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: "Yes."

Sgt. Pedraza: "When you picked up the baby..."

Lacresha: "I was picking her up, and I was coming to take her to Grandpa. She did fall a little bit. She fell, her head hit the floor, her body hit the floor, and then I picked her up and run to Grandpa."

A former legal secretary, Barbara Taft, who did not know the Murray family, became Lacresha's most outspoken champion. "I knew in my heart...that Lacresha was innocent."
John Anderson
A former legal secretary, Barbara Taft, who did not know the Murray family, became Lacresha's most outspoken champion. "I knew in my heart...that Lacresha was innocent."
Dallas forensic pathologist Dr. Linda Norton testified for the defense in the second Lacresha Murray trial.
Pat Stowers
Dallas forensic pathologist Dr. Linda Norton testified for the defense in the second Lacresha Murray trial.

Sgt. Pedraza: "Do you recall picking up anything that might have caused an injury right there? Take your time. You don't recall using a belt?"

Lacresha: "For what?"

Sgt. Pedraza: "To maybe discipline the baby..."

Lacresha: "I don't hit kids..."

Sgt. Pedraza: "...and maybe left an injury there."

By the end of the session, Lacresha had agreed with the detective's suggestion that it was "possible" she might also have accidentally kicked the child. Sgt. Pedraza soon had her child-like signature on a document indicating that her statement was not only true and correct but had been given voluntarily. The admission that she had dropped the baby was enough to place her under arrest, charged with capital murder.

Two months later she was in court, her prosecution overseen by Travis County District Attorney Ronnie Earle. The D.A., who'd held the office since 1976, was in the midst of a tough bid for re-election, facing an opponent for the first time in two decades. Among the incumbent's campaign promises was a tougher, more aggressive stance on juvenile crime. Detractors insisted that the hurried trial of Lacresha Murray provided the needed publicity that fueled his Election Day victory.

Earle bristles at the rush-to-judgment criticisms, noting that it had long been standard procedure for local judges to quickly adjudicate juvenile cases. In Travis County, he noted, the average juvenile court case went to trial within 62 days following an indictment. "The truth of the matter is," he said, "we felt we were rushed. If the decision had been ours to make, we'd have liked longer to prepare our case."

Additionally, statistics bore out many of Earle's concerns. Travis County was receiving 5,000 child-abuse and neglect calls annually. One study indicated that 18 percent of children who were victims of abuse were later arrested for violent crimes.

Seated in his second-floor office on the edge of downtown after the second conviction, Earle wearily reflected on the case, the trials and the steady barrage of angry accusations leveled at him and his staff. "Child-abuse prosecution has always been one of our primary focuses," he said. "Anytime we have a child-abuse case or a child-death case, I am kept apprised of every step in the progress of the investigation. When I first learned of Jayla Belton's death, I, like everyone else, immediately assumed that some adult was responsible. When I was told that all the evidence pointed to Lacresha, I was as shaken as anybody."

Prosecutor Gary Cobb, who would twice plead the state's case against Lacresha, had the same first reaction. "I just knew an adult must have done it," he recalled. "There was no way an 11-year-old female child could have done something like this. Even after reviewing all the material presented to me, I didn't want to believe it. But the fact was, there was only one person who could have committed the crime." By her own admission, Lacresha was the last person to be near Jayla before she was rushed to the hospital. And it was during that brief time period, the medical examiner ruled, that the fatal injuries had occurred.

On August 9, 1996, a jury of six men and six women returned a guilty verdict, and Lacresha was sentenced to 20 years under the Determinate Sentencing Act, which provides for juveniles to be committed to the Texas Youth Commission until they become adults. The remainder of the sentence would be served in an adult prison.

The outrage erupted. From the headquarters of Amnesty International to local radio talk shows to the editorial pages of The New York Times, a volley of criticism was aimed not only at prosecutor Earle and the Austin Police Department but at the already battle-scarred Texas legal system. Leading the nation in death-penalty executions was one thing, critics argued. Trying and convicting children was quite another.

So intense did the public criticism become that 250th District Judge John Dietz soon granted a motion for a new trial. In January of 1997, Lacresha was again found guilty, this time sentenced to 25 years. Represented in her first trial by a young public defender, she was provided for the second round a three-person legal team that tried with little success to deflect the blame to Derrick Shaw. Among the accusations they wished the jury to hear was that Shaw had been drinking on the morning he left Jayla at the Murray house, that he was a drug user and that Jayla was often left unsupervised for lengthy periods of time.

Judge Dietz, however, refused to admit such testimony, noting that police had interviewed both Shaw and Judy Belton extensively and had eliminated them as suspects.

Expert witnesses summoned by the defense noted that the bruises on her body--many apparently inflicted days before her death--offered evidence that Jayla had long been physically abused. Weighing less than 20 pounds when she died, she was seriously malnourished. The symptoms she had displayed on the morning she was left at the Murray house were strong indicators that she was already in shock when she arrived.

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