Published by The Daily Texan
Imagine that an 11-year-old girl who has no violent history gets arrested, charged with capital murder and is hidden from her parents for four days. During that period, the interrogators question her for hours without break and with no lawyer present until she finally signs a false statement that she can not even read. Later she is found guilty of negligent homicide and injury to a child, and finally gets sentenced to 25 years without any evidence or witnesses.
Unbelievable, right? Who is the prosecutor who committed such an awful act? The answer is our own Assistant District Attorneys Rosemary Lehmberg and Gary Cobb.
According to a series of investigative reports by Jordan Smith of the Austin Chronicle, on May 24, 1996, Derrick Shaw brought his girlfriend Judy Belton’s 2-year-old daughter Jayla to the Murray home for daycare, even though he was told not to bring her there that day because Shirley Murray, the primary caregiver, was out of town. According to the Murrays and other persons in the home that day, Jayla spent the entire day sleeping, vomiting and sweating profusely. At 5:30 p.m., 11-year-old Lacresha Murray noticed that Jayla was “shaking,” grabbed her and took her to her grandfather, R.L. Murray. They took Jayla to Brackenridge Hospital, where she was pronounced dead shortly after their arrival.
Lacresha was charged with capital murder for death of Jayla Belton. This all happened during the re-election campaign of District Attorney Ronnie Earle, who decided against protecting Lacresha’s identity as a juvenile suspect and the presumption of her innocence by giving her name and photo to the press, which put her name and picture into national media as if she were a monster. Lacresha went to trial with her court-appointed attorney, Kameron Johnson, a public defender who did not do any investigation, probably because he had been given a budget of only $300 from the State of Texas to defend her. The problem was that there was no evidence against her. No witnesses, no forensic evidence, and not even a drop of body fluid or blood. According to New York Times columnist Bob Herbert, Lacresha could not even understand the type written statement she signed. “‘What’s that word? Home-a-seed?”‘ she asked investigators. After they told her that the word was “homicide,” she asked, “What’s that?” No one answered her. Lacresha spent three excruciating years in prison and went through with two trials until the 3rd Court of Appeals reversed her conviction.
Today Travis County residents will vote for a new district attorney in a run-off election between Rosemary Lehmberg and Mindy Montford. Lehmberg caused irreparable damage to Lacresha Murray and her family. She has repeatedly denied any wrongdoing or misjudgment in that case. Montford, who has been endorsed by the University Democrats, has been an outspoken critic of the office and the way it has handled many cases. We should give her a chance to prove her fairness and competence in the Travis County’s District Attorney office.
Hooman is a government junior and president of Students Against the Death Penalty.