The Book of Murder: A Prosecutor's Journey Through Love and Death

The Book of Murder: A Prosecutor's Journey Through Love and Death

by Matt Murphy
The Book of Murder: A Prosecutor's Journey Through Love and Death

The Book of Murder: A Prosecutor's Journey Through Love and Death

by Matt Murphy


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Examining murder from an insider’s perspective, Matt Murphy—a former senior deputy district attorney and current ABC News Legal Analyst—discusses cases from his career, how they strained his personal life, and how he found peace seeking justice for victims and their families.

Part taxonomy of murder, part prosecutor’s handbook, and part personal memoir, The Book of Murder goes through a dozen cases and his recollections of his twenty-six years in the Orange County DA’s office (seventeen in the Homicide Unit). Refreshingly honest about the toll such work takes on one’s private life, Murphy weaves his personal narrative throughout his casework in a way that humanizes the people entrusted with the duty of seeking justice on behalf of the public. As he does so, he lays bare the decision-making a prosecutor goes through in building a case to ensure justice is met while telling captivating tale after captivating tale of the world’s worst crime.

See how a prosecutor looks at—and lives with—the very worst crime. The insider’s perspective that Murphy gives on the notorious cases of Skylar Deleon, Rodney Alcala, “Dirty John” Meehan, and many others is a vital read for true-crime fans everywhere.

Product Details

ISBN-13: 9781368104067
Publisher: Disney Publishing Group
Publication date: 09/17/2024
Pages: 320
Sales rank: 48,619
Product dimensions: 6.22(w) x 9.30(h) x 1.08(d)

About the Author

MATT MURPHY is a former Homicide prosecutor and current legal analyst for ABC News. He spent more than two decades assigned to the Sexual Assault and Homicide Units of the Orange County District Attorney’s Office, where he tried some of the most compelling murder cases in America. During his long tenure in Homicide, he prosecuted cold cases, famous serial killers, no-body murders, and many more.

Now in private practice, he regularly appears as a legal analyst on national television shows, including 20/20, Good Morning America, and various programs on Hulu. He is a mainstay on iCrime with Elizabeth Vargas and her evening news program, where he offers his insight on murder cases across the country. Matt volunteers his time helping survivors of sexual assault navigate the confusing and often-overwhelming criminal justice system. A native of Southern California, he is an avid surfer, shark diver, and novice painter. When not in the courtroom, he can often be found on, under, or in the waves near his beloved home of Manhattan Beach.

