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“I Wanted to Yell Out, ‘I Know What Happened!’ ”
Comments () | Published November 1, 2008

Maloney was struck by what he heard. Murray would talk to his dad about Maryland sports scores. He’d ask his girlfriend about classes and which of their friends were hooking up. He didn’t seem like someone who had killed somebody.

“Danny, what should we eat?” Amy asked during a call in October when she was deciding what to cook.

“Penne or what kind of pasta—ziti?” Danny said.

Amy told him it would be penne with vodka sauce. “They both sound ridiculously good right now,” he said.

Murray was polite and often upbeat on the phone. He was often telling Amy how much he missed her and asking if she’d gotten his letters. He called his grandmother to check on her. He thanked his mom for little things, like adding money to his phone account, and told his parents he loved them.

“Love you, too, buddy,” his dad once said. “Hasn’t changed, and it won’t.”

Murray described his days as filled with boredom—sleeping, watching television, waiting for visits. He raved about eating some pancakes. He told his mom he’d been praying.

In the beginning, Murray didn’t say much about the case. He didn’t mention the Scroccas. He got concerned when Amy told him about a story in the Diamondback.

“Did it look really bad?” he asked. “Was it like a horrible article that I’ll never want to read, ever?”

He thought he’d be home by Thanksgiving.

“God, I’m so ready to get out of here, Caitlin,” he said in a call to his sister in early November, when he was hopeful his confession would be thrown out. “I got three weeks. Three weeks left in the slammer.”

In late 2005, before an arrest was made, Brian Scrocca left Thanksgiving dinner and drove to the cemetery. He couldn’t sit at his parents’ house when his brother wasn’t there.

He remembers thinking on the drive home that there was someone out there having dinner, laughing and passing the turkey, and that that person’s family didn’t realize they were sitting with a murderer.

Maloney used Murray’s behavior after the fire against him in court. “He lived a completely normal college life,” Maloney says. “That was significant for its lack of significance.” He would later call Murray a psychopath.

Bill Billiet has a different explanation for why his friend went on with his life: “I think he didn’t want to spend the rest of his life in jail. It’s tragic what happened—it cost someone his life, and I don’t think that escaped him—but I’ve asked myself what I would do in that situation. There’s nothing you can do to bring him back, so it comes down to ‘Am I going to spend my life in jail or not?’ ”

He’s tried to imagine what Murray went through when he realized what he’d done. “You tried to light somebody’s couch on fire, and you killed someone,” says Billiet. “It doesn’t matter that you were drunk—you know you’re going to jail if you tell, even if it was an accident.”

Maloney can’t put a number on how much time Murray would have had to serve, if any, if he’d confessed right after the fire. Mary thinks he would have spent a few years in alcohol rehabilitation.

Says Maloney: “If he did this stupid thing and the next day walked in and said, ‘God, I screwed up. I got drunk—I didn’t know what I was thinking,’ it would have been a lot different.”

Daniel Murray played chess in jail with a man named Carlos Yates, who had beaten a murder conviction but was serving time on related charges. The state’s attorney’s office received a letter from Yates in October 2006 as Maloney was preparing to defend the legality of Murray’s confession.

“I am in the housing unit with Danny, the U.Md. student who killed the guy in the fire,” Yates wrote. “Danny told me some things about the case.”

The letter was the first in a string of setbacks for the defense. Prosecutors implanted a recording device in Yates’s cell and heard Murray tell Yates that there were no footprints or fingerprints, that nobody had said anything for a year, and that a Bentley’s coworker had told police Murray didn’t get violent when he was drunk.

“After this happened and I specifically learned that I killed somebody, I didn’t f----- go home, ya know, nothin’ happened,” Murray said. “I didn’t take a vacation. I didn’t quit college, I didn’t f------ quit going to class. I didn’t quit work.”

Investigators listened to Murray say he would pay another cellmate’s girlfriend $200 a month for the rest of her life if she’d lie to police about the night of the fire. Then they tracked down the letter Murray had sent her. In it, he told the girl exactly what to say and drew her a diagram of Princeton Avenue—marking Scrocca’s house with an X.

“You saw a black guy walk onto the porch with a gas can, a large two-gallon red one like you get at a gas station, and light something on fire on the left side of the porch,” Murray wrote. “. . . You forgot about it until you heard a college kid was arrested for it and it peeked your interest.”

The prosecution also found a letter Murray sent to his grandmother asking her to say he had come home early the night of the fire.

Says Maloney: “He kept digging his hole deeper and deeper.”

In January 2007, during a hearing about Daniel Murray’s confession, his attorney announced that he would plead guilty to first-degree murder. He’d face up to 40 years in jail. There would be no trial or any chance for an appeal.

In a phone call around the time of the plea agreement, Amy asked Danny what he was thinking.

“My life’s over,” he said.

“I don’t think anybody expected it to turn out this way,” he told her. “. . . They all think the judge is gonna have some kind of leniency because everybody in that courtroom knows that basically, if I did it, I don’t remember what the f--- I was doing, so like there’s no intent. . . . Everybody knows this was just the most horrible thing that could happen if somebody got drunk.”

Mary says that after the hearing, someone from the defense team asked Maloney if Daniel Murray’s father could speak to the Scroccas. Mary said okay—she’d always seen more emotion from him than she had from Murray’s mother.

“He said to me, ‘I don’t even know what to say—I’m just so sorry for your loss,’ and he was bawling,” Mary says. “He was a destroyed man.”

Both he and his wife gave Mary a hug; Tony put his hand up to show he didn’t want one.

“I will never forget seeing my beautiful son when his body arrived,” Tony Scrocca wrote in a letter to Judge Smith before Murray’s sentencing. “He was red like a lobster from the heat of the fire. Had he suffered? Did he know he was dying? . . . I wake up at night hearing Michael say, ‘Daddy, help me, please—help me, Daddy,’ but I can’t.”

The letter was one of hundreds that Scrocca’s friends and relatives sent to the judge before they packed the courtroom on March 30, 2007, nearly two years after the fire.

John Maloney told the court about the time Scrocca’s summer-league baseball team had lost a big game and his coach told the players not to shake their opponents’ hands—but Scrocca did it anyway.

Scrocca’s best friend, Steve Blumberg, talked about the what-ifs: What if he had banged on Scrocca’s door? What if Scrocca had taken a different room that year?

Stephen Aarons, who spent more than two weeks on a ventilator after the fire, described being trapped: “Imagine the blackest black you have ever seen, in the form of smoke just coming from you at all angles. You can’t even imagine it.”

Brennan told the court that his client was devastated when he heard someone had died—that Murray meant to set the couch on fire, not to burn the house or to harm anyone.

He cited Murray’s own statement that he’d had ten beers that night. “Does any of this excuse his conduct?” Brennan said. “Absolutely not. . . . But clearly it goes to the issue of intent.”

He described his client as an immature young man who had panicked at the prospect of life in prison and made bad judgments after his arrest. Brennan asked the judge to suspend all but 15 to 25 years of a life sentence: “To give Mr. Murray the opportunity to rehabilitate, to give Mr. Murray the opportunity, your honor, to make something of his life.”

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Posted at 12:00 AM/ET, 11/01/2008 RSS | Print | Permalink | Washingtonian.com Articles