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Lost Youth

Dallas lawyer Frank Hernandez believes the civil rights of Lacresha Murray, convicted of murder at 11, were violated.
Peter Calvin

Longtime civil rights attorney Frank Hernandez knew little of the tragic and tangled story when the long-distance plea first came to his Dallas office. What he heard was a tale of one child murdered and another's life forever tainted, allegations of over-stepping by law enforcement, judgment rushed and political ambition run amok.

It was a case that quickly lured him to Austin where, late last August, he filed a sweeping $30 million lawsuit against city and county officials. In doing so, he will now add yet another chapter to a case that has already caused a national uproar.

In 1996, in an Austin courtroom, a bewildered, brown-eyed 11-year-old named Lacresha Candy Murray had been tried and found responsible for the death of tiny Jayla Belton, a 2-year-old who was being cared for in her grandparents' home. The trial and events that led to it had set off a fury of debate over whether justice had been served or, as many believed, rushed and ultimately denied.

On the afternoon of May 14, 1996, a barefoot Murray, accompanied by her grandfather, had carried the dying child into the emergency room of Austin's Brackenridge Hospital. In time there would be evidence to suggest the toddler had been listless and running a fever from the time her father dropped her off early that morning. An autopsy would show that the child had a severely damaged liver, four broken ribs and more than 30 bruises to her head, torso and legs.

Authorities determined that Murray was the last person with Jayla before the futile trip to the hospital.

Initially charged with negligent homicide, the soft-spoken Murray received a 20-year prison sentence. When a new trial was later ordered, the charge was elevated to capital murder, and she was again found guilty, her sentence extended to 25 years ("Innocence Lost," October 18, 2001).

With the dubious distinction of being the youngest convicted murderer in Texas judicial history, she went off to the Texas Youth Commission facility in Marlin, then Giddings, where she had served three years before the state's 3rd Court of Appeals reviewed the case and remanded it back to the Travis County courts where it would be determined if yet another trial was in order.

Murray had confessed to police while being held at the Texas Baptist Children's Home in nearby Round Rock in the days immediately after Jayla's death. The appellate judges ruled that the statement, made while Murray was separated from her family by CPS order, was inadmissible as evidence. The interrogation, which led to Murray confessing that she had dropped the infant and kicked her, had been conducted with neither an attorney nor parent on hand--a violation of Texas Family Code law. The transcript of the interview, in fact, showed that on no less than 39 occasions Murray insisted that she had no idea what caused Jayla Belton's death. Only after the interrogating officer, Sergeant Ernesto Pedraza, took a less accusatory tone and began "suggesting" what might have occurred did the youngster agree that it was "possible" she had accidentally dropped and kicked the baby.

Following the appellate court's ruling, Murray was released and returned to the court-ordered supervision of grandparents R.L. and Shirley Murray, who had adopted her when she was 2. There, she was forbidden to be alone with children, and court-assigned "trackers" monitored her comings and goings--all while awaiting Travis County District Attorney Ronnie Earle's decision whether to try the case a third time.

After two years and a mind-numbing litany of negotiations, Earle finally announced in August 2000 that there would be no new trial, despite his belief that Lacresha was guilty of causing the child's death. A third conviction, he admitted, would be difficult without Murray's statement. There was also Dr. Lloyd White, a veteran Nueces County medical examiner who had reviewed the evidence and was prepared to testify that the damage to the deceased child's liver had not occurred minutes before her death--as Travis County medical examiner Roberto Bayardo had previously testified--but, rather, 18 to 42 hours earlier. Additionally, Judy and Derrick Shaw, parents of Jayla, weary of allegations by Murray supporters and lawyers that they, in fact, had physically abused their child and should have been more thoroughly investigated, wished the matter closed.

Thus, all charges against young Murray were dismissed. She and her grandparents met privately with the Shaws and two Austin ministers serving as mediators in an hour-long conversation designed to bring an end to the controversy. On that Sunday afternoon, the media-shy Lacresha told waiting reporters only that "I want to get on with my life." Jayla Belton's mother said, "We have come to some closure, some healing."

Austin police issued a statement, saying that the investigation into Jayla's death remained open.  

