December 2017 Bar Bulletin
By Linda Lau and Burns Petersen
Karen Murray’s remarkable journey to super lawyer and distinguished social justice advocate is a story of raw courage and tenacious will to overcome adversity. Karen’s story began in a small town in Iowa with a population of fewer than 10,000 people. As Karen describes it, Fort Madison was “too small for secrets” and notable only for two things — the Iowa State Penitentiary and the Sheaffer Pen Company.
Raised by a single mother, Karen and her seven siblings thrived under Mrs. Murray’s firm but loving guidance. With eight mouths to feed, Mrs. Murray canned tomatoes at a food-processing plant for minimum wages. Home was a small, four-room house with no running water, no indoor plumbing and a shared outhouse.
Despite the family’s limited resources, the Murray home was always filled with the laughter of neighborhood kids and the constant aroma of home-cooked meals. Mrs. Murray always made sure no child went home hungry. Continuing her mother’s culinary tradition, Karen frequently delights her professional colleagues and members of the KCBA Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. Luncheon Committee with a complete home-cooked meal. Her mouth-watering fried chicken is legendary and the recipe a well-kept secret.
Several people most influenced Karen’s personal and professional achievements — her mother, high school speech teacher, and a family friend. An essay that Karen wrote some time ago best describes her mother’s qualities:
“My mother’s story is one of caring for her own mother and her older sister until their deaths…, withstanding the physical abuse of a stepmother; and later marrying a man, my father who continued the domestic violence. Yet somehow, she was able to overcome this pain and instill in her eight children that sharing what you had with others was the ultimate demonstration of love.
“She demonstrated that love by rising at five o’clock in the morning to make sure we started our day out the right way, with a good hot breakfast. Being divorced and having eight mouths to feed, our mother didn’t have the privilege of being a stay-at-home mom. Instead, five days a week she headed out to her minimum wage job 25 miles away where she canned tomatoes for eight hours. But miraculously, as my brothers and sisters walked up the sidewalk to our front door in the afternoon, we felt safe and loved.
“Money was not abundant, yet it never stopped her from sharing what little she had. She left a strong legacy through her love of cooking and by sharing the fruits of that love with others. This is the life lesson she taught her children.”
No doubt that Mrs. Oneda Lucretia Murray would be immensely proud to know that Karen walks daily in her mother’s shoes.
Robert Fahey, the speech teacher mentioned above, also shaped Karen’s early development. Fahey noticed something special about his quiet, shy student. With his patient, steady coaching, Karen soon won numerous speech competitions. The “family friend” is civil rights advocate Virginia Harper, who encouraged Karen to fight injustice and to believe in a cause greater than oneself.
Karen graduated from the University of Washington with a B.A. in sociology and a master’s degree in public administration. But she dreamed of becoming a lawyer. She applied through the Academic Resource Center special admissions program at the University of Puget Sound Law School (now Seattle University School of Law). This program admits certain social and economically disadvantaged students who do not meet regular admissions criteria, and provides necessary academic and financial support to ensure law school graduation success.
Upon graduation, Karen was hired in 1992 as a public defender by the Associated Counsel for the Accused. She currently supervises the Problem-Solving Court unit of the King County Department of Public Defense. Seattle University Law School Dean Annette Clark says Karen remains a powerful voice for the ARC program and the law school. Karen frequently connects with the students and speaks at student events. She also participates as a moot court judge and in education programming.
Mentoring law students of color and ARC students is Karen’s passion. According to Clark, Karen “does it all with a smile and so much joy and optimism. She is intensely humble and her motivation is real, just like her passion and interest in justice. Despite the injustices in this world, her flame burns even brighter. I stand in awe of that.”
Don Madsen, praises Karen’s dedication to public defense. “Her heart is huge, her energy boundless, and she leads with courage,” he says. “Karen set out to make a difference for people who were often dealt a difficult hand. With Karen’s voice, sounder and fairer decisions were made in our office and helped me better understand the many injustices in our criminal justice system and our country, occurring simply because of the color of a person’s skin.”
Attorney James Williams, who served with Karen on the executive board of the Loren Miller Bar Association, stressed her dedication to the defense of her clients and the Constitution. Family law attorney Rosemarie Lemoine met Karen while both served together as KCBA board trustees. She described Karen as “a thoughtful speaker, never cruel and always diplomatic,” and lauded Karen’s dedication and hard work on the Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. Luncheon Committee.
U.S. District Court Judge Richard Jones, who has co-chaired the MLK Luncheon Committee with Karen for many years, expressed what many peers have said, “Karen is a great friend, an outstanding attorney and community leader, and mentor for countless.” Karen also appeared before Judge Jones during his years on the King County Superior Court bench. He recalls that clients and judges held Karen in high regard.
One of Karen’s many legacies is the number of people she has mentored over the years. One such person is Christopher Sanders, a fellow public defender and president of the Loren Miller Bar Association, who met Karen when he was an SU law student. “Karen is so engaged with the school,” he says. “She was always present at functions and events, and the dean and professors all seemed to know her.”
When Sanders told others about his dream of being a public defender, everyone said “talk to Karen.” Sanders credits Karen for helping him realize his dream, and more importantly in seeing that he succeeded by providing ongoing feedback and insight. Sanders notes that Karen was the first public defender to serve as president of the Loren Miller Bar Association; he is the second.
SU law Professor John Strait recalls Karen as a student whom, he says, “stood out; she really, really was committed to work with underprivileged, indigent populations. When she wanted a Rule 9 internship at the public defenders’ (office), I pushed her and talked to the director. I said she would be a wonderful public defender and she was a gem.”
Washington Supreme Court Justice Steven Gonzalez met Karen when she worked as a public defender and he was an assistant city attorney. Justice Gonzalez recalls her tenacious, but always polite, courtroom demeanor. Karen later collaborated with Justice Gonzalez through her position on the board of the KCBA’s Future of the Law Institute, whose mission was to expose youth of color to careers in the law.
Karen and Justice Gonzalez also served together as members of the Race and Criminal Justice System Task Force, which worked on eliminating implicit bias in the court system. The effort resulted in a report presented to the Washington Supreme Court and published in the law reviews of all three Washington law schools.
Spanning years, Karen’s community and professional activities have included serving as a member of the Washington Minority and Justice Commission; chair of the ACA Division Community Engagement Committee, which promotes activities to feed the homeless; a member of the KCBA Drug Policy Project; working with the Death Penalty Round Table Forum; and serving as co-chair of the KCBA Elder Law Clinic, and as a moot court and mock trial volunteer judge.
A powerful and eloquent voice on issues of social justice and equity, Karen is a popular writer and speaker on varied topics such as racial disparity in drug enforcement, jury selection, civility in the law, solutions and reform of Seattle King County drug policies, and the death penalty.
Karen has received numerous awards and recognitions. For outstanding dedication and significant contributions to public service, Karen received the 2010 KCBA President’s Award, the 2013 WSBA President’s Award and the 2016 LMBA Lifetime Achievement Award.
Indeed, Karen’s life is marked indelibly by the call of public service. It stands as a tribute to what one person can achieve when endowed with courage and audacity.
Linda Lau is a former Division One Court of Appeals and King County Superior Court judge. She currently serves as a mediator, arbitrator and consultant for Judicial Dispute Resolution. Burns Petersen is director of assigned counsel for the King County Department of Public Defense.