Sunday, April 26, 2009

Flimsy evidence leads to wrongful conviction

Julie Murphy lived in about 20 foster homes, group homes, hospitals and detention centers after her father was convicted of sexually abusing her. She says she knew the story she told as a 10-year-old was a lie and that she had been telling that to people ever since. But it took until she was 23, when she was enrolled in community college and taking paralegal courses, that she chose to do something about it. She approached her instructor one day and told him that she had, in childhood, confused her father with her mother's boyfriend in regard to the allegation that put her father in prison.

"I was kind of ashamed of the situation," she said. "I asked him a hypothetical question about the case. He said about the only option at that point would be to do a recantation."

So in December 2002, she wrote a letter to the district attorney in Yadkin County recanting the accusation she had made 13 years earlier against Larry Murphy. The letter, she hoped, might set things straight once and for all.

But there would be no new police investigation in a case that had no physical evidence and was based solely on the word of then 10-year-old Julie Murphy.

There would be no prominent media coverage, as there had been when Murphy was arrested, tried