All charges were dismissed this morning against a man who had faced a possible death sentence for a murder in Louisa County.
Louisa Circuit Court Judge Timothy Sanner found that while it was clear from DNA evidence that Darcel Murphy was present in Kevin Robinson’s Oakland Road house on March 30, 2016, there was no direct evidence that Murphy fired or even possessed a gun.
Between January 2017 and this summer, Murphy, 34, of Stafford County, was charged with capital murder, a charge that carries a possible death sentence upon conviction. Louisa County Commonwealth’s Attorney Rusty McGuire dropped his demand for a jury trial and agreed not to seek the death penalty, although Murphy still faced a potential life sentence.
Murphy had also been charged with robbery, three counts of using a firearm to commit a felony, being a violent felon in possession of a weapon, and breaking and entering into a house.
Sanner said it is possible that Dion Phoenix, Robinson’s former housemate, fired all four of the gunshots that killed Robinson. Phoenix pleaded guilty to first-degree murder in October 2017.
“The evidence does not preclude the possibility of one person firing the gun at two different times,” Sanner said as he made his ruling. “[Murphy’s] mere presence is not enough.”
Attorneys Doug Ramseur, Matthew Engle and Richard Johnson did not present testimony from any of their witnesses, except one, a shooting incident expert who was called to testify out of order. Sanner made his decision based almost entirely on the prosecution’s case.
“Darcel Murphy thought he was helping a friend [Phoenix] who needed to pick up some stuff at the house,” Ramseur said. “When Phoenix and Robinson got into an argument, Murphy got caught in the middle.”
McGuire and Deputy Commonwealth’s Attorney Robert Wood presented evidence that Murphy sent texts to Phoenix before they went to Robinson’s house, suggesting they were planning something. But the texts were not specific enough to be conclusive, Sanner said. The prosecutors also noted that Murphy wore black clothes when he entered the house.
McGuire and Wood also heard evidence from a Louisa County Sheriff’s Office detective, Virginia State Police and others regarding shells and bullets from three different guns fired at the crime scene. The shots fired at Robinson appeared to come from Phoenix’s .38 caliber revolver. Shells from a .45 caliber gun were also recovered, and another gun of the same type belonging to Robinson.
Authorities were able to prove that Murphy was in the house from analyzing his blood, which they found on the floor. Robinson shot Murphy twice in the face and once in the chest during the scuffle that ensued after Phoenix and Murphy came in.
Sanner noted that Robinson’s family did not trust Phoenix and that Robinson had recently kicked him out of the house.
A first-degree murder charge remains pending against a third man, Tobias Owens, of Woodbridge, who was with Phoenix and Murphy that night. Owens testified during this week’s trial that he never saw Murphy with a gun on the night of the murder and did not hear any discussion of a robbery.
The argument for a robbery was based on an allegation that one of Robinson’s watches was stolen. A family member told authorities that the watch was missing, but Sanner said it may have been recovered after the murder.
Because of the robbery charge, McGuire was able to upgrade the initial charge against Murphy from first-degree to capital murder, which led to the potential death sentence.
McGuire declined to comment on the not guilty decision, citing the fact that Owens' case is still pending.
The murder charges themselves were overshadowed in the past year by efforts by Murphy’s attorneys to have a large portrait of Confederate Gen. Robert E. Lee removed from the courtroom. On their second attempt, the legal team convinced Sanner to have the portrait and a United Daughters of the Confederacy certificate taken down this month. The attorneys argued that their client, who is Black, could not get a fair trial with the Lee portrait hanging on the wall.
Ramseur said Murphy is “ecstatic” about the decision after spending four-and-a-half years in jail.
“He is looking forward to going back to his life and his two children,” Ramseur said.
Reporters Joseph Haney and Toby Cox contributed to this report.
Last updated at 12:37 p.m. on Oct. 1.