Juvenile Justice?

The fate of Lacresha Murray remains in a holding pattern as D.A. Ronnie Earle ponders how to proceed on a case that has brought him national criticism.

It's been more than a year since an appeals court overturned the conviction, and six months since the state Supreme Court rejected the district attorney's appeal of the reversal. Yet the fate of Lacresha Murray remains in a holding pattern as D.A. Ronnie Earle ponders how to proceed on a case that has brought him national criticism.

The case has come full circle since it first broke in 1996, and subsequently became a campaign issue -- when Earle ran for re-election in a hotly contested race against Republican Shane Phelps. Four years later, the Murray case is still at issue as Earle and Phelps face off once more.

Murray, now a 16-year-old high school student, was charged in 1996 in the death of two-year-old Jayla Belton, who was being cared for in the Murray home. At the time, Murray was the youngest person in Texas ever to be charged with capital murder. She was twice convicted, receiving a lesser conviction of injury to a child in the second trial. An appeals court, however, overturned the conviction, ruling that Austin police detectives illegally obtained a statement from the then-11-year-old girl after more than two hours of interrogation while she was in the custody of Child Protective Services. The incident ultimately led to changes in state law that now require police to first obtain written permission from parents or guardians before interviewing a child in CPS custody. The new law, signed by Gov. George W. Bush, took effect in September.

Last week, Earle and his first assistant, Rosemary Lehmberg, met privately with some African-American representatives, including the Rev. Joseph Parker of David's Missionary Chapel; Akwasi Evans, editor of the Austin weekly Nokoa; and Murray's most vocal advocate, Barbara Taft, who has championed Murray's innocence. Taft said she read Earle a statement from Murray, in which the child urged the district attorney to either retry her or dismiss the charges altogether. Earle has a large base of support in the African-American community, particularly in East and Northeast Austin, where he is credited with helping to stamp out drive-by shootings and other gang-related violence. So the Murray case presents understandable awkwardness for many black leaders who support Earle, but also support the Murray family's pleas to have the matter resolved.

Murray's attorney, Keith Hampton, says he has presented new evidence to the D.A.'s office, including the opinion of a third forensic specialist who reviewed autopsy evidence "at the cellular level." Hampton said the new forensic examination revealed that the injury must have occurred before [Jayla Belton] was delivered to the Murray household. "I hope to see the case dismissed as quickly as possible," Hampton added, "so Lacresha can get on with her life." In interviews with the Chronicle prior to last week's meeting with community leaders, Earle and Lehmberg said they were reviewing the new defense evidence.

"This case has been hard on everybody," said Lehmberg, who is one of Earle's staunchest allies at the D.A.'s office. "We did get a lot of criticism ... it was just a terrible situation. Child deaths are always extremely painful."

What decision might Earle make in the case?

"We're going to try really hard to do the right thing," he said. "It's important to do the right thing."

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