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.
Travis County District Attorney Ronnie Earle acknowledges "we felt we were rushed" in prosecuting Murray.
Travis County District Attorney Ronnie Earle acknowledges "we felt we were rushed" in prosecuting Murray.
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."
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.

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."

Alicia Turner had just arrived at the Hansford Drive home to pick up her children when she saw the condition of the baby and urged the 67-year-old grandfather to place a call to 911. Instead, R.L. Murray, who has walked with the aide of crutches since his legs were paralyzed by polio in childhood, and Lacresha got into the family van and hurried the convulsing child to nearby Breckenridge Hospital. It was a barefoot Lacresha who carried the baby's limp body into the emergency room. After 20 minutes of intensive CPR, Jayla Latre Belton was pronounced dead.

She was still lying on a gurney, a tube in her mouth and electrodes attached to her tiny chest, when Judy Belton, alerted at her job as supervisor of a local bookstore, and Derrick Shaw arrived at the hospital. "She was so cold," the mother remembers. "I just kissed her, rubbed her head and told her that I loved her."

Kent Burress, a social worker at the hospital at the time, would later testify that he had escorted Belton and Shaw to the child's body and found Shaw's behavior unusual in light of the circumstances. While the distraught mother lingered over Jayla, Burress remembered, Shaw seemed more concerned with getting a parking sticker for his automobile.

An autopsy, performed by Travis County medical examiner Roberto Bayardo, ruled that the child had died from a severe blow to the liver. During his examination he also found 30 bruises scattered over the child's head, legs and torso; a 3/4-inch abrasion near the base of the skull; and four broken ribs. A blunt-force injury to the abdomen, he ruled, had broken the ribs and severed the liver. The fatal injury, he said, had taken place no more than 15 minutes before the child's death.

R.L. Murray would later insist that he had seen no bruises on Jayla Belton's body when Lacresha brought her to him. The mother who was there to pick up her children, however, told a jury that she noticed what she thought were bruises on the 2-year-old's stomach as she was being carried from the house for the trip to the hospital.

It was Dr. Bayardo's opinion that a homicide had occurred.

Within days the investigation centered on 11-year-old Lacresha, the large-for-her-age child with an outgoing personality--a happy-go-lucky girl who enjoyed playing basketball, singing in the church choir and taking evening walks through the neighborhood with her grandmother. The primary reason to assume her the most likely suspect: She was the last person known to have been in the company of Jayla before it became necessary to rush her to the hospital.

Ironically, it was a sworn statement given to police by her grandfather that helped turn suspicion toward her. He was sitting in the living room, he recalled, when Lacresha came inside from the back yard to go to the bathroom in the rear of the Murrays' east Austin home. "I heard a thumping noise," he said in his affidavit. "It sounded like someone throwing a ball against the wall. I called out to Lacresha and asked her what was going on. She said that she was playing ball, and I told her she knew better; she is not supposed to play ball in the house.

"About a minute later she came into the hallway and said that [Jayla] was shaking and throwing up. That's when I told her to bring the baby to me."

It was after the frantic trip to the emergency room and the pronouncement that little Jayla was dead that the elder Murray told police, "If Lacresha did this, I want to see her get some help."

As the investigation got under way, police requested that Child Protective Services officials remove Lacresha and her siblings--sister Cleo and three younger brothers--from the Murray home, standard procedure in such cases.

Isolated from her family at the Texas Baptist Children's Home in nearby Round Rock for four days, she was finally interviewed by Austin police homicide detective Ernesto Pedraza for nearly three hours with neither a lawyer nor the grandparents she'd lived with since age 2 present. She repeatedly insisted that she had done nothing to harm the baby. On no fewer than 39 occasions during the interview, Lacresha said that she did not know what had happened to cause Jayla's death. Finally, calling on 20 years' experience in investigating homicides, Sgt. Pedraza began to question Lacresha along less accusatory lines:

Sgt. Pedraza: "I know it's real hard, Lacresha. It's hard when something like this happens, but you know there's a reason, there might be a reason why this happened. You know, you might have been carrying the baby and the baby might've fallen from your arms, or fell off the bed, or something like this...but until we hear it from you, we won't know. We need to get your side of the story."

Lacresha: "I just told you."

Sgt. Pedraza: "...You're not telling me all of it."

Lacresha: "Yes I am."

Sgt. Pedraza: "...I have a doctor who says those injuries happened at the time. You know where it leads us to? To you. And like I was explaining to you, there are reasons why the baby sustained those injuries. There's always an explanation to everything...Things happen, we make mistakes. I make mistakes all the time, you know. But I don't try to hide them...You're a young girl. You still have your whole life ahead of you...we can correct things. Do you understand what I'm saying?"

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."

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.

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.

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.

"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."

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.

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."

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