- The Washington Times - Sunday, February 12, 2006

AUSTIN, Texas — Ronnie Earle, awaiting the media-driven frenzy of prosecuting former House Majority Leader Tom DeLay, may be involved in another courtroom drama this summer.

In 1996, Lacresha Murray was 11 when the Travis County district attorney indicted her on capital murder charges — the youngest person charged with that crime in Texas.

Miss Murray was a suspect in the death of a 2-year-old at her grandmother’s day care center in May 1996. The toddler, Jayla Belton, lost consciousness and was rushed to a local hospital, where she died.

Investigators found no forensic evidence, but on the basis of her “statement,” Miss Murray was charged several days later.

That confession — and how it was obtained — has been the focal point of two trials and several appeals and has resulted in Mr. Earle’s and the Austin Police Department’s becoming defendants in a $30 million civil rights suit filed by a lawyer on Miss Murray’s behalf.

Frank P. Hernandez, a Dallas lawyer, has been involved with the case for almost four years. He says Miss Murray, now 21, suffered irreparable harm when authorities hid her from her family for almost five days and used “unusual” interrogation techniques.

“Texas law is very clear that you can’t interrogate an 11-year-old without having a lawyer, parent or some other adult present,” he said. “Can you imagine how scared this young girl was?”

A transcript showed that Miss Murray denied knowing anything about the child’s death 39 times before she admitted dropping Jayla as she was taking the toddler to her grandfather. Miss Murray said she was worried because Jayla had begun to shake and vomit.

Later, as the chief investigator had her read her confession and sign it, Miss Murray asked what the word “homicide” meant.

Two months later, the 11-year-old was in court. The jury, hearing the confession, found her guilty of negligent homicide. She was handed a 20-year sentence, to be served in a juvenile facility until she was 18 and then in an adult prison.

Mr. Earle, in the midst of a tough re-election race at the time and facing his first opponent in two decades, was criticized for what some called inappropriate “use” of the tragedy. He called a press conference and showed Miss Murray’s picture as he promised a more aggressive stance on juvenile crime.

Critics said the case was brought to trial too quickly and credited the conviction for his re-election a few weeks later.

Although she had been convicted by a jury, so much public criticism emerged about how the case was investigated that within weeks the trial judge granted a motion for a new trial.

Mr. Earle’s assistants moved fast and tried Miss Murray again in January 1997.

The defense stressed that Jayla had weighed less than 20 pounds, was seriously malnourished and had suffered some of the numerous bruises over a period. In other words, they wanted the jury to understand that even if Miss Murray had dropped the toddler that day or accidentally stepped on her, there had been serious abuse before that.

That didn’t work. The jury returned with a guilty verdict and a 25-year-sentence.

Ultimately, Miss Murray spent three years in Texas Youth Commission facilities before a state appellate court overturned the second trial verdict, ruling that the young girl’s statement could have been “the product of fright and despair” and was illegally obtained.

In April 1999, Miss Murray was released to her grandparents. Mr. Earle declined to prosecute again, and all charges were dropped.

Mr. Hernandez’s lawsuit is in federal court, and he has weathered several motions to toss it aside. One plea worked its way to the U.S. Supreme Court, which denied to hear it.

Mr. Earle was not available for comment, but in the past, he has said that he thinks the guilty verdicts were just and that his assistants did nothing improper.

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