by Jordan Smith
"Our responsibility is to help Lacresha heal not by blaming everybody else for what she did, but by helping her accept responsibility for what she did. Accepting responsibility is the beginning of healing."
- District Attorney Ronnie Earle, August 1996
It's been two years since Travis County District Attorney Ronnie Earle delivered that message to the congregation of the Greater Calvary Baptist Church, shortly after the first conviction of Lacresha Murray, now a 14-year-old resident of the Giddings State Home and School, a Texas Youth Commission reformatory 60 miles east of Austin. Today, Earle is even more insistent that Murray accept responsibility for the 1996 beating death of two-year-old Jayla Belton, particularly in light of a growing number of people - "enablers," Earle calls them - who believe that Murray was railroaded by police investigators and prosecutors anxious to secure an arrest and conviction in one of Travis County's most emotionally charged homicide cases. But despite the Giddings facility's widely acclaimed reputation for helping convicted teens atone for their actions, Murray refuses to acknowledge she had anything to do with Jayla Belton's death.
Lacresha Murray's grandparents, Shirley and R. L. Murray, believe she is innocent.
photograph by Jana Birchum
"They're trying to make things rough for her," says Shirley Murray, Lacresha's grandmother and adoptive mother. "They want her to accept responsibility for killing a child, something she did not do." And accepting responsibility for the tragic death is something that will never happen, Shirley Murray explains, because telling the truth is one of the cardinal values she and her husband, R.L. Murray, have taught their children. "Lacresha says, `It may take me longer to get out, but I won't accept responsibility for something I didn't do,'" Shirley Murray says. "And I tell her, the truth always wins in the long run."
Lacresha Murray: I didn't do nothing. I promise to God.
Detective Ernesto Pedraza: Lacresha, it's okay. Listen.
LM: Ya'll going to take me to jail or something?
EP: No. We're not taking you to jail. We're taking you back to your shelter. You can go back. We just want to get to the truth. It's all going to be okay. ... We just need to make sure we solve this matter. Okay? We need to solve it. And I want you to talk to us, so we can get everything straight. All right? ... Once we get the story straight ... it's over. Okay?
LM: Yep. But I didn't do anything.
EP: Pardon me?
LM: I didn't do nothing.
- Transcript of an A.P.D. interview, conducted
May 29, 1996 at Texas Baptist Children's Home
This story is based on a four-month investigation that included more than a dozen interviews, and examinations of countless court documents and a transcript and audiotape of Lacresha Murray's statement to police. It is not an attempt to establish guilt or innocence, but rather to raise questions - questions which, after two years, still have no satisfactory answers. Is it right for police to interview an 11-year-old girl for two hours and 40 minutes without her having the benefit of a lawyer or legal guardian in the same room? Did investigators follow up sufficiently on other leads, and contrary evidence? Or were they too quickly convinced that only Lacresha Murray could have dealt the fatal blow? And what of the one major piece of physical evidence in the case: Jayla Belton's body? Travis County medical examiner Roberto Bayardo ruled that Jayla was killed by a blow inflicted during a time when she was alone with Lacresha. And in doing so, he sealed her fate. But if there's another plausible explanation for how those injuries might have occurred, that Dr. Bayardo missed, is there still any criminal case against Lacresha Murray?
And hanging over all of these questions is a darker, unspoken one: Were all of the answers for Lacresha Murray colored by the fact that she is an African-American with modest economic means and no political clout?
The unusual and highly politicized case began on May 24, 1996, the day Jayla Belton died after spending the day in child care at the Murray home. Since then, Murray has faced two trials and two convictions, based entirely on circumstantial evidence. The second conviction is now on appeal before a three-member panel of justices on the 3rd Court of Appeals - Marilyn Aboussie, Woody Jones, and Gov. George Bush's recent appointee, Chief Justice Lee Yeakel. (Aboussie, a Democrat, is currently going up against Yeakel in a heated race for the chief justice's seat.) A decision on Murray's appeal is expected some time this fall, possibly before the November election.
In a more recent development, a civil attorney has entered the fray; Houston lawyer Dan Shea last month filed a $10 million dollar lawsuit on Murray's behalf, claiming negligence on the part of Bill White, the lead court-appointed defense attorney in Murray's second trial, and the Texas Baptist Children's Home in Round Rock, where Murray and her siblings were taken as part of the police investigation. Murray, then an obviously frightened 11-year-old, was interrogated May 29, 1996, by Austin Police detectives Ernesto Pedraza and Al Eels (Angie McGown, an A.P.D. victim's services counselor, was also present) for two hours and 40 minutes without an attorney or legal guardian present - something Murray's advocates say would never have happened had she been white and from West Austin.
The state's position on the interview/interrogation is that at the time of the questioning, Murray was not a suspect, and that the police procedure was no more than a routine interview of a witness.
Lacresha Murray: My sister said the baby was sick.
Ernesto Pedraza: Well, the baby might have had a little fever, but the baby didn't die from that. Do you know what the baby died of?