Read an Excerpt

[Note to readers: The following passage discusses the aftermath of violent crime that contains some sexual elements.]
THERE IS NOTHING like the feel of a rounded pintail.
That extra bit of fiberglass and foam on the trailing end of a surfboard gives you just a little more hold on the face of a wave. Perhaps a tad less maneuverable than other tail designs, but add a late drop, an offshore breeze, and the rising sun of an early morning surf session, and that additional hold can make all the difference in the world. Especially for a journeyman surf talent like me.
As with so many things in life, that one tiny yet distinguishing detail can often mean the difference between success and failure, between riding the wave to the beach and floundering in the icy cold water. It was February, a few weeks before my thirty-fourth birthday, and I was floundering like a champ. The brilliant young woman I thought I would marry had just become engaged to someone else. I couldn’t eat, I couldn’t sleep, and I couldn’t stop thinking about her. Like a bad country song stuck on repeat, my mind was an endless loop of regret and self-loathing, only temporarily soothed by the pounding surf of a Southern California winter.
Between the resident pod of bottlenose dolphins that swam through the lineup most mornings and the perfectly triangulated bomber squadrons of California brown pelicans gliding just over the glassy surface, I could sometimes grab a few precious moments of mental calm, at least until the questions came rushing back: Did she really love this guy? Was there truly no chance? How did I ever manage to screw it all up? I was trying to drown demons, but no matter how long I stayed in the water, they always seemed to be waiting for me back on the beach. My personal life was an unquestionable mess.
Professionally, on the other hand, my career was on an absolute tear. I was a young Deputy District Attorney in the Orange County DA’s Office, in the midst of a yearslong winning streak, and I had just been promoted to the Homicide Unit. The youngest addition to an elite team of trial lawyers, I was spending my first week on assignment in a place that would become my professional home for the next seventeen years. But on that morning, as I made my way back over the chilly sand to my car, all I could think about was her.
It was a classic winter day in Southern California, with blue skies and a Santa Ana breeze blowing through the trees. I was standing there, in the parking lot of the Manhattan Beach Library, peeling off my wetsuit, starting my quick change into another, more tailored kind of suit that I wore on most weekdays. I rinsed myself off while standing in the five-gallon plastic storage container that often functioned as my shower on the best surf mornings. I poured warm water from a red gasoline jug over my head. Wash the salt off, towel dry my feet, a little deodorant, and I was usually good to go. That morning would be different. My phone had blown up with messages while I was still in the water. It rang once again as I held it.
Someone had been murdered in Newport Beach, and I was about to walk through my first homicide scene.
/// \\\
I threw my still-dripping wetsuit into the back of my old Nissan Pathfinder, balanced my surfboard on the reclined passenger seat, and headed directly to Orange County. About an hour south of Los Angeles on the 405 Freeway, Newport Beach is one of the wealthiest and prettiest cities in California, if not the world. Like a Beverly Hills by the sea, it has all the palm trees and couture, with the added bonus of bikinis. The harbor is ringed with opulent waterfront homes equipped with private docks hosting multimillion-dollar yachts. It is a place where murders are rare, and the residents certainly want to keep it that way.
Morning traffic gave me time to get caught back up in my swirling head: Would my lack of sleep be obvious? Would my brand-new colleagues—the detectives I hoped to be working with for years to come—realize I had been surfing when they tried to call me? Given that I still looked like I was twelve years old, would they even believe who I was? And, of course, the question I couldn’t escape: Was my ex really going to marry that guy?
But sunscreen, insomnia, and an aching heart were far from my biggest fears as I navigated traffic that sunny morning. We have all seen the moment on TV or in the movies when the new guy shows up and sees a dead body for the first time. The reaction is so common among rookies at a crime scene, at least as portrayed in pop culture, that it has its own entry on the TV Tropes website. I was so green in the Unit that I hadn’t even thought to ask anyone if it was really a thing. Was I about to make a fool of myself? Would I contaminate the scene, lose the respect of my detectives, and be subject to endless hazing for years? “Murphy,” I told myself, “in the name of all things holy: Please. Do. Not. Puke.”
After talking my way past a perimeter officer assigned to the yellow tape, I met the detective at the door and was escorted into the well-appointed Newport Beach town house, trying not to embarrass myself with my utter lack of experience. Detective Sergeant Dave Byington walked me into the middle of a beehive of activity—police officers, forensic scientists, photographers, and CSI technicians of every stripe—and the air was electric. It was like some huge emotional charge had gone off and the reverberations were still echoing around the room. You could just feel that something terrible had happened.
There were scented candles burning in the entryway and on the bar-style counter that separated the wood flooring of the kitchen from the white Berber carpet of the living room. I tried to take it all in as Byington walked me to the kitchen, which, like everything else in the place, appeared new, neat, and perfect . . . except for the dead guy on the wooden floor at my feet. My moment of truth. I took a deep breath and looked down: He was no older than forty, with a plaid shirt, blond surfer locks, and brown tennis shoes, sprawled out on his back at the bottom of a staircase, eyes half-open, staring at the ceiling with the uneven gaze of the dead.
It was his stillness that struck me first—as if he had been frozen in time. There was motion all around him—from the trees blowing in the wind outside, to all of the technicians, cops, and crime lab personnel—and yet there he was, in the middle of it all, perfectly still. He had a small folding knife in his partially open left hand and a wallet chain leading to his right back pocket. I noticed it instantly: Why would a lefty carry his wallet in his right pocket, or a righty hold a knife in his left hand? That didn’t seem right. Then I looked at his shoes, of all things, and wondered if he’d had any idea those would be the last shoelaces he would ever tie.
I had no mysterious urge to vomit—and, no small feat, I had forgotten all about my ex-girlfriend.
/// \\\
I say this now, more than twenty years later, after attending perhaps a hundred similar homicide investigations, all unique in their own way: Every entrance into a murder scene is like walking into the center of a three-dimensional puzzle (albeit a puzzle with a dark emotional energy sometimes still lingering in the air). In murder cases like these, figuring out the truth often boils down to the smallest things: The direction of a single drop of blood. A tuft of lint on the floor. A wedding invitation that seems out of place.
Evidentiary details don’t forget, they’re not biased, and you don’t have to work around their schedules. In the simplest terms, a prosecutor’s attention to detail will often mean the difference between winning—achieving justice—or a murderer going free. And that scene in particular was full of memorable details.
The victim had been shot once in the back, twice in the chest, once in the temple, and once in his mouth. In the words of Detective Byington, who was standing to my right, our suspect had “killed the shit out of him.” In fact, as Byington lifted the left shoulder of the victim to show me two bullets embedded in the hardwood, directly under the two holes in the man’s chest, he said, “She pretty much stapled him to the floor.” Two handguns had been placed on the white carpet, very close to the body. One had recently been fired, and one had not. The six-shot revolver at my feet, therefore, seemed to have been the murder weapon, and yet we ultimately accounted for no fewer than nine holes. The shooter, quite significantly, had taken the time to reload.
We walked to an upstairs office, past a semicircular smear of blood on the wall of the stairwell. There was broken glass, three more bullet holes in the wall of the office, and another in the wall above the staircase banister. It was clear that the shooting had started upstairs, and the shooter scored at least one hit before the man got to the kitchen. Probably the shot in the back, meaning he rolled down the lower steps, smeared blood on the wall in the process, and . . . still held on to the knife? Could the shooter have planted it? There were more candles upstairs and rose petals on the floor leading to a perfectly made bed in the primary bedroom.
One more detail I will never forget: propped up all over the interior of the townhome, a series of Polaroid photos depicting an erect penis in various stages of arousal. Dead guy, two guns, one knife, and a house full of Polaroid boners. Super weird, for sure, but also strangely comforting. Having just spent four years in the Sexual Assault Unit, no crime felt complete without some sort of weird sexual element. After those dark and twisted days of my previous assignment, I could certainly handle weird, especially in the context of a sexually motivated crime. Strange as it may sound, in that moment, I felt an odd sense of belonging. But, as I stood there, trying to absorb everything going on around me, I was struck by something else: the realization that while horribly gruesome, that poor, bullet-riddled man at my feet was perhaps the most fascinating thing I had ever seen. Someone had killed him, brutally, and it was our job to figure out exactly how, who, and why. The how was pretty obvious, and the rest was about to get even more interesting.

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