Naked City

Lacresha Fights Back

An attorney for Lacresha Murray and her family filed suit in federal court claiming a litany of civil and constitutional violations stemming from Murray's 1996 arrest and subsequent three-year incarceration. Dallas attorney Frank Hernandez filed the suit Aug. 28 against the Travis Co. District Attorney's Office, the APD, the Texas Dept. of Protective and Regulatory Services, and the Texas Baptist Children's Home in Round Rock, naming a host of individuals employed by the various agencies. The lawsuit alleges that representatives of the various agencies "conspired" to violate Murray's rights after arresting her for the May 1996 death of two-and-a-half-year-old Jayla Belton, who died after spending a day at the Murrays' northeast Austin home.

Lacresha, then 11 years old, and her five siblings were taken from the home of her grandparents Shirley and R.L. Murray and put into the "emergency" custody of CPS at the Baptist Children's Home. After five days in CPS custody, Lacresha endured a three-hour interrogation -- alone -- by APD detectives. Lacresha repeatedly and vociferously denied her involvement in Belton's death, but eventually conceded reluctantly that she might have injured Belton in the manner the officers suggested. She was twice tried and convicted of intentional injury to a child, receiving a 25-year sentence. Texas' 3rd Court of Appeals reversed and remanded her conviction to district court after finding that the "confession" APD obtained was illegal; all charges were subsequently dropped -- with prejudice -- in August 2001. (For more on the case, see "Justice Denied?" Aug. 7, 1998.)

At issue now is how Murray's 1996 statement was obtained. At the time, the Texas Family Code provided that juveniles be taken to a magistrate before and after a custodial interview by police to ensure that children understood their rights. Similarly, the code defined the same procedures for children in CPS custody. Not explicit in the law, however, was that the same provisions be made for children in "emergency" state custody, as the Murray children were. (The Lege plugged this technical loophole in 1999 with HB 2671, the so-called Lacresha Murray Bill.)

APD Detective Ernie Pedraza testified that officers wanted to interview Lacresha without officially taking her into custody because they lacked probable cause to arrest her. They argued that in Murray's circumstance the law didn't cover children, and described her interview as a "non-custodial" fact-finding session. The new lawsuit alleges that Pedraza and the APD called DA Ronnie Earle's office to "advise" them on how to handle the interview. Whatever the DA's advice, the results are clear: The detectives failed to take Murray to a magistrate, did not fully advise her of her rights, and interviewed her without notifying her family.

"Defendant Ronnie Earle knew that the Texas Family Code was established law and that he did not have the authority to not apply that law to Lacresha Murray," Hernandez wrote in the suit. Earle "knew that compliance with the procedures [in] the Texas Family Code were mandatory." Hernandez levels similar allegations against APD, naming Pedraza and Al Eells, another detective who participated in the interrogation. Neither APD nor DA officials would comment on the suit.

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