EP: The baby had a lot of injuries on her. And those injuries happened at that particular time. And we've talked to everybody in your family already and we've cleared everybody, okay?
LM: Uh, huh [positive].
EP: And there's nobody left except you...
Chain of Events
By most accounts, Friday, May 24, 1996, was anything but a typical day in the Murray home. Shirley Murray, the primary caregiver, had taken a long-planned Memorial Day weekend getaway - a bus tour out of town - with her niece; it was a combined mother's day and birthday gift for her. But although she had told the parents of the children she cared for not to bring them over that day, several showed up anyway, including Jayla Belton, who was brought to the house by Derrick Shaw, the boyfriend of the toddler's mother, Judy Belton. "He woke me up," recalled Shawntay Murray, the oldest of the Murray children, who answered the door that morning to find Shaw with Jayla and her younger sister, Jasmine Belton, in tow. "He said he'd be right back and so I brought her in the house. But he never came back."
Also unusual that day, according to witnesses, was Jayla Belton. Usually active and a voracious eater, today she was out of sorts: lethargic, sweating profusely and vomiting. Thinking she might have the flu and a fever, Shawntay Murray gave her a Tylenol and let her sleep, which she did for nearly the entire day.
At about 5:30pm, Lacresha Murray was watching TV with her sister Cleo, then 13, in Shirley and R.L. Murray's bedroom. As the credits for the show Step by Step - one of the kids' favorites - rolled across the screen, Lacresha left the bedroom for the bathroom. As she was returning, she said she noticed Jayla Belton acting peculiar on Shawntay Murray's bed.
"I heard Jayla crying, she was shaking, and I went in there, picked her up and ran her to my grandpa and asked him what was wrong with her," Lacresha told A.P.D. homicide detectives five days later. After some discussion about what to do, R.L. and Lacresha got into the family van and fought Memorial Day weekend traffic to Brackenridge. After 15 minutes of intensive CPR by the hospital emergency room crew, Jayla Latre Belton was pronounced dead.
That night, everyone was a suspect. The Murray home had been full of people that day, and police investigators questioned everyone. They questioned Judy Belton and Derrick Shaw, for the first and last time during their investigation, that night.
"Initially, it's all about eliminating folks," explained Sgt. Ernesto Pedraza, sitting behind his large desk in A.P.D.'s East Austin recruiting office. Pedraza was the lead homicide detective on the case. "Until we got the medical report, everybody was a suspect," he said.
R.L. Murray remembers the night vividly. "We got home [from the hospital] that night and they [the police] were everywhere," he said recently, sitting in a recliner in the family living room, his favorite spot - the spot he often occupies while watching the kids go about their daily activities. "They never showed a warrant or nothing, but they were all over the house and everywhere, and then every day for the next week, forensics was all over looking to see if there was any blood. And there was nothing. Rushing all over and still found nothing."
As part of the investigation, the children in the household were shuttled off to the Texas Baptist Children's Home in Round Rock, a private not-for-profit home which has a contract with the state through Child Protective Services to supply emergency shelter for children. Five days later - the longest any of the Murray children had ever been away from home - homicide detectives arrived at the Children's Home and interviewed Lacresha Murray. The next day she was arrested on charges she deliberately killed Jayla Belton; this was followed by a grand jury indictment for capital murder. Two months later, she was in court.
Emotions Run High
The case of a toddler victim and a child accused quickly turned into political fodder in an election year in which District Attorney Ronnie Earle was facing mounting Republican opposition in his re-election bid; it was the first time in two decades that Earle had faced an opponent, and Lacresha Murray seemed to be a good case on which to hang his law-and-order hat. Murray was the youngest defendant in Travis County history to face a capital murder charge, an indictment that does not include the death penalty for juveniles. The timespan between Lacresha's arrest and trial - just two months - seemed all too swift as well, considering the severity of the charge. However, the timeline - set by District Court Judge John Dietz - is fairly standard in juvenile cases, Earle explained in an interview, which included First Assistant D.A. Rosemary Lehmberg, and Assistant D.A.s Gary Cobb and Stephanie Emmons. The faster the juveniles can be dealt with, Earle said, the sooner they can get back to normal life. "It's about not wanting to keep juveniles in custody away from school and family," he said. "Stability and education are really important."
Jayla Belton died May 24, 1996 from a severe blow to the liver.
Because Jayla Belton was being cared for in the Murray home the day she died, prosecutors and police sought to turn the case into an unlicensed child care issue. Earle claimed that Murray was a child who "has not had a childhood," as he said in his speech to the Greater Calvary Baptist Church after the end of Murray's first trial. "She's big for her age," he said. "And so she has been a primary caretaker of all those children most of her life. She has not had a childhood. Children are supposed to be carefree, but Lacresha Murray has had to care for others."
