By Jim Schutze
By Rachel Watts
By Lauren Drewes Daniels
By Anna Merlan
By Lee Escobedo
While still residing at the TYC facility in Giddings, Lacresha spoke of looking ahead to the day she would again be free. She talked of her faith, of how she missed her grandmother's cooking and of her eagerness to again play basketball with her brother, Jason. And she spoke of a future. "When I was younger," she said, "I thought I wanted to be a policewoman when I grew up. But not anymore. I think I want to be a lawyer, a juvenile lawyer, so I can help kids who might be in the same situation I found myself in."
And so the story abruptly concluded with no real ending. For all the scarred lives, pain and lost innocence, there remains the unsettling fact that questions regarding Jayla Belton's death are destined to linger for a long time.
There will, no doubt, be those convinced they know the answers. Assistant District Attorney Gary Cobb, the lead prosecutor in both Murray trials, remains convinced that Lacresha committed murder. "Absolutely, no doubt about it," he says. His boss, Ronnie Earle, agrees. Though Pedraza, the police sergeant who conducted the controversial interview that led to the first indictment, says he has no opinion on the dismissal, the Austin Police Department has now adopted new procedures for dealing with juvenile suspects. Before a child is questioned without a guardian present, a judge must be notified.
Meanwhile, Barbara Taft, who says she can finally scrape the "Free Lacresha" bumper stickers from her pickup, never for a moment doubted Lacresha's innocence. Nor did Dr. Norton and a number of others who stationed themselves firmly in the girl's camp.
Lacresha, closely watched over by her grandparents, school officials and a small circle of friends, is happy to be home, concentrating on her studies and earning a spot on the varsity basketball team. She no longer talks of the time spent as a TYC inmate. On the rare occasions when she overhears whispers about her past, she chooses to ignore them. "I just want to get on with my life," she confided to Taft.
Those who know her best reflect on the youngster's journey and find it difficult to believe she ever became the central figure in such a horrific story. One of seven children born to a mother now living in Oklahoma and adopted by the Murrays at age 2, her shyness has always been one of her most notable personality traits. "She's a quiet child," says the Rev. O.S. Davis, pastor of the Ulit Avenue Missionary Baptist Church, which is attended by the Murray family. "She's always been involved in youth activities and had an even temperament. She's a lovable child."
Deidra Raney, one of four teachers who testified in Lacresha's second trial, remembered her as a great kid. "She was always a bit of a tomboy," Raney said, "and seemed to suffer some from low esteem because she didn't feel as pretty as the other girls." None of the instructors remember her as aggressive or quick to anger.
The worst complaint he ever heard from teachers, R.L. Murray adds, was that Lacresha and one of her friends sometimes talked too much in class and that Lacresha seemed to have some difficulties with her math lessons.
Shirley Murray, who returned from that long-ago holiday bus trip to learn that Jayla Belton had died and that her own children were being temporarily held by Child Protective Services, never doubted Lacresha's innocence. "She's always been kind-hearted and loved little kids. Even when someone did or said something that hurt her feelings, she just ignored it."
The time when her adopted child was in custody, Mrs. Murray says, was agonizing. "Even though I saw her every weekend and talked to her on the phone every night, it didn't take the place of having her at home where she should have been. There was a hole in our family. What should have been a fun time in a child's life--playing, going to school, singing in the church choir, being with family--was taken away.
"But through it all, Lacresha kept her Bible nearby. She told me time and time again that she knew God would work things out."
In his Austin office, Keith Hampton reflects on the years that have passed since he was first introduced to a client who had just celebrated her 12th birthday. It did not take long, he insists, for him to decide that he was representing someone wrongfully accused. And while he celebrates the fact that Lacresha is finally free, it pains him to review the destruction that occurred. "I can only hope we've all learned something from this," he says. "A good investigation is one where you're led by the evidence rather than deciding someone's guilt and then building a case against them. That's how innocent people wind up in prison."
Surprisingly, there is no residue of ill will for the district attorney who was his adversary. "It's ironic, I suppose, but the fact of the matter is, I've always had a great deal of respect for Ronnie Earle. He's a good D.A. and a good man. I voted for him and probably will again. But in this case, he just allowed the big picture to get lost in a bureaucratic mindset."
With that he pauses, then adds, "Despite all that has happened, the investigations, the trials and negotiations, we still really don't know what happened to little Jayla Belton. And that, to me, will forever be the saddest footnote to this case."