Innocence Lost

Was the case against Lacresha Murray, the youngest Texan ever tried for capital murder, a rush to judgment or a story of justice denied?

Lacresha Candy Murray, only 12 years old, was seated in an Austin courtroom, her frightened brown eyes darting among a thicket of strangers. Found guilty of murdering a small child, she listened as a judge sentenced her to 25 years in prison. Whatever emotion might have welled inside her was masked by a blank expression. Not so with her grandparents, R.L. and Shirley Murray, who sat in the gallery nearby, holding hands, shaking their heads in disbelief.

Lacresha, a jury decided earlier, had killed 2-year-old Jayla Belton while the toddler was being kept in the home of Lacresha's grandparents on the afternoon of May 24, 1996. Travis County prosecutors had outlined a nightmarish scenario wherein Lacresha dropped the baby, then kicked her with enough force to break several ribs and rupture her liver. It was those severe internal injuries, medical experts determined, that led to the child's death--and to the charges that triggered one of the most volatile and controversial cases in Austin history.

Before all was said and done, an entire nation was taking notice. And taking sides. As far away as London, newspaper accounts would compare the case to that of teenage British au pair Louise Woodward, also charged with the death of a small child.

Lacresha Murray, right, and her Austin-based attorney, Keith Hampton, who first met his client when she was 12 years old.
John Anderson
Lacresha Murray, right, and her Austin-based attorney, Keith Hampton, who first met his client when she was 12 years old.

This, in fact, was the second time the youngster had found herself seated at a defense table generally reserved for adults. First tried at age 11, earning her the dubious distinction of being the youngest capital murder defendant in Texas judicial history, she had been convicted of the lesser charges of negligent homicide and injury to a child and was given a 20-year sentence. Then, on a second attempt to plead her case, things had only gotten worse, the charge elevated to murder, her sentence increased.

What would emerge from all the accusations and counter-charges, the public outrages and cries for justice was a story tragic beyond belief and still shrouded in unanswered questions. Even now, five years later, after a quiet has finally settled, with all charges dropped and Lacresha set free, there remains a great division of thought among those who prosecuted and defended her. What actually happened to Jayla Belton, and who was really responsible? Was Lacresha, in fact, guilty, as a jury had decided in 1996 and again in '97? Or was she nothing more than an unfortunate pawn in a political power play: an expendable young black girl who served as an ideal campaign rally cry for a district attorney seeking re-election and a city fed up with juvenile crime?

Is it a textbook tale of a rush to judgment? Or one of justice denied?

It began on a springtime Friday morning when 65-year-old Shirley Murray, who routinely kept several children in her home despite having no license to conduct day care, was away, enjoying a bus tour through Louisiana and Mississippi that was a combined Mother's Day-birthday gift from her niece. In anticipation of the Memorial Day weekend outing, she had contacted the parents of children she normally watched to tell them she would be away. Some showed up anyway, including toddler Jayla Belton, brought at approximately 8:30 a.m. by Derrick Shaw, the then-23-year-old boyfriend of the child's mother.

Shawntay Murray, 17 at the time and the oldest of the adopted children living in the Murray household, answered the door to see Shaw, a cook at a local restaurant, standing on the porch with little Jayla and her 10-month-old sister, Jasmine. He and Judy Belton had been bringing the children to Shirley Murray's home for the previous six months. "He woke me up," Shawntay would later recall. "I told him that my grandma was gone, but he said he needed to leave them for just a little while."

Shaw never returned, instead going to work.

And though he would later tell a jury that Jayla had "been playful the morning I dropped her off," the recollection of Shawntay was quite different: Normally active and a voracious eater, Jayla seemed lethargic that day and had no appetite. Soon after arriving she began to sweat profusely, then vomited. Thinking the child might be suffering from a flu virus, Shawntay, basically in charge of the younger children in the house in her grandmother's absence--her five siblings, Jayla and Jasmine, and three small children left by a woman named Alicia Turner--gave Jayla a Tylenol tablet. Shawntay recalls that the child slept most of the day and was still asleep when she left for her job at a local pharmacy just before 3 p.m.

Thereafter, the only adult in the home was her grandfather. R.L. Murray had been there throughout the day, except for a brief period earlier in the morning when he'd taken his car in for minor repairs.

The day passed routinely until shortly after 5 p.m., when 11-year-old Lacresha came in from the back yard and briefly joined her 12-year-old sister Cleo in watching television in the elder Murrays' bedroom. Leaving to visit the bathroom, Lacresha passed the adjacent room where Jayla Belton lay on Shawntay's bed. The baby, Lacresha would later tell authorities, was acting strangely. According to transcripts of a taped interview conducted by an Austin police homicide detective, she said, "I heard Jayla crying. She was shaking, so I went in there, picked her up, and ran to my grandpa and asked him what was wrong with her."

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