Earle's statements are befuddling at best to family and friends of the Murrays, who wonder, angrily, where he gets his information. "He's got no idea what he's talking about," said Barbara Taft, founder of People of the Heart, a Murray advocacy group (see story, p.28). "No idea at all." And Shirley Murray observes: "They just made it up to make their story better; they've got a whole sack of lies they use. ... Lacresha was nothing but a baby herself. We would never leave an 11-year-old to be responsible for the kids. They were just making it all up."
Ernesto Pedraza: ... Do you ever take care of the kids?
Lacresha Murray: Uh, uh [negative].
LM: Not that much. I help a little bit. Most time I do the cleaning up.
EP: Whose responsibility is it to take care of the kids?
LM: Um, anybody.
EP: Like who?
LM: Um, Shawntay and my grandpa or grandma.
EP: How about Cleo?
LM: Well, no. She helps.
EP: She helps? Do you help also?
LM: A little bit.
New Trial Granted
The trial ended on August 9, 1996, after a jury of six men and six women - only two of whom were African-American - returned a verdict of guilty of negligent homicide and intentional injury to a child. Although Murray had been charged with capital murder, Assistant D.A. Gary Cobb asked for the lesser convictions in his closing arguments to the jury. Murray was sentenced to 20 years under the Determinate Sentence Act under which juveniles are committed to the Texas Youth Commission.
On a motion for a retrial, Judge Dietz, in ruling for the defense, agreed that Murray had not received a fair trial the first time around. "It was a good decision on Dietz's part," said Juvenile Public Defender Kameron Johnson, who represented Murray in the first trial. "The D.A.'s office has all the resources for trial and we had none. We didn't even have the money for an expert witness."
The second trial, in January 1997, saw Murray with a high-powered, court-appointed defense team and expert witnesses testifying on her behalf. This time, the trial, which lasted 19 days, ended with a familiar, yet swifter, ring: Guilty of injury to a child. This time, Murray was sentenced to 25 years based on an agreement worked out between the defense and prosecution.
Now, two years and two trials later, Murray's family and advocates still insist many questions remain unanswered concerning Jayla Belton's death, the ensuing police investigation, and the rush to trial, followed months later by a second trial - too late, they say, to repair the damage already done by the initial media blitz and first conviction.
During the second trial, Murray's team of lawyers - Bill White, Keith Hampton, and Linda Icenhauer-Ramirez - tried to introduce a defense that someone other than Murray killed Jayla Belton. The attorneys enlisted the help of two independent medical examiners who studied the evidence and concluded that Jayla Belton was the victim of long-term abuse and neglect. But Dietz excluded evidence from the trial that the defense believes would have demonstrated that Derrick Shaw, not Murray, was the more likely suspect to have inflicted the fatal blows. On appeal, defense lawyer Keith Hampton argues that Dietz erred in excluding evidence: "...that Derrick Shaw drank alcohol beginning early in the morning, that he purchased "crack" cocaine, that Jayla ate food from a can on the floor, that Shaw did not allow Jayla to leave the apartment, and that Jayla was left alone by both parents when they went to the store," according to Hampton's brief submitted to the appeals court.
"The snapshot of Jayla's life in the fall of 1995 leading up to her stay at the Murray home," the appellate brief states, "fit the larger pattern of abuse which the defense had theorized happened within the Shaw-Belton household."
However, the state argued in response that Dietz had allowed the defense "a great deal of leeway" by allowing the admission of other defense evidence against Shaw. "The appellant fails to acknowledge," the state asserts, "that Shaw was investigated by the police, and was cleared as a suspect."
It's unclear how extensive that investigation was, or whether it was renewed in light of the new defense evidence. The Chronicle made numerous attempts to contact Derrick Shaw, including several messages left with his mother, Brenda Shaw, but to no avail. His mother did say that she was incensed that anyone would speculate that her son had anything to do with Jayla Belton's death. "Derrick ain't ever done nothing to that baby to hurt her," she said over the phone. "The only thing Derrick has done is take care of kids." On another attempt to contact Derrick Shaw, she requested that the Chronicle stop calling.
More than any other testimony, jurors in both trials evidently relied on the autopsy findings of Dr. Roberto Bayardo, the Travis County medical examiner. The findings: 30 bruises scattered over Jayla Belton's body, a "3/4-inch dry abrasion surrounded by bruised margins" near the base of the skull (suggesting she had been thrown against a wall); four broken ribs, and a completely severed liver. Bayardo ruled that the death was caused by a blunt force injury to the abdomen, which broke the ribs and severed the liver approximately 15 minutes before death. His opinion: homicide. Bayardo's report narrowed the focus of the investigation to the three people last in contact with Jayla Belton: R.L. Murray, 13-year-old Cleo Murray, and 11-year-old Lacresha Murray.
Carl Eddy, 5, displays a placard in support of Lacresha Murray.
photograph by Jana Birchum
R.L. Murray was quickly eliminated because his legs are paralyzed, the result of a severe case of childhood polio. "We couldn't come up with any scenario whereby R.L. could've inflicted those injuries," said Assistant D.A. Gary Cobb, who prosecuted Lacresha in both trials. Cleo Murray was eliminated as well, perhaps because of her shy nature and small stature, although Cobb explained it this way: "Look at her; she couldn't have done it." Because Lacresha Murray was the last person to be alone with Jayla Belton during the window of time that Bayardo said the injuries occurred, the police investigation quickly focused on her.
