In the Home Stretch
On March 10, the Texas Supreme Court issued a ruling denying Travis County District Attorney Ronnie Earle's request that the court overturn the decision which sent 15-year-old Lacresha Murray home last April, after she had spent nearly three years in the custody of the Texas Youth Commission. The Supreme Court decision, which denied the DA's petition without comment, sends Murray's case back to Earle's office, and, quite possibly, back to court for a third trial.
Murray was twice tried and convicted in the 1996 death of two-year-old Jayla Belton. A key part of the DA's evidence during both trials was a lengthy interrogation of Murray conducted by Austin Police Department detectives five days after Belton's death, when the teenager was in custody at the Texas Baptist Children's Home in Round Rock. The DA's office has insisted that Murray was not technically in custody at the time -- a point which has been disputed by Murray's supporters.
During the interrogation, Murray said -- at APD detective Ernesto Pedraza's suggestion -- that it was possible she dropped and kicked Belton on May 24, 1996. Murray was never taken before a judge prior to the questioning to determine if she fully understood her rights, nor were her grandparents, who are her legal guardians, ever contacted.
In the end, both the appeals court and the Supreme Court found the so-called "non-custodial" interrogation illegal. Because last April's appeals court decision remanded the case to district court, though, there is still a possibility that the DA will try Murray a third time; since 1998, in fact, officials with the office have said they would take the case back to court if it were overturned again. But this time, they'll have to do it without the interrogation as evidence.
For the time being, Earle's office is talking with Belton's family and reviewing their case against Murray to decide whether they will go back to trial. "We've got several things we want to look at," says first assistant DA Rosemary Lehmberg. "And that's part of the analysis we're doing: to see what the evidence looks like without the statement."
But the possibility of a third trial doesn't bother Murray's attorney, Keith Hampton. While he doesn't cherish the idea of seeing his client dragged through court another time, he feels confident that, if the case goes to trial this time, Murray will be acquitted. "I'm ready either way. They [the prosecutors] don't have anything," he says. "We have scientific evidence that would carry the day. I've had plenty of time and I've got plenty of witnesses."
Meanwhile, Murray, who was released last spring, is back in school and is, according to her grandmother, Shirley Murray, doing well. "She likes English and basketball the best," Shirley Murray says. "She's doing real good." Indeed, Murray is doing so well -- making all A's and B's in school as well as participating in a number of sports -- that District Judge John Dietz has significantly reduced the conditions of her release. While she still must remain in the company of an adult at all times and must abide by a curfew, Murray has been removed from the Juvenile Justice Alternative Education Program -- she attends Reagan High School -- and no longer has to wear an electronic monitoring device on her ankle.
"In the scale of release, she's down to about as loose as she can get," says Dietz. If the DA's office decides not to try Murray again, Dietz adds, the remaining conditions of release will be lifted. "We're taking it one day at a time," says Shirley Murray. "We're happy about the [Supreme Court] decision. Now we're just waiting on the DA."