Las Vegas Sun

July 30, 2014

COURTS:

Murphy has tough road to prove case against state

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LAS VEGAS SUN FILE

Sandy Murphy reacts along with her attorney, Michael Cristalli, in November 2004 in District Court when jurors found her not guilty of killing casino figure Ted Binion, but guilty of conspiring to commit burglary and/or larceny as well as guilty of burglary and grand larceny.

Sandy Murphy is going to great lengths to clear her tarnished image as a defendant in the highly publicized death of Las Vegas casino executive Ted Binion, but she’s a long shot to succeed in the courts.

Now an art gallery owner in Laguna Beach, Calif., Murphy is attempting to erase her felony record by suing Nevada, alleging malicious prosecution and false arrest.

In arguably the highest profile trial in Las Vegas’ history, Murphy, who was Binion’s girlfriend, and her lover Rick Tabish were convicted in 2000 of suffocating the 55-year-old casino heir. A second jury acquitted Murphy and Tabish when the case was retried in 2004.

But the second panel of jurors agreed with the first on another aspect of the case — that Murphy and Tabish plotted to steal Binion’s $6 million-plus in silver bullion from an underground vault in Pahrump. Because the Nevada Supreme Court upheld Murphy’s convictions for burglary and grand larceny, those remain on her record even though she was released from prison for time served after the second trial.

Those convictions present what is likely an insurmountable hurdle for Murphy, experts say.

Winning this type of lawsuit is virtually impossible when the alleged malicious prosecution resulted in a conviction that stands, professor Ralph Brill of the Chicago-Kent College of Law said.

To prove false arrest and malicious prosecution, a plaintiff must be able to show that “officials lacked probable cause to believe that the defendant committed the crime, and acted out of personal malice and not out of a desire to bring a supposed criminal to justice,” Brill said. “Usually, the fact of conviction for the crime proves that there was probable cause to bring the charges.”

In Murphy’s case, she was convicted twice on the silver charges.

Las Vegas criminal defense attorney Osvaldo Fumo agreed Murphy “faces an uphill battle” because of her burglary conviction. Fumo said it is one thing to claim malicious prosecution during the pretrial stages where, for instance, the defendant is a drug dealer or pimp who prosecutors personally detest. But it’s another matter to try to make that argument after a conviction, he said.

“That’s when it’s very, very difficult to prove,” Fumo said.

That may explain why the 37-year-old one-time stripper is acting as her own attorney. She has gotten off to a rocky start, too.

The suit she filed Dec. 15 included a claim that her lawyer, Michael Cristalli, had been ineffective. But in an Associated Press story published Dec. 17, she said part of her lawsuit was a mistake and she intended to amend it. She hadn’t as of Monday afternoon, however.

The Binion case had all the elements of stirring drama, which is why former Sun columnist and investigative reporter Jeff German’s book about the case, “Murder in Sin City,” was turned into a made-for-TV movie. Mena Suvari of “American Beauty” fame portrayed Murphy.

It was a story that revolved around a love triangle featuring Murphy, Montana contractor Tabish and the son of the late Benny Binion, founder of the famed Horseshoe Club that gave birth to the World Series of Poker. Elements of illicit drug use, buried treasure and missing rare coins made the story all the juicier.

The trials were sensational, even by Las Vegas standards where reputed mobsters had been run through the courts for years. There were colorful defense attorneys and ambitious prosecutors. Murphy even had a wealthy elderly benefactor pay for her defense during both trials. Hordes of media covered the case.

Murphy’s lawsuit shows she can still make news in Las Vegas, but her effort to clear her name completely appears destined to wind up as more of a passing footnote to the Ted Binion saga than an additional chapter.

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