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

September 13, 1998|By Robert William Jensen

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

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