Nevertheless, Murray's supporters charge, the line of police questioning begs for an explanation of how an 11-year-old girl - whose world until now had revolved around home, school and church - could possibly understand what was happening in a strange room with a tape recorder, a laptop computer, and two, sometimes three, police detectives who suggested several times that Murray may have "accidentally" dropped and kicked Belton.
Ernesto 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 of the bed, or something like this, and there's a lot of reasons why something happened, but until we hear it from you, we won't know. We'll just have our opinion.
Lacresha Murray: You have ours too.
EP: Right. And we need to get your side of the story also.
LM: I just told you.
EP: Yeah, but you're telling me some of it. You're not telling me all of it.
LM: Yes, I am.
EP: You know there's more to it.
LM: Uh, uh [negative].
To this day, of course, the pressure to confess continues. District Attorney Earle has made it clear that under the determinate sentencing law, under which Murray was incarcerated, Murray must accept responsibility for Belton's death if she hopes to be paroled from the Texas Youth Commission in 1999. But what if someone else, someone with greater opportunity, disposition, and physical strength, administered the fatal blows that killed Jayla Belton? In short, say Murray's advocates, the facts in this case leave a nagging question: Did she do it?
The answer is a resounding no, according to Dr. Linda Norton, a former Dallas County medical examiner and much sought-after expert in child abuse cases. Norton was one of two doctors who studied Lacresha's case and served as expert medical witness for the defense in her second trial. It was the first time Norton had ever testified in behalf of a defendant in her 25-year career. The defense's second medical expert was Dr. Lloyd White, a practicing physician for 25 years and the Nueces County medical examiner since 1992. Both doctors question Bayardo's methods, and find fault with his conclusions. Norton believes Bayardo's autopsy was hasty at best.
"It was filled with shoot-from-the-hip conclusions," she said a telephone interview from her Dallas office. "It is not possible for all those injuries to be inflicted at once. Bayardo's incomplete exam was the beginning of this case going down the tragic route it did. ... He came out with a premature decision."
White, who is more charitable to Bayardo's skills, nevertheless believes Bayardo rushed his conclusions. In this case, he said, Bayardo fell subject to a well-known medical examiner's pitfall. "What happened was a classic error of forensic science," White explained. "It's called categorical intuitive deduction." Meaning, he further explained, that when Bayardo opened up Jayla's body and saw the severed liver, he stopped investigating. "You see something that initially looks obvious and fail to go beyond that point."
Both Norton and White believe that Jayla Belton's death was the result of a classic case of child abuse. Belton, at age two and a half, only weighed about 20 pounds and appeared "poorly nourished," a fact Bayardo only mentions in passing in his report because he was unable to weigh her. "This became a real problem during the trial," said Norton. "Unless you have an actual weight you're left guesstimating. If you had a weight and could plot it on a growth chart, we'd know more if she had been abused, because she'd fall well below the normal growth curve."
But Bayardo never weighed the child because the medical examiner's office didn't have a scale, an item the county has since purchased. "Yes, it's important to have an exact weight," said Bayardo. "But we didn't have a scale. What are we supposed to do?"
Another issue for Norton and White is the number of bruises - 30 in all, along with several abrasions - found on Jayla's body. "The sheer number should make anyone immediately pop into mind, `This is a battered child,'" Norton asserted. When there is that much bruising, she added, routine procedure in an autopsy is to cut through the tissue surrounding the bruises and inspect the tissue under a microscope to determine whether all were inflicted around the same time, or whether some showed signs of healing. But Bayardo disagrees that the procedure was necessary in this case. "All the bruises look the same so I am satisfied," he said. "I see no reason to cut the skin over all the bruises, especially on a child. I don't want to disfigure the body."
In his courtroom testimony and in an interview with the Chronicle while sitting at a long oak conference table in the medical examiner's office, Bayardo made it clear he believed that all the bruises were inflicted at the same time. However, Bayardo's description of the bruises in his autopsy report seems contradictory. Bayardo uses a variety of descriptions for the bruises: Some are "fresh," while others are described as "faint," or "recent."
Again, Norton believes that if Bayardo had cut the tissue as part of his examination, he would have found that the bruises were of different ages, lending to the theory that the child had been abused over a period of time. "Microscopic exam was warranted in this case," she said. "That you can look at a bruise and tell how old it is is silliness."
Ernesto Pedraza: Yes, and I have a doctor who says those injuries happened at that time. Nobody else came this side of the house. No one. You see, 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, you understand, and you know, the baby wasn't just laying in bed and then all of a sudden sustained an injury. It might have rolled off the bed or...
Lacresha Murray: Don't know...
