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Murphy v. Bonanno

August 7, 1995


Appeal from the Superior Court of the District of Columbia. (Hon. George W. Mitchell, Trial Judge).

Before Schwelb, Farrell, and Ruiz, Associate Judges.

The opinion of the court was delivered by: Farrell

Farrell, Associate Judge : In this appeal from a judgment in favor of the remaining plaintiff-appellee for assault and battery, trespass, and infliction of emotional distress, appellant challenges primarily the trial Judge's refusal to allow cross-examination of his estranged wife (one of the two plaintiffs) regarding prior acts that appellant argues bore directly on her veracity as a witness/complainant in the present case. We hold that the Judge erred in excluding this evidence at the threshold as irrelevant. We do not direct a new trial, however, but vacate the judgment and remand for further consideration by the Judge of the admissibility of the evidence in light of the principles discussed in this opinion.


A. The Proceedings

On July 12, 1991, a criminal jury found Brian Leon Murphy, appellant in this case, guilty of two counts of assault and one count of unlawful entry. *fn1 The charges arose from events involving Mr. Murphy, his then-wife Elizabeth A. Murphy, and Diane M. Bonanno at the dwelling of Bonanno on June 21, 1990.

On June 20, 1991, Bonanno and Ms. Murphy filed a civil complaint in Superior Court stemming from the June 21 events. The complaint, and a September 25, 1991 amended complaint, sought damages for assault and battery, false imprisonment, false arrest, trespass, trespass to chattel/conversion, invasion of privacy, and intentional infliction of emotional distress. On September 11, 1991, Mr. Murphy counterclaimed against Ms. Murphy and Bonanno seeking damages for false arrest, malicious prosecution, and conversion.

A jury trial began on December 14, 1992. On December 16, after all the evidence had been presented, Judge George W. Mitchell dismissed all three causes of action in the counterclaim and all of the plaintiffs' claims except assault and battery, trespass, and infliction of emotional distress. *fn2 The jury returned a verdict for Bonanno on all three of her claims, for Ms. Murphy on her claims of assault and battery and infliction of emotional distress, and for Mr. Murphy on Ms. Murphy's claim of trespass. The jury awarded Bonanno $7,500 compensatory damages and $15,000 punitive damages for trespass, $7,500 compensatory damages and $15,000 punitive damages for assault and battery, and no compensatory or punitive damages for infliction of emotional distress. Ms. Murphy received similar damages. Following denial of Mr. Murphy's motion for judgment notwithstanding the verdict and a new trial, and his notice of appeal as to both judgments, the Murphys settled their suit and the appeal was dismissed as to Ms. Murphy, leaving only Mr. Murphy's appeal as to Bonanno for resolution by this court.

B. The Facts

Plaintiffs' evidence at trial established that the Murphys married in 1976 but became estranged in the mid-1980's. In the first half of 1990, there were times when, rather than stay at the Murphys' Woodbridge, Virginia home, Ms. Murphy resided with her friend Bonanno.

On the evening of June 21, 1990, Ms. Murphy was spending the night at Bonanno's house. At about 10:00 p.m. there was a knock at the door. Ms. Murphy testified that she approached the door, turned the lock, and started to open the door; at that point, Mr. Murphy "burst into the house." He was carrying a shotgun or a rifle and appeared to be "extremely angry"; he also had a gun in his right rear pocket. After throwing Ms. Murphy down onto a marble table, he pumped the shotgun and "put the gun in [Ms. Murphy's] stomach." He screamed obscenities at her, called her a "whore" and a "prostitute," and accused her of having extramarital affairs. As a result of the attack, Ms. Murphy sustained bruises on her back, legs, and buttocks. Mr. Murphy then entered Bonanno's bedroom while holding his rifle with both hands; he screamed that Bonanno was running a "whore house."

Mr. Murphy walked Ms. Murphy out of the house while pointing the rifle at her, and told her, "You're going with me." She agreed to accompany him, but persuaded him to let her take her own car. Mr. Murphy apparently drove off in his truck while Ms. Murphy entered her car and locked the door. She then ran back into Bonanno's house and called the police.

Mr. Murphy presented a very different version of events. According to his witnesses, near 10:00 p.m. on June 21, Brian Murphy, his father Robert Murphy, and Pete Harner congregated at a Kensington shop owned by Brian Murphy. Mr. Murphy knew that his wife was staying at Bonanno's house that evening. The three men agreed to drive to Bonanno's house, since Murphy was "extremely upset" and "wanted to confront [his wife] with information that had." He also wanted "to get back in touch with his wife and talk to her," because "apparently their marriage had fallen apart."

Murphy and his father drove to Bonanno's home in Brian's truck; Harner followed in his van. Brian did not have a handgun on his person, but a shotgun that he owned was in the rear of his truck because "it was always" there. Brian stopped his truck and parked in front of Bonanno's house. Robert Murphy left the truck, crossed the street, and hid behind a tree. Harner stopped his van two or three car lengths past Brian's truck and stayed in the van. Murphy approached Bonanno's house, not carrying a gun, but ...

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