The Austin Chronicle

Naked City

Murray's Law

By Amy Smith, November 3, 2000, News

Travis Co. District Attorney Ronnie Earle heads into an election Tuesday with one of the most critical cases of his career literally under the microscope. Defense lawyers and advocates of Lacresha Murray, the teenager convicted in the death of a two-year-old child, say Lacresha's innocence is borne out in a series of microscopic slides taken at the time of the autopsy.

The "new" evidence -- which has been on file at the Travis County medical examiner's office since the 1996 autopsy of Jayla Belton -- suggests that the toddler's wounds, specifically the fatal injury to her liver, occurred at least eight to 12 hours before her death, according to the latest findings of Dr. Joshua Perper, chief medical examiner in Fort Lauderdale's Broward County. The Travis County DA's office has turned over Perper's analysis to its own outside expert, Dr. Vincent DiMaio, the Bexar County medical examiner who testified for the prosecution at Murray's trial.

Perper, a specialist in microscopic forensics, is the third and most recent defense medical expert to concur that Jayla's injuries were sustained before she arrived at the Murray home, which served as a day care center for several children. That's drastically different from the official findings of Travis County's medical examiner Dr. Roberto Bayardo, who insisted that Jayla's fatal injuries had to have occurred about 15 minutes before her death. In investigating the incident, police narrowed their focus on Lacresha, then 11 years old, because she was the last one in the Murray household to be alone with the toddler.

Defense attorney Keith Hampton submitted Perper's findings to the Travis County DA's office several months ago. He says he had hoped that prosecutors, as a result of Perper's report, would have agreed by now to dismiss the case against his client. State juvenile authorities released Lacresha more than a year ago, after an appeals court ruled that police investigators illegally obtained the girl's statement after more than two hours of interrogation without the presence of a legal guardian or attorney. But she still faces a possible retrial.

After examining the slides at the cellular level, Perper said Jayla's liver and adrenal glands showed a thick mass of white blood cells that had rushed to repair the wounds. Such a response and buildup of cells takes hours to occur, Perper stated in his 16-page report. Moreover, he noted that while Jayla had a number of abrasions and at least 30 bruises on her body, the clothes she had worn to the Murray home showed no signs of blood or other markings, such as a shoe print. "Blood does not evaporate," Perper wrote, "and therefore the only reasonable conclusion is that the bleeding scratches were inflicted prior to the arrival of the child at the time she wore other clothing." Like the two other defense medical experts before him, Drs. Linda Norton and Lloyd White, Perper also concluded that Jayla was a victim of long-standing abuse, given the number of old and fresh bruises and scratches on her body, and the fact that her weight, at approximately 20 pounds, was indicative of a poorly nourished child.

Rosemary Lehmberg, Earle's first assistant district attorney, says the DA's office is waiting to hear from DiMaio, who is studying Perper's findings and conferring with other colleagues on the matter. She said DiMaio knows Perper and is familiar with his work. "I do believe there's going to be reasonable disagreements with this," Lehmberg said of Perper's report.

Meanwhile, the teenager's family and advocates, led by Barbara Taft, have stepped up their demands that Earle either dismiss the case or call for a new trial. At a press conference last week in front of the county courthouse, Taft released copies of Perper's report as well as statements from Lacresha, her family, and the Rev. Sterling Lands, a prominent East Austin minister who called on Earle to "... drop the charges so that this community will know and the outside world will know that Travis County, Texas still retains a modicum of decency."

Whatever Earle decides to do, he won't likely act before his Tuesday, Nov. 7, rematch with GOP opponent Shane Phelps.

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