Off the Desk:
She's home. After two and a half years of incarceration with the Texas Youth Commission, Lacresha Murray returned to her grandparents' home Wednesday afternoon. State District Judge John Dietz Wednesday signed an order releasing Lacresha, who was serving a 25-year sentence for the death of two-year-old Jayla Belton, to the strict supervision of her grandparents (and adoptive parents) Shirley and R.L. Murray. The restrictions prescribed include that Lacresha undergo counseling, not be allowed alone with any children under the age of 10, and remain under one or both of her grandparents' supervision at all times, said Murray's co-counsel Linda Icenhauer-Ramirez during a press conference Wednesday outside the Travis County Courthouse. "I'm really excited," said R.L. Murray. "That makes my day, my month, my everything."
The Travis Co. District Attorney's office, of course, isn't as thrilled. "Of course we disagree with this ruling," said First Assistant DA Rosemary Lehmberg, "primarily based on the fact that releasing her means returning her to the same environment where the Jayla Belton tragedy occurred in the first place." Lehmberg said the DA's office has not decided whether they will ask the appeals court to review its decision or appeal to the Texas Supreme Court. Either way, she said, "almost certainly we will retry the case." Lehmberg says the DA's office has talked with Jayla's mother, Judy Shaw, who encouraged them to seek another trial. "She wants us to go forward and seek justice for Jayla," Lehmberg said.
Last Thursday, the Third District Court of Appeals overturned Lacresha's conviction, saying the statements Lacresha made to police were obtained illegally. The court agreed with Lacresha's defense attorneys that the girl was in state custody when she was interrogated by police, five days after Belton's death in May of 1996, and should have been taken before a judge prior to and after police questioning. "While appellant was not 'incarcerated' in the children's facility, she was within the custody of the shelter and under its control," Chief Justice Lee Yeakel wrote in the court's opinion. "She was not free to leave." Murray was in the care of the state Department of Protective Regulatory Services (DPRS) when Austin Police Department homicide detectives questioned her for over two-and-a-half hours. She was never taken before a judge, nor did she have the opportunity to consult with a lawyer or parent before the detectives interrogated her.
According to Texas Family Code, a child in custody cannot be questioned by police without first appearing before a judge prior to and after police questioning, to ensure that the child understands his or her rights and the import of the crime for which he or she is suspected. In Murray's case prosecutors took advantage of a loophole in the code, which doesn't consider juveniles placed in DPRS care due to an emergency officially in "custody" since a custody hearing never takes place.
The DA's office will decide on its next move within the coming weeks. "We will review carefully the court's decision," said Lehmberg. The DA has until April 30 to ask the appeals court to review its own decision, and until May 30 to appeal the decision to the Texas Supreme Court. Neither option has been ruled out. Moreover, the option of trying the case a third time still hangs in the air. But if the DA does decide to retry Lacresha, her co-counsel Keith Hampton says the case will rely heavily on forensic evidence -- evidence that has been as troubling as Lacresha's interrogation. And, as reported last August in the Chronicle, there remains testimony never presented during Lacresha's second trial from Dr. Lloyd White, Nueces County medical examiner, who had crucial tissue evidence suggesting that Jayla's fatal liver injury occurred much earlier than the five- to 15-minute window prescribed by Dr. Roberto Bayardo, the Travis County medical examiner who performed Jayla's autopsy. When asked why Dr. White was not called to testify about his findings, Lacresha's lead defense attorney Bill White told the Chronicle the jury was "sick of" medical testimony. At Wednesday's press conference, Linda Icenhauer-Ramirez said that she, Hampton, and Kameron Johnson, the public defender who represented Lacresha at her first trial, will comprise Lacresha's defense team; she said she doesn't know if Bill White will participate. While the defense feels they can win in a third trial, the thought of it makes Hampton sigh. "I hate to put that girl through it all again," he said. "I wish they'd do the wise thing, but I don't think they will." --J.S.
The Hot Seat
Austin Interfaith knows how to twist politicians' arms. It also knows how to fire up its constituents. On Tuesday night at Ebenezer Baptist Church, Interfaith held another of its patented accountability sessions, at which politicos willingly submit to this arm twisting and a parade of speakers do their best to inspire the crowd. "We are here to celebrate victory and the power of organized people," Mary Molina of San José Catholic Church told the raucous standing-room-only crowd.
