people I admired as a student and as a young attorney, who taught me and others lessons we'll never forget, are passing away," Erie County District Attorney Frank Clark said, "It's sad especially when it comes to colorful characters like Murphy. You look around, and you see there isn't anyone to take their place. The folklore, the color, is disappearing."
Born and raised in Lackawanna -- a city he never left in spirit, although he lived in Amherst for decades -- Murphy already had been a Navy signalman and a Canisius College-trained accountant, and was married with a job at Bethlehem Steel when he went to law school at the University of Buffalo.
He graduated first in the celebrated class of 1956, which included Herald Price Fahringer, later to defend Claus Von Bulow and other celebrities; defense lawyers Harold Boreanaz and Doyle; and five judges.
"He was one of the last of the giants," Doyle said.
Over the years, Murphy teamed up with Boreanaz in two-dozen major cases and was a mentor to Paul J. Cambria, serving as co-counsel with him in 16 trials. They lost only one.
"Other than his wife, Irene, and their children, there was nothing he loved more than the pressure and excitement of a criminal trial," said State Supreme Court Justice Kevin Dillon, a former Erie County district attorney and defense lawyer.
"It was high theater, and he was the lead actor," Dillon said of a Murphy trial, which drew hordes of other lawyers to court to watch him. "I will miss him."
Terrence M. Connors, who tried a number of cases with Murphy, remembers how he always would say that lawyers had an obligation.
"He was a constant reminder that lawyers who have some stature, some reputation in the bar, need to replenish it, to pay it back," Connors said.
That was the case with Murphy's work with the UB mock trial teams. Doyle recalled that, when he had coached the law students, the activity involved practices of perhaps three hours a week.
Murphy, he said, took over and started drilling students five nights a week and weekends at his house to prepare them for the mock trials, often paying their way to competitions or putting the arm on fellow lawyers. UB participants grew into one of the top teams in the Northeast.
"He would do everything he could to break them down and rebuild them into the trial lawyers he wanted them to be," said Diane LaVallee, assistant attorney general and fellow coach.
After the first time the UB team won in competition in New York City, one of the students asked Murphy what they could do to pay him back.
"When you have some measure of success, when you have some experience," LaVallee said he told the students, "you turn around and give back."
The Law School has now formalized its arrangement with the teams, and last Saturday's fund-raiser collected $20,000 to start a permanent endowment in Murphy's name.
He and his wife, the former Irene P. Rycambel, would have celebrated their 50th wedding anniversary in July.
In addition to his wife, survivors include five sons, Robert, Timothy and Michael, all of Buffalo, Peter of Tampa, Fla., and Harold of Clearwater, Fla.; three daughters, Susan Tatko and Jackie Obad, both of Lackawanna, and Tracy Sullivan of Snyder; a sister, Nancy Covert of Greenwood; and 13 grandchildren.
A Mass of Christian Burial will be offered at 9 a.m. Monday in Our Lady of Victory Basilica, South Park Avenue and Ridge Road, Lackawanna. Entombment will be in Holy Cross Mausoleum, Lackawanna.