EP: Or you might have had him in your arms and then slipped from your arms and it might have fallen. There are things like that, and that's understandable. We can understand all that, but we need to hear that explanation from you.
LM: Well, I don't have an explanation. I told you all I know.
The bruises were a big issue at trial. Prosecutor Cobb said no one saw the bruises on Belton that day in the Murray home, which leads him to believe, as Bayardo does, that all were inflicted in one quick beating. ("Why is that so astonishing?" Cobb asked during an interview in his downtown office. "We get people who are stabbed over a hundred times. They're not stabbed a hundred times over a period of 24 hours, they're stabbed in a minute.") But this line of reasoning upsets White, the other medical examiner enlisted by the defense. "No one who was there examined her for bruises," he said. Jayla Belton was clothed, he points out, and no one was looking for bruises. Nor did any of the witnesses, whom Cobb questioned about the bruises, have any medical expertise to comment on the topic. "There's no medical testimony," White argued. "To claim she had no bruises before that afternoon [of her death] just isn't true."
Beyond the bruising, there is the horrifying liver injury which all three medical doctors agree was the final cause of death, though they have diametrically opposed opinions about not only how the injury was inflicted, but how it actually caused Belton's death. All three concur that a severed liver is a fairly unusual injury. "That kind of an injury is very hard to inflict," said Bayardo. "This kind of injury is normal to a car accident with a high-speed chase, or when someone has fallen from a high building or is kicked by a mule."
Bayardo, a muscular man who stands well over six feet tall, explained that ever since this case he has taken livers removed from young autopsy subjects and placed the liver on the edge of his dissecting table. "I push very hard to see if I can break it and crack it, or lacerate the liver, and I haven't been able to do it just by pressing on it, pressing hard on it ... but you can't just do it; you have to [have] a very heavy blow in order to do that," Bayardo said. However, he said, he still maintains his belief that Lacresha Murray caused the injury, the complete severing of Jayla's liver, with just one punch or kick.
"I absolutely believe Lacresha Murray could have done this in a couple of minutes, maybe a minute. She's a big girl." White, the defense's medical examiner, finds this, as with just about everything else related to Murray's case, peculiar. "He's speaking against himself," White said. "It's precisely the point that we [White and Norton] are making. The liver was not ruptured."
White and Norton agree on a hypothesis about how Jayla died that they say is more plausible and medically sound. Norton believes that some time within the 18 hours prior to Jayla's arrival at the Murray home she was beaten, accounting for some of the fresher bruising, and that some time during this beating she was kicked in the abdomen. Norton further postulates that this kick caused not only the broken ribs but also caused a laceration in the membrane surrounding the liver. It is at this point, she believes, that Belton began to bleed to death. Dr. White agrees, and explains further. "There was a laceration [to the liver], bleeding slowly throughout the day. Then in the emergency room, that's when the situation broke down," he said. "She had a subcapsular hematoma and when they pushed down on it [during CPR], it popped like a balloon." Both doctors believe that the signs Jayla exhibited in the Murray home - lethargy, sweating, vomiting - were all classic signs of shock.
But Assistant District Attorney Stephanie Emmons, who co-prosecuted the case, doesn't buy that argument. Emmons points out that there had been a virus going around the Murray house the week before Jayla's death, and she believes the girl simply caught the same bug. "Kids throw up," she said, which isn't pretty, "but it's what they do." Assistant D.A. Cobb agrees with that assessment: "There's a difference between being sick and being fatally injured."
But Dr. White counters that Jayla's symptoms in the Murray home were signs of something much more serious than a virus. "She was perspiring so heavily, they thought she'd wet her pants," he said. "It's a classic sign of shock."
Bayardo has a hard time with the White and Norton theory, in part because it doesn't explain the broken ribs. But Norton has a theory about this too, explaining her belief that the ribs were fractured during the same beating that scraped the liver, but that Jayla was not registering the pain because she was in shock.
And while Norton agrees with Bayardo that Lacresha Murray was big for her age - weighing about 150 pounds - she sides with White in believing that it was a man who inflicted Jayla Belton's injuries. It is not physically possible, Norton said, for an 11-year-old girl to exert, with one punch or kick, the force it would take to break four ribs and completely sever the liver. "It's simple biology that women don't have as much power as men," Norton said. "It's not that we don't have intent or disposition. It's just power. The force it would require to lacerate the liver all in one blow, like Dr. Bayardo said Lacresha did, you'd have to lay the child down on the floor, get on top of something high and jump."
Moreover, Dr. White believes he has evidence, which still exists, that proves the injury couldn't have happened as the state believes. As part of his research on the case, he obtained cross-sections of Jayla Belton's liver, which he examined under a microscope. The sections revealed signs of inflammation in the tissue, which means, he explained, "That injury had been there for a while. It didn't just happen in a few minutes."
