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CRIMINAL PRACTICE A North Carolina federal court erred in sentencing a defendant to three separate contempt convictions for a courtroom outburst where the defendant called the trial judge a “motherfucker” and made an obscene gesture to him, the 4th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals said on April 16. United States v. Murphy, No. 02-4005. After a trial court sentenced Lawrence Murphy for drug and firearms convictions, Murphy cursed U.S. District Judge James C. Fox, who sentenced him to six months for contempt. After Murphy again yelled at Fox, the judge again found him in contempt and added an additional six-month term. When, as a parting gesture, Murphy gave the court an obscene gesture, the court gave Murphy a parting gesture-a third contempt conviction with a third six-month term. Murphy appealed, arguing the incident constituted one offense. The 4th Circuit agreed with Murphy, holding that the outburst constituted one offense. Noting that Murphy’s entire outburst amounted to less than a page of transcript and the fact that the law was unclear as to what constituted a unit of misconduct, the court said the law was “ambiguous with regard to the allowable unit of prosecution and that the rule of lenity dictates that the ambiguity be resolved in Murphy’s favor.”

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