About pelham mcmurry
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By Bill Bartleman (reprinted with permission)
The Paducah Sun, 20 Aug 1997
His father, W.F. McMurry, became a prominent Paducah attorney.
His father was a strict disciplinarian and felt his sons needed military-type training to help them meet challenges in life.
The McMurry twins attended Paducah schools and were star football players. In their senior year, their father sent them to the Western Military Academy in Alton, Ill. Both wanted appointments to West Point.
Six weeks after arriving at the Alton school, McMurry was stricken with polio. He spent 10 months in an Iowa hospital for polio victims. He has used crutches or a wheelchair since. His quest for a military career was ended, but his brother went to West Point and became a military officer.
McMurry wanted to be a doctor but changed his mind while attending Paducah Junior College. Instead, he found satisfaction in legal research and decided to become a lawyer.
After graduating from PJC, McMurry went to the University of Mississippi to major in law. Before graduating, he took and passed the Kentucky bar examination.
At the University of Mississippi, McMurry ran into a problem when officials learned that he had not graduated from high school because of his illness. They threatened to deny him a law degree, even though he passed his courses with high marks.
“He just filled out a diploma and sent it to me,” McMurry said.
While McMurry was attending law school, his father died.
McMurry returned to Paducah in 1947 and began practicing law with the late Earle T. Shoup. He recalled Shoup as an excellent teacher and mentor.
In April 1952, his twin brother, a bomber pilot, died when his jet was shot down over the Sea of Japan.
In 1953, McMurry was appointed a federal court commissioner, but resigned after a few months to run for McCracken county attorney. He won and spent 12 years in office before running for county judge in 1965 and losing to veteran incumbent Roy Stewart. However, Stewart died in office in December 1966 and McMurry served the final three years of the term after being appointed by the Governor.
In 1970, McMurry formed a partnership with Livingston, beginning in a three-room suite on the ninth floor of the Citizens Bank building.
McMurry said his crutches did not stop him from doing the things he loved: hunting, fishing, boating and playing golf.
“I did well on those crutches. I could follow a bird dog through a field as well as anyone. I didn’t let it bother me or get in the way with anything I wanted to do.”
Livingston said McMurry has never complained about his physical limitations.
McMurry continues to work each day and has no plans to retire.
McMurry began his political career in 1953 by defeating Albert Karnes for county attorney.
As county attorney, McMurry was instrumental in doing the legal work that resulted in formation of most of the county water, sewer and fire districts. The districts have been a major factor in the development of the county outside of the city.
McMurry said he had an interest in seeing the services expanded in the county because of his own experience.
He was living just outside the city limits and his well went dry. He said the city water line ended not far from his house and he asked the city to extend it down his street. The city refused. “After that, I dedicated myself to helping get those services in the county,” he said.
McMurry said the work as county attorney was less complex in the 1950s and ’60s. He said it took only one afternoon a week to prosecute criminal cases.
McMurry felt sheriffs should be allowed to run for re-election to improve the quality and consistency of law enforcement. Voters in 1983 approved an amendment that allows sheriffs to run for consecutive terms.
He was an early and vocal advocate of reforming bail bonding laws to eliminate corruption that he said was caused by professional bail bondsmen. McMurry convinced Paducah’s Julian Carroll, a state representative at the time, to submit legislation that would change some of the laws. The legislature approved the first reforms in the mid-1960s. The reforms included a provision that allowed people to post personal property bonds rather than a cash bond or a bond posted by a professional bondsman.
In 1976, Carroll as governor pushed through legislation that banned professional bail bonding. McMurry also opposed the system of financing county offices with the fees received for services. In some offices, he said, the fees weren’t sufficient to pay expenses while in others, officials would require unnecessary services just to collect fees.
In McCracken County, the fiscal court in recent years has taken most county offices off the fee system and placed them on a centralized budget.
McMurry also predicted in 1966 that the county would someday be forced to impose a payroll tax to fund county government. Such a tax was imposed in the mid-1980s to pay the rising costs of operating a landfill and a county jail.
As a judge, he was tough on juveniles. He said he had no qualms about locking a juvenile up for several days as punishment. McMurry said there were few restrictions in locking up juveniles then. Now, most jails are limited to holding a juvenile for 24 hours or less.
Glenn Cochrum, a Paducah Sun copy editor who was a reporter when McMurry was judge, said McMurry would allow him to attend juvenile court sessions, a practice now forbidden.
“He then asked if he was afraid of him (McMurry), and he again answered no. Pelham then leaned over and pointed to the boy and said he’d better be scared, because if he was ever back in court again, he was going to lock him up for a long time.”
Cochrum said it was the last time the youth went before McMurry.
As county attorney and county judge, McMurry urged construction of a juvenile detention center for those convicted of nonviolent crimes. It was never built, and county officials today still talk of the need because the county pays more than $150,000 a year to house juveniles in detention in other counties.
McMurry also was an early advocate of countywide zoning, which he said was needed to ensure orderly development. In a January 1966 speech, he said: “If you don’t make a zoning plan, you are going to be disappointed in what you see 25 years from now.”
He tried to pass zoning laws for the county but couldn’t get the support of the public or other members of the fiscal court. “I was able to get a referendum on the ballot for zoning and it failed miserably,” he said.
McMurry said it was easy to leave public office. He missed working with the public and in the courthouse, “but it was time for me to leave,” he said.
His main motivation for leaving was the need to devote all of his time to private law practice. He said it was difficult to raise a family that included four children on the $7,200 a year salary he received as county judge.
McMurry said one of his most gratifying acts as a public official was the role he played in helping clear a Georgia death row inmate of a murder he didn’t commit.
McMurry, as county attorney 1958, worked to overcome a mountain of legal obstacles so that Charles (Rocky) Rothschild could be sent to Georgia to be prosecuted for a murder for which an innocent man had been convicted and sentenced to death.
“Rocky was really popular because he was a basketball referee and had a good reputation,” McMurry said. “The police over there didn’t want to pick him up.”
McMurry was contacted by a prosecutor from another state and agreed to have Rothschild arrested during one of his frequent visits to Paducah.
McMurry said the Johnson Bonding Co. was responsible because it had signed the bond. “I was under a lot of pressure to revoke the bond and told Jimmie Johnson (its owner) that if he didn’t get Rothschild back here, I would forfeit the bond and pave every road in McCracken County.”
After a series of events, Johnson informed McMurry that Rothschild would be in a certain bar in the northern Kentucky town of Newport at a specified time.
McMurry instructed a deputy sheriff to go to Newport and stake out the bar.
McMurry had to obtain an order from the state Court of Appeals to clear the deputy and allow him to return Rothschild to Paducah.
“Rocky was on the national news shaking hands with the Georgia inmate who had been convicted of the murder and was facing the electric chair,” McMurry said.