When asked recently in a follow-up interview about White's assertions, Bayardo said that he never saw any inflammation at all. Interestingly enough, White, who was prepared to testify about this and other findings at the second trial, was never called to the stand. "It's one of the questions I've always had," he said. "Why didn't the defense call me?" Bill White, Lacresha's lead defense attorney, explained that by the time they were ready to call White the jury was tired of the medical testimony. "If someone wants to second-guess me, that's fine," the attorney said. "The jury was sick of it."
Regardless, Dr. White says he's ready and willing, at no cost, to return to Austin to testify in Lacresha's behalf. "I'll be surprised if the appeals court doesn't turn it around," he said. "But things are gonna be different this time." Norton agrees, confessing that she still loses sleep over the Murray case. "I'd have to come testify again - I could not just abandon this child like [police and prosecutors] have done."
EP: You understand that you're the only person back here, and the baby is here. What do you think people are going to think?
LM: That I did it. But I didn't.
EP: Don't you think? What would you think?
LM: I guess they'll think I did it.
EP: You would think the same, huh? You know, and people do that all the time. They jump to conclusions, when they really don't have all the facts, right? And that's our job here is to get all the facts. I don't want to jump to conclusions here. I need to find out from you the facts, so when your daddy asks me, or Cleo asks me, or other people ask me, I can tell them, `Well, this is what happened,' you see. I'll know the truth, and the only person that can do that...
LM: Is me?
EP: Yeah, but nobody else, you know. You might have to, the baby might have been sick and you had him in the arms, or whatever, you might have dropped the baby, uh, and that's perfectly understandable. That happens all the time...
It is this method of police interrogation that troubles Dr. Rex Frank, a San Antonio forensic psychologist who testified for the defense at Lacresha's second trial. Frank doesn't believe Murray understood the intent or process of what was taking place at the time of questioning.
There are several examples in the interview transcript of Murray's inability to grasp the seriousness of the situation. At one point Pedraza asked Murray, "Can you read pretty good?" To which Murray replied, "No, but I try hard." And as Murray scanned some of the information Pedraza had typed into his laptop:
Murray: What's that word? Home-a-seed?
Pedraza: Yeah, we work in there, homicide.
EP: There you go.
LM: What's that?
EP: Understand it?
"Quite frankly, I was appalled," Frank said. "I was shocked that an adult advocate wasn't there; it astounded me, [they were using] words that quite frequently a child can't define." Frank doesn't believe Lacresha had the sophistication it takes to understand the language the detectives were using, particularly with the words that make up the Miranda warnings. "Whenever I look at an interrogation, I look to see if a person understands their Miranda rights," Frank said in an interview. "I consider it to be a very important issue. It became clear to me that she had no construct or understanding of her rights. She clearly didn't have the vocabulary to the extent to be able to understand her rights."
But Assistant D.A. Cobb says he is confident that Murray did in fact understand her rights. "The law is such that anyone over 10 years of age can understand them," he says. "I don't think there was much about it that's difficult for anyone to understand." But, he explains further, whether or not she understood was insignificant because the police weren't required to read her the warnings anyway, as she was not officially in custody. "They did more than what was necessary to do," he said. "They were acting out of an abundance of caution because they were dealing with a kid."
Frank, who has spent 22 years examining interrogation techniques and false confessions, says he is also troubled by the intent of the interrogation - which he is certain it was, as opposed to a fact-finding interview, as prosecutors maintain. Assistant D.A. Emmons disagrees. "Interrogation applies to suspects in custody," she said. "I would call it an interview." Officer Pedraza, who conducted the majority of the interview, feels similarly. "We went in there with the intent to basically get to the truth," he explained. "We wanted to get to what she knew of the story."
But Frank says he is certain the intent was not so benign. "You don't interview witnesses with threats and [suggestions of] leniency," he said. "To say it was an informational interview makes no sense to me at all." And while Frank admits that he isn't in a position to make a legal claim as to whether Murray was in custody at the time of the interrogation, he does believe Murray had valid reason to believe she was in custody. "Legally and psychologically it's different. Morally you can't get more in custody than that," said Frank. "It's absurd to think that under any circumstances a child could just walk out with all the implied pressures on her."
The district attorney's office vehemently denies Murray was in custody, and says that she could have walked out at any time. "She was free to leave," said Emmons. "Children run away from the home all the time; they're not prisoners there. She was not in custody. Absolutely not."
But beyond the issue of custody, Frank's specialty in interrogation lends him a certain skepticism about the statement police walked away with after their nearly three-hour meeting with Lacresha. The language the police used with her utilized the technique of minimization, a technique that is known to produce false confessions, Frank said. "Most people would not believe that someone could confess to something they didn't do," he said. "But we sure have a lot of cases where that has occurred." Statements Detective Pedraza made, such as, "You might have been carrying the baby and the baby might have fallen from your arms," as well as the statements about "everyone thinking the worst ... we just want to get things straight," are classic techniques of minimization, Frank said. "With minimization it's, if you tell us it'll be finished, and with respect to punishment it's, nothing will happen if you tell us what we want to hear. The idea of minimization is to lessen a person's threshold to saying something negative about themselves or someone else."
