Justice goes unserved for a Texas girl Class, race emerge in child's conviction for a toddler's death

THE BALTIMORE SUN

HOW DEEPLY do the politics of race and class continue to haunt the U.S. criminal justice system? A Texas murder case gives us hints:

Lacresha Murray reads over the statement that two Austin, Texas, police detectives want her to sign concerning the death of 2-year-old Jayla Belton.

Lacresha hasn't seen her family in four days. She is alone, with no attorney, parent or guardian.

She is black. She is from a working-class neighborhood. She is 11 years old.

After consistently saying that she didn't hurt Jayla, Lacresha agrees with the detectives that she might have accidentally dropped and kicked the baby while taking her to get help. Then Lacresha struggles to read the statement they want her to sign. She stops at a word she doesn't understand.

"What's that word? Home-a-seed?" she asks

The detective corrects her pronunciation: "Homicide."

"What's that?" Lacresha asks. The question goes unanswered. She continues to read. The detectives had told her that they were just trying to help her and her family, that she could go home once things were straightened out.

Lacresha signs the statement, but she doesn't go home.

Two years later, after a conviction based almost entirely on that statement - what one of Lacresha's attorneys has called an "extracted 'confession'" - Lacresha Murray has yet to go home. She is serving a 25-year sentence.

Police and prosecutors say they did their jobs in a tough case. Critics say Lacresha is a prisoner of the politics of race and class. But no matter what one thinks about Lacresha's guilt or innocence, serious questions about the fairness of her trials remain unanswered.

An appeals court might resolve some of the legal questions in the coming months. But whatever the outcome, one simple question hangs in the air:

Would the police have dared treat a middle- or upper-class white kid the way they treated Lacresha?

That question illustrates the complexity of the intersection of race and class, not only in the criminal justice system but in society more generally. No one suggests that ugly, KKK-style racism was at work. One of the detectives who interrogated Lacresha is Hispanic. The lead prosecutor is black. The district attorney is a Texas liberal who has a history of emphasizing social, not just punitive, solutions to crime.

The district attorney says the case would not have been handled differently in any other part of town. But the organizer of a Lacresha support network argues that "if she had been blond, blue-eyed, in a pinafore, from west Austin [a white, affluent part of town], the police would have never targeted her as a suspect."

In some respects, this case resembles the recent Chicago investigation in which 7- and 8-year-old boys from a predominantly black, low-

income community became the youngest children ever charged with murder. The charges were dropped weeks later when police discovered semen on the underwear of the 11-year-old victim and concluded that an adult had to have been involved.

Like the rush to judgment in Chicago, Lacresha's story tells us much about how privilege, or the lack of it, can affect justice, or the lack of it, in the United States.

Lacresha's story began on May 24, 1996, when Jayla Belton was left at the home of Lacresha's grandparents, who are also her adoptive parents and who often would baby-sit Jayla. The 2-year-old had been sick all day, throwing up several times and sleeping most of the day. Later in the afternoon, Lacresha brought Jayla to her grandfather, who realized the seriousness of the child's condition and took her to the hospital. Shortly after their arrival, Jayla was dead.

After an autopsy the next day, the medical examiner ruled the cause of death to be a blow to the liver. Because of the medical examiner's guess about the time of the beating, police focused on the Murray home and Lacresha.

Officials have claimed that the legal requirement that a magistrate grant permission for the questioning of a child didn't apply because Lacresha was not technically in custody at the time detectives interviewed her. Yet Lacresha was read her rights (though it is not clear how much she understood), and the interview tape suggests police were trying to squeeze out a confession.

A week after Jayla's death, Travis County District Attorney Ronnie Earle charged Lacresha with capital murder, telling a news conference that the case showed "that Austin is not immune from the hideous malady sweeping the country of children killing other children."

Lacresha was too young to be charged as an adult; the minimum age for such a charge in Texas is 14. But Earle invoked a sentencing law that can result in a juvenile's being sent to adult prison at age 18 to serve the rest of a fixed sentence.

