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Where's the Evidence?

Taft is considerably less charitable. "The Statesman trashed her out," Taft says. "They took what Earle and [Assistant D.A. Gary] Cobb and [APD homicide detective Ernesto] Pedraza and Bayardo said and characterized it as fact. They didn't bother to ask questions. Nobody asked if Lacresha did it. They asked, 'How could an
11-year-old have done such a thing?' They should have asked, 'What evidence do you have, what witnesses?'" (Indeed, the state had no physical evidence directly tying Murray to the crime, nor any eyewitnesses.)

Taft believes that the Statesman didn't want to criticize Earle during the 20-year incumbent's re-election campaign. She points out that judge John Dietz, who presided over both of Murray's trials, is good friends with Earle ó when Dietz first announced he was running for the judgeship, Earle introduced him, and Dietz is a former campaign manager for Earle.

"They have been patting each other on the back," Taft says. "He should have recused himself. ... Their relationships have never come out in the press, and their relationships guided this case."

Actually, their relationship was mentioned in a glowing profile of Dietz by now-former Statesman reporter Juan Palomo titled, "Judge Dietz doesn't dodge controversy: Fairness is a Dietz requisite, even when judging himself." The story didn't share Taft's concerns, however, instead portraying Dietz as bravely stepping on Earle's toes by ordering a second trial after rightly expressing concern that Murray hadn't been treated fairly in the first. (Murray was found guilty in both.) The story said Dietz's decision "demonstrates not only Dietz's independence, say those familiar with his career, but also his passion for fairness and his refusal to shy from controversial issues."

"The Statesman supported Earle in his election and the prosecution of Lacresha, and did so by not doing any investigative reporting," Taft says. "I have a degree in journalism. I have a vested interest in how the media presents things. They sell toothpaste with romance. They sold the public on Lacresha being guilty by her being big." References to Lacresha being "big" for an 11-year-old ó her age at the time of the crime ó were a constant in Earle's media spin, and Taft compared it with the infamous Time cover which darkened O.J. Simpson's skin.

Taft also wondered why the media didn't raise more questions about Derrick Shaw (the boyfriend of Jayla Belton's mother, Judy Belton), whom Taft and defense lawyer Keith Hampton have both described as a disreputable sort with a hot temper. (The Chronicle repeatedly attempted to get a response to these charges from Shaw in its original report, but messages left with Shaw's mother were not returned, and she eventually requested that the Chronicle stop calling her.)

Meanwhile, Taft said Herbert's columns have opened the floodgates. "Everybody that I contacted [in the news media], everybody said, 'Well, if she's innocent, why was she found guilty twice?' Those convictions shut down so many news media. Once The New York Times came out, the very next morning the media was at Giddings [where Murray is incarcerated]. The Statesman, 20/20, Dateline NBC. Everybody and their grandmother is after us now. My life is talking to the media. I've been trying to get them interested for two and a half years, and couldn't get a squeak. Now that the Times did it, they feel safe. The first words out of their mouths are, 'I read The New York Times, I want to do an interview.' ... Because of that article, it took it out of the realm of an unhappy black woman complaining. "Now even the Statesman wants to do an investigative report," Taft says. "Which should have been done two and a half years ago."


For the Chronicle coverage of Murray's case, see "Justice Denied?," Aug. 7, 1998 (http://www.auschron.com/issues/vol17/issue48/pols.index.html). Herbert's series may be read at http://www.nytimes.com.

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KEYWORDS FOR THIS STORY

Lacresha Murray, Jayla Belton, Ronnie Earle, Bob Herbert, New York Times, Barbara Taft, Dana Cloud, Lee Nichols.

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