And with that--after four years of legal battling, "Free Lacresha" rallies, rehashing of Jayla's death and its aftermath by everyone from The New York Times to Amnesty International and angry claims that Earle has used the Murray prosecution as a re-election campaign tool--it appeared the volatile and tragic episode would become nothing more than a disturbing footnote in Texas' judicial history.

That was until Murray's grandfather contacted Hernandez and asked that he look into the possibility of civil litigation. With that invitation, the 63-year-old Dallas lawyer began researching the case and was soon gearing for a legal battle with the Travis County District Attorney's Office, the Austin police and Travis County Child Protective Services.

Today, all are named in the lawsuit that claims Lacresha and her family have been victimized by malicious prosecution, defamation, mental anguish, libel and slander. Charges of racism are also raised in the suit, suggesting that the Murray family would have been treated differently had they been white.

It was, Hernandez says, his first conversation with the now 18-year-old Murray that convinced him to take the case. "There was this very quiet, very reserved young woman, talking about how scared and confused she was back in those days when she was being interrogated, then tried. She didn't even know what was going on," he says. (At one point during the interview that resulted in her admission of guilt, Murray had asked the officer what the word "homicide" meant.) "And then she told me of how she cried almost every day for the first three months she was incarcerated; how those inmates who didn't like her would call her 'Baby Killer.'"

Hernandez explains that in the Texas juvenile system, prisoners are considered on their way toward rehabilitation only after they've admitted responsibility for their crimes. "Until you admit you're guilty," he says, "you have very few privileges and must continue to wear the state-issued orange jumpsuit instead of the civilian clothes most inmates are allowed."

During her three years, Murray enjoyed only limited visits to the commissary and exercise area, never took an unsupervised walk on the grounds and was always dressed in the telling orange jumpsuit. "To the administrators," Hernandez says, "it was a sign that she was still in denial; to the other inmates, it was like a scarlet letter."

Murray's explanation to her new lawyer was childishly simple: "I didn't do what they said I did. I never hurt Jayla. There was nothing for me to admit."

"What the legal system did," Hernandez says, "was rob her of her early teen-age years. The actions against her stained her for life. From now on, whenever she's asked, by law she has to acknowledge that she has been arrested."

In his lawsuit, he charges that the Austin police conspired with the district attorney's office and CPS workers to disregard the fact that Murray was in custody so the controversial two-hour-and-40-minute interrogation could be conducted. "We have evidence that they talked at length about how they could avoid taking Lacresha before a magistrate for arraignment," Hernandez says. "They knew if they had done so, she would have been appointed a lawyer who would have immediately explained that she was under no obligation to talk with the police."

Even Murray's grandparents were not told where the girl was being held during a five-day period following Jayla's death, the lawyer points out. "Texas law is very clear that you can't interrogate an 11-year-old without having a lawyer, parent or some other adult present."

Murray's constitutional rights, he says, were clearly violated. And, he reminds, he's not the first to make such a suggestion. "The appeals court said as much when it ruled her statement was inadmissible and remanded the case back to Travis County."

Earle, meanwhile, has filed a petition with the courts denying the allegations. While both city and county officials named in the suit have refused comment to the media, David Smith, litigation chief for the city of Austin, recently told the Austin American-Statesman that one of the key issues in the case may well be the question of whether the defendants are immune from liability. "They may have some immunities under the law because they were carrying out their official duties," Smith said.

Hernandez, who has been in practice for almost four decades, disagrees and anticipates that a trial date will be set for next August or September.

And once again, it will be the shy, reserved Murray in the eye of the storm. Though the memories of accusations and trials, taunts and long days and nights in the Texas juvenile detention system remain, she seldom speaks of them. "I detect no bitterness on her part," Hernandez says, "and, for now at least, she's blocked out a lot of things that I worry might cause her pain later in life." The attorney has urged her to seek counseling, but Murray responds by recalling the fruitless group therapy sessions she was ordered to attend while an inmate; of repeatedly hearing that she "had issues she needed to work through."  

Described by most who know her as "a loner," Murray focuses on her studies at Austin's Reagan High School, where she is an A-and-B student and an All-District performer on the basketball team. She talks of continuing her athletic pursuits at the college level, hopefully at an out-of-state school where the whispers about her past won't follow.

And one day, she tells Hernandez, she wants to become a lawyer.


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