A guilty verdict

In August 1996, a jury returned a guilty verdict on charges of intentional injury to a child and criminally negligent homicide, and Lacresha was sentenced to 20 years. Prosecutors acknowledged there was no physical evidence or eyewitness testimony to implicate Lacresha. The state's case rested almost entirely on the statement and shaky circumstantial evidence. Her court-appointed attorney presented no evidence at the trial, believing that the state's case was so weak that the jury would have to acquit.

In October 1996, state District Judge John Dietz threw out the results of the trial over which he had presided, saying he did not think justice had been done.

A second trial in February 1997 resulted in a conviction on the charge of injury to a child. Lacresha was given a 25-year sentence. Her conviction is on appeal to the state's 3rd Court of Appeals.

Earle said the investigation of the case was more than adequate and the prosecution was fair. But several holes and contradictions remain in the case. Independent medical examiners and a psychologist have offered compelling rebuttals to prosecution claims in the case. The dropping-and-kicking scenario doesn't fit the severity of the injuries, and despite their efforts in the interrogation, the detectives never got Lacresha to "confess" to more than that.

Also, there was no physical evidence at the Murray home, though the kind of beating Jayla endured likely would have left traces, such as blood. Indications that Jayla might have been beaten elsewhere, before being brought to the Murray home, were not aggressively investigated. Finally, the prosecution never established that Lacresha could have inflicted such a savage beating or had any reason to want to kill the child.

High-profile cases

At the time of Jayla's death, several high-profile murder cases with child defendants had captured the nation's attention. And for several years, the news had been full of stories about the alleged increase in violence by children, with some kids labeled "super predators." In such an atmosphere, selling the public on the idea that an 11-year-old girl - especially from a poor side of town occupied largely by minorities - could commit such a brutal crime, even without evidence, proved amazingly easy.

Also at that time, Earle, the long-time Democratic district attorney, was facing an unusually tough election challenge by a Republican. Critics say Earle, who went on to win the race, cynically exploited the Murray case to paint himself as a candidate who was tough on crime. Earle denied that politics played any role and called the public concern about the case "absolutely rabid, runaway goofy" based on a "huge amount of misinformation."

One of those critics, Barbara Taft, started a Lacresha support group, People of the Heart, that has made international connections through its web site (www.peopleoftheheart.org). Taft, who has worked most of her life as a legal secretary, believes that it will take public pressure to get the legal system to do the right thing.

Even people who say they are unsure of Lacresha's guilt or innocence are disturbed by the way the case was handled by police and prosecutors.

Was race a factor?

So the question remains: Were Lacresha's race and class a factor in how police perceived the case and how prosecutors shaped the case for the jury? My conclusion is, without question, yes.

Until a friend invited me to attend an informational meeting on the case this spring, I knew nothing more about Lacresha Murray than what I remembered from the local newspaper's coverage. But as I read more and more about the case, my doubts about the conviction deepened.

When I listened to the tape of the police interrogation of Lacresha, I was appalled at how she was bullied and manipulated. Taft describes the interrogation as "immoral, illegal and inadmissible." After reviewing the case, one of Murray's lawyers said the police used "the very best Gestapo tactics" to extract a confession. My conclusion is that a case based on that statement is no case at all.

Like an increasing number of people in Austin, I could no longer believe that Lacresha was responsible for Jayla's death nor defend the behavior of police and prosecutors. As a parent, I know that my child would never have to endure that kind of treatment because he would be protected by his being white and a member of a middle-class, professional family. It is difficult to review the facts of the case and not be sad, angry or both.

Both girls are victims

The sadness and anger are not only over Lacresha's fate. As Taft reminds people, Jayla's death should also weigh on our consciences. Both girls, she said, were victims of child abuse - Jayla at the hands of an abuser who has gone unpunished, and Lacresha at the hands of the criminal justice system.

"This is not just about racism and classism. We're a society in total denial about the extent of child abuse, and it's the silence of the community that allows that," said Taft, who was physically abused as a child.

"No one spoke for me when I was a child. No one spoke for Jayla when she was alive," Taft said. "That's why we have to speak for Lacresha, because it's silence that kills."

Robert William Jensen is a professor in the Department of Journalism at the University of Texas at Austin.

Pub Date: 9/13/98

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