Thirteen of the 17 council candidates attended the Interfaith meeting (absent were Place 1 challenger Chad Crow and Place 4 candidates Jennifer Gale, Doug Alford, and Robert Stobaugh). And all but three of the 13 agreed to Interfaith's agenda items. Two incumbent councilmembers, Beverly Griffith and Daryl Slusher, as well as Place 1 candidate Vic Vreeland, declined to endorse Interfaith's slate of initiatives, which includes $1 million for Capital IDEA, a job training program, $130,000 for English as a second language programs, $350,000 for summer youth employment programs, and $610,000 for after-school enrichment programs. Mayor Pro Tem Jackie Goodman said finding the money would be difficult, but adding, "where there's a will there's a way," she endorsed the specific initiatives. Slusher and Griffith told the crowd they supported Interfaith's programs, and have voted for them in the past. However, the two refused to promise to seek the exact amount of funding specified by Interfaith. Griffith told the group that she will vote to provide "the amount of money available at budget time," and that the total "may not come out to that exact amount" specified by Interfaith. But for Interfaith, a "maybe" is as bad as a "no."
Vreeland was the only council candidate to actually say he opposed Interfaith's programs. After the event, he called the Interfaith meeting "a socialist rally." --R.B., J.S.
Tightening the Belt
In the face of East Austin community anger -- and not a little city embarrassment -- over the controversial Pecan Street Station project, the City Council last Thursday voted 7-0 to put a 45-day moratorium on any development activity within the Eastside "Rust Belt."
The moratorium applies to the same properties covered by the East Austin overlay -- that is, all light-industrial (LI) or commercial-services (CS and CS-1) zoning between I-35, the river, and Airport Boulevard. Most of this property is concentrated along the old rail corridors between Fourth and Seventh streets, and the point of the overlay was to disperse that concentration and get more friendly uses into the area, by requiring a conditional use permit, and attendant public hearing and neighborhood input, before property could be developed or redeveloped.
Pecan Street Station, a proposed entertainment venue with liquor sales, which would hold as many as 23,000 people, is not what Eastside leaders consider a friendly use, but since it's not one of the 14 specific uses that trigger the overlay, it was allowed to erupt without warning at East Sixth and Robert Martinez. The moratorium is intended to give city staff and the community time to close such loopholes.
All this was made uglier by the fact that Pecan Street Station's backers (who are Anglo in this predominantly Mexican-American neighborhood) apparently started demolition and site work without going through the standard (non-overlay) permit process. Whispers that the project was expedited by friendly calls from State Sen. Gonzalo Barrientos went public at the council hearing. The rumors were greeted by word from the senator -- relayed by Councilmember Gus Garcia -- that if Pecan Street's backers used his name in support of their project, he'd take them to court. --M.C.M.
As the Austin Independent School District begins its annual budget deliberations, several groups are asking it to include a pay hike for the district's lowest paid employees among its top priorities. The Austin Federation of Teachers, Austin Living Wage Coalition, and several school district workers asked the school board on Monday to raise the district's minimum wage -- currently, though not officially, set at $6.86 an hour -- to $9 an hour, a level they say will allow full-time workers access to the lowest-cost housing in Austin for no more than a third of their income.
Currently, around 955 AISD workers make less than the proposed "living wage"; two-thirds of those make less than $8 an hour, says AFT President Louis Malfaro. Malfaro says that the pay raise would cost the district around $1.7 million, but that cost would likely be offset by factoring workers' annual pay raise -- which has historically averaged just over 4% -- into the equation. Several AISD custodians, bus drivers, and food service workers who earn just above the current minimum, told board members that $7 an hour was not enough to pay for food, housing, and health insurance. Many said they had been forced to take a second job or seek public assistance to make up for the shortfall. So far, Living Wage Coalition members say, the school board has been hospitable to their requests for an across-the-board pay hike. Similar raises, they point out, have been approved by the Austin City Council and Austin Community College, both of whom increased their minimum pay rate to $8 an hour last year. (An increase to that level, AFT estimates, would cost the district just over half a million dollars.) School board president Kathy Rider says she supports a wage increase in principle, but adds that the raises -- like all the district's budget decisions -- are contingent on school funding decisions being made in the Legislature. --E.C.B.