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?

Ultimately, the jury was forced to make its decision after hearing dueling testimony from forensic experts. The child, Dr. Bayardo testified, had received the fatal blows only minutes before her death. Additionally, the prosecution put on famed San Antonio pathologist Vincent DiMaio, who testified that the groove pattern on the sole of a running shoe, known to have been worn by Lacresha the day the crime occurred, matched the bruises on Jayla's abdomen.

Dallas forensic pathologist Linda Norton saw things differently. Court-appointed to serve as a defense witness--though she most often testifies for the prosecution--she reviewed autopsy photographs and reports and soon became convinced that her colleague was wrong. Today, years later, she is still outraged by the guilty verdict. "Lacresha Murray did not kill that child," she says. "She had nothing to do with that little girl's death. It was a gross miscarriage of justice."

During her testimony, Dr. Norton had pointed out that many of the bruises on the victim's body were far too old to have been caused on the day she died. Some, she suggested, had likely been the result of being struck with a broom handle and a belt. The child, she explained to the jury, was badly malnourished. The toddler's sweating, nausea and lethargic behavior--all classic symptoms of shock--were strong indicators that much of the damage to her ribs and liver had already occurred before she arrived at the Murray home.

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.

That damage, complicated through the day, had only been compounded in the emergency room, she noted. In an effort to revive the child, doctors had pressed against Belton's tiny chest as many as 1,000 times. "With CPR on a child," she says, "you're talking about 100 very powerful compressions a minute, to a body that was very frail to begin with." It was that well-intended effort, she believes, that added to the damage Dr. Bayardo found during his autopsy. Cracked ribs were further damaged; an already hemorrhaging liver was severed.

Doctors Bayardo and DiMaio argued that Dr. Norton's pre-existing-injury theory was physically impossible, testifying that anyone suffering the intense pain such internal damage would cause could not stand or walk--something several witnesses had seen Jayla do that day.

"Dr. Bayardo is not a malicious person," Dr. Norton responds, "but that doesn't make his opinion any less a mistake."

Additionally, defense attorney Keith Hampton, 41, introduced into evidence a letter from the Texas Department of Safety forensic laboratory to the prosecutors. In the letter, criminologist Juan Rojas wrote that after reviewing photographs of marks on the victim's body and of a pair of shoes allegedly worn by Lacresha Murray, "we were unable to testify that the marks on Belton's body were made by these shoes due to insufficient general characteristics." Rojas had suggested the D.A.'s office seek the opinion of another expert.

The jury, however, was not swayed. As was the case in the first trial, it voted unanimously to convict.

Even now, the verdict haunts the former member of the Dallas County Medical Examiner's staff. "I had a terrible time dealing with it," Dr. Norton admits. "For months afterward it was the first thing that entered my mind when I woke. It crushed me, and all I could do was wonder what I might have done that would have made a difference in the outcome of the trial." This from a woman who once explained, "If I let every case get to me, I'd go stark raving mad. You build a wall between yourself and your cases and just hope it holds up." This one, she admits, didn't.

Barbara Taft understands.

She was earning $50,000 a year as a legal secretary for the Austin firm of Fulbright & Jaworski when she read about the first Murray trial during a bus ride to work. What she read in the morning paper angered her. The photo of Lacresha that accompanied the article broke her heart. That night she and her husband talked about the case late into the night; she rose the following morning to picket in front of the courthouse in protest of the on-going trial. "In my heart I knew two things," Taft remembers. "I knew that Lacresha was innocent, and that I was supposed to do something about what was being done to her." On nothing more than a gut feeling, she went to work.

In the years to come, Taft, who had not known Lacresha Murray or her family before the tragedy, became the accused girl's most dedicated and outspoken champion. In time, she developed a close friendship with Lacresha.

Resigning from her job to pursue her new cause wasn't a decision Taft made casually, particularly in light of the fact that her boss Mary Dietz, wife of the judge hearing the controversial case, was also a longtime friend. "She was shocked by my decision," Taft recalls, "but she understood that I was serious."

Ending a 30-year career, Taft formed an organization called People of the Heart, its sole purpose to see justice for Lacresha. She took a part-time job as an office manager at a real estate agency and sold vacuum cleaners door-to-door. Most of her time, however, was focused on People of the Heart, directing its fund-raising efforts, maintaining its Web site (www.peopleoftheheart.org), urging the media to look more closely at what she was certain was a travesty of justice and leading monthly protests in front of the courthouse, outside the district attorney's office or on the grounds of the state capitol.

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