When a child is talking to the police, Frank added, the pressure to comply with demands, in the form of suggestions, pose an intense psychological pressure - a pressure which, Frank believes, Murray seemed to give in to in this case. "When you put a child in that kind of circumstance ... you run the risk of the child giving in and giving up," he said. "When a person begins giving in - like, it could've happened this way - once the door is open to that, studies of human memory suggest that memory of the events change, and sometimes people believe [those memories]." In short, Frank believes that the statement Murray gave to police was rendered under coerced conditions.
Ernesto Pedraza: Things happen, we make mistakes. I make mistakes all the time, you know. But I don't try to hide them, I try to correct them, and then go on from there; and you're a young girl, you still have your whole life ahead of you, and we can correct things, you know we can start anew from here. This doesn't mean this is the end of your life, it's just a beginning for you, because we can correct things. You know what I'm saying? Lacresha?
Lacresha Murray: Hmm, hmm. Yes.
EP: So what I want is for you to start talking about, you know, what could have caused this, what happened at that point so I can explain it.
LM: When I was over, at what point?
EP: When you went back here and when you picked up the baby ...
LM: Oh, no, 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 my grandpa.
Later in the interview, police suggested that she may have accidentally kicked the baby, to which Murray agreed that she may have kicked Belton as she attempted to pick her up off the floor. And still later in the interview, detectives pressed harder, trying to establish a motive for the injuries.
Ernesto Pedraza: So, you didn't have nothing, no anger at her [Belton]?
Lacresha Murray: What would she do to make me mad?
EP: I don't know. Tell me.
EP: OK, then, who was it?
Al Eels: Do you just get angry for no reason?
LM: I wasn't even angry.
AE: Was it for fun then, did you enjoy it?
AE: Causing those injuries to the baby. If you were not angry, you must have been ...
LM: I wasn't even angry!
Frank, in his own examination of Murray, said he found nothing in Murray's psychological profile that suggested a predisposition to violence. "Relatively normal kids without a psychopathic bent - like setting cats on fire, or tearing the wings off birds - do not for no apparent reason commit massive violence," he said. "You don't suddenly see murder with no provocation. And crying is not that kind of provocation."
But Cobb is not convinced, and stresses that he's never claimed Murray confessed to anything. "We keep hearing the defense calling this a confession," he said. "She said she accidentally dropped the baby; we say that's a lie. She said she accidentally kicked the baby; we say that's a lie."
It is the police interrogation that is central to Lacresha's appeal. Hampton, Murray's appellate attorney, believes that the case should be overturned on the basis of the interview, which he says was illegal. Under Texas law, children who are in custody must be taken before a magistrate prior to a police interview. While alone with the child, the magistrate explains the child's rights prior to questioning. Then, once the questioning is over and before a statement has been signed, the child goes back before the judge to ensure the child understands what is being signed. However, if the child is not formally in custody at the time of the interview, this process isn't required. The interview with Murray was allowed into evidence during both trials because Dietz ruled Murray was not in custody.
It is not surprising that a judge would allow such evidence, even if there are legal questions surrounding its admissibility, said attorney Bill White. "That's something [the judge] would leave up to an appeals court to sort out."
Still, Hampton believes the district attorney's office skimmed the boundary of the law to create a seemingly non-custodial situation. It is typical for police to call the D.A.'s office for legal advice when they want to conduct an interview, said Hampton, adding that he believes this was taken one step further in this case.
"It's right for prosecutors to consult with the police, to advise on how to follow the law," Hampton said. "But in this case they were advising on how to circumvent the law so they could get around custody. It's unethical. Maybe not illegal, but certainly unethical." Emmons declined to comment since the case is still pending before the Court of Appeals. But in arguing against the appeal, the state laid out five points to demonstrate that Murray was not in custody at the time of the interview: Murray said "hello" to Sgt. Pedraza; the interview room was large, with several windows and a door; Murray never said she wanted to leave; the officers brought her a Coke; and the interview room was unlocked.
However, said Hampton, "The tapes make it clear she was not allowed to leave the room or disengage the conversation until they got what they wanted. The state's ideas about her not being in custody are stupid."
Still, Emmons and Earle stick by their argument that Murray was not in custody. "The cops didn't want to tread on anyone's rights," explained Earle. "I've worked with the A.P.D. for a long time, and some people have tried to paint A.P.D. homicide as trying to run roughshod over Lacresha's rights. They just want strong statements to support their case."
Life at Home
R.L. Murray and another supporter at a monthly demonstration for Lacresha Murray's release.
photograph by Jana Birchum
Lacresha Murray grew up in a household that revolves around children and extended family members. It is an environment in which her adoptive parents, Shirley and R.L., have raised 18 adopted children over the past 30 years. Why so many? Shirley Murray says it goes back all those years when she and R.L. agreed to take care of a friend's little girl while her mother worked to get her life together. "We got so attached and thought, why not adopt? Then they'll be with us all the time and we can help them grow up."
