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?

"My life began to revolve around what had happened to Lacresha," she says, "because there simply was no one else to do it." And as she lobbied for support, she never failed to point out that her concern was also for Jayla Belton. "From the very beginning," she says, "this was a matter of child abuse in America. There's no doubt she was an abused child."

It is an accusation Judy Belton and Derrick Shaw, now married, have repeatedly denied. In the last interview they gave, Derrick told Dave Harmon of the Austin American-Statesman that the accusations still bother him. "As I told everybody before," he said in March 1999, "I would never do anything to hurt a child." In the same interview, Judy expressed concern that her daughter's death had been obscured by the publicity campaign generated by Lacresha Murray's supporters. The Shaws recently moved from their Killeen apartment where they had lived since leaving Austin. Efforts by the Observer to contact them were unsuccessful.

"Though Lacresha was physically and mentally healthy," Taft continued, "she was also abused--by the judicial system. All the Travis County district attorney and medical examiner wanted was a child-killer case--and they got it with an 11-year-old girl. Lacresha was taken from her home, hidden from her family and questioned until she said what they wanted her to say. All you really have to tell an 11-year-old is, she isn't going home until she tells you what you want to hear. Under those circumstances, she'll say anything."

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.

Ultimately, after Lacresha had spent three years in Texas Youth Commission facilities, first in Corsicana, then in Giddings, the Austin-based Third Court of Appeals agreed. The conviction was reversed and remanded again to Travis County after it was determined that Lacresha's statement to the police could have been "the product of fright and despair" since she was so young and separated from her family. An immediate appeal to the Texas Supreme Court by the D.A.'s office was denied.

Thus in April 1999 Lacresha was released and returned to the court-ordered supervision of her grandparents, there to await the D.A.'s decision on whether she would be tried a third time. Earle, still convinced of her guilt, insisted that if Jayla's mother was prepared to endure yet another courtroom battle, he would continue the fight.

The decision took two years and wound through a maze of negotiations that Lacresha's lawyer found mind-numbing. "Finally," recalls Hampton, "the D.A. agreed he would consider dropping the case if I could bring him some kind of solid evidence that would point the finger of guilt away from Lacresha." He returned to his files and reviewed findings about which Dr. Lloyd White, the Nueces County medical examiner, had been prepared to testify in the second trial. At the time, the defense team had concluded that jurors had grown weary of highly technical medical testimony and opted not to call the veteran pathologist to the stand.

Dr. White, a practicing physician for a quarter century, had examined cross-sections of the victim's liver under a microscope and discovered inflammation in the tissues. A sizable collection of neutrophils (white blood cells that collect in response to injuries and bacteria invasions) were found in the damaged liver. "So long as one's heart is pumping," his colleague Dr. Norton explains, "those neutrophils continue to collect at an injury site. The sheer number [of neutrophils] told us that the liver injury had been there a considerable length of time prior to death."

Hampton went to Ronnie Earle with the findings, arguing that the initial damage to Jayla Bolton's liver had occurred not 15 minutes before death but more likely 18 to 24 hours earlier. The child, slowly bleeding internally, was, he said, dying before she ever arrived at the Murray home.

Finally in August 2000, the tragic saga ended in a draw. Earle declined to pursue a third trial, citing the fact that his case was seriously weakened by the ruling that Lacresha's statement would no longer be admissible and by the fact that Judy and Derrick Shaw wanted the matter to be closed.

All charges against Lacresha Murray were dismissed, her record wiped clean.

On a recent Sunday afternoon, two ministers cast in the role of mediators entered the Dispute Resolution Center in north Austin, joined by the Shaws, Lacresha and her grandparents for an hour-long meeting. The purpose, to do what the legal community had been unable to--finally put the issue of Jayla Belton's death to rest.

Emerging after just more than an hour, the media-shy Lacresha was at first hesitant to speak, then, in a whisper, finally said, "I told them they have my sympathy." Today, she says, she harbors no resentment for the legal system. "I put that stuff behind me. I just go on with my life." The Shaws would not discuss what had transpired in the closed meeting. "We have to come to some closure, some healing" was all Jayla's mother said.

With that they went their separate ways: Lacresha, now 17, to prepare for her junior year at Reagan High School, the Shaws back to raising their two children. Weary of television cameras and reporters' tape recorders, everyone agreed there would be no more interviews, no more public reliving of their respective nightmares.

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