Lacresha's mother, who lives in Oklahoma, was one of the first children Shirley and R.L. adopted. When she, in turn, was unable to look after her seven children, Shirley and R.L. adopted four of them: Shawntay, Cleo, Lacresha, and Jason. Lacresha was just two at the time, and so has effectively spent her entire life under the tutelage of her grandparents.
The Murray household is not only a place of adopted siblings, but of nieces and nephews, aunts and uncles, and many friends. Shirley says she has always encouraged the children to sing, and she spends hours teaching them songs as she accompanies them on the piano. Another great passion of the children, and especially Lacresha, is sports. Lacresha's older sister Shawntay, now 19, taught Lacresha how to play basketball, swim, and run hurdles. In turn, Lacresha has taught each of her younger siblings the same skills - especially swimming, a favorite pastime for the children who spend much of their summers in the family's backyard pool. "She's always been attentive and cared about all the kids," said Shirley of Lacresha. "Even when they've done something that might hurt her feelings, she just lets it roll off her back."
And even now, says Shirley, when Lacresha calls home from Giddings, her first question is always about the kids. "She says, `Don't worry about me, just pray for me,' but she always asks about every single one of the kids." And as well, much of the Murray family's life revolves around the church, specifically the Ulit Avenue Baptist Missionary Church in East Austin, where Lacresha was active in Girls Auxiliary and youth activities. "If you look at it as trusting God, you can get through anything," said Shirley. "We don't know why God permitted this to happen, but if he hadn't, it wouldn't have. We have to have faith ... it would have to be a divine calling."
However, religious certainty isn't enough to convince prosecutors of one's innocence. "What does that have to do with whether someone did it or not?" Cobb asked. People like the Murrays, he said, would never believe Lacresha Murray would commit a crime.
It is true that, like all kids, Lacresha would sometimes misbehave and have to be reprimanded - for not finishing her chores or homework or not getting to bed on time. But, by most accounts, she did not have a history of abusive or terrorizing behavior, although prosecutors tried to introduce into evidence what they said was a "history of violence," meaning Lacresha Murray had been involved in a couple of schoolyard skirmishes. Judge Dietz, however, did not allow such information to be entered into evidence. And by most witnesses' accounts, Murray - while her learning skills were not up to par for her age - pretty much fit the bill of an average kid - until she was charged with capital murder.
Ernesto Pedraza: Do you recall picking up anything that might have caused an injury right here? Take your time. You don't recall using a belt?
Lacresha Murray: For what?
EP: To maybe to discipline the baby...
LM: I don't hit kids ...
EP: ... and left an injury there.
LM: I don't hit kids. I mean like whup nobody. I am too young. 'Cause sometimes I need whupping myself.
The Murray family lives in a modest brick home similar to most other homes in this quiet northeast Austin neighborhood of shady pecan and cottonwood trees. The street is wide, and the houses sit back on tidy green lawns. What sets the Murray home apart from its neighbors are the bright red "Free Lacresha" bumper sticker affixed to the street lamp next to the driveway, and, as you approach the front door, the sound of children laughing and splashing in the kidney-shaped backyard pool. Here, the family dogs - Precious, a poodle, and King, a rottweiler, laze under the porch overhang.
But for all the activity - children clambering out of the pool and into the house to eat lunch, watch cartoons, and then back out to the pool again - R.L. and Shirley Murray run a tight ship in a home that is remarkably organized and neat. On this last visit in June, four of the Murrays' adopted children were home, along with five visitors, relatives visiting from Oklahoma. On this day, Lacresha is the topic of conversation. Her grandparents and older sister Shawntay point to the floorplan of the family home. The room where police say Murray beat Belton shares an adjoining wall with the living room; certainly, family members say, someone would have heard the baby cry out in pain if she were being beaten and kicked.
Until her transfer to the more regimented Giddings State Home shortly before her 14th birthday in June, Lacresha spent her days playing basketball or attending school at the Corsicana State Home. There, in her history class, she read The Diary of Anne Frank, which she described in a telephone interview from Corsicana as "a good book, but a sad story." She also said she spends her days writing letters to her pen pals who hail, she said, "from all over the world - England, California, Georgia. ... They know me from the newspapers."
In an interview on Black Entertainment Television's Tavis Smiley show, Lacresha spoke articulately about her religious faith. She explained that she prays every night for her grandparents as well as for herself. "I say, `Just lead me in the right direction; just give me the strength and knowledge and wisdom to go on, and don't fall.'"
Last month, Earle sat in his office and expressed his frustration with those who believe the justice system failed miserably in the case of Lacresha Murray.
"Twenty-four people have found that the evidence proves her guilty beyond a reasonable doubt," Earle said of the two jury panels' verdicts. "When do the questions ever stop?"
Ernesto Pedraza: "I just need for you to sign there. That's all true and correct. Am I forcing you to sign that?
Lacresha Murray: Yeah.
EP: Okay. You're doing this voluntarily.
LM: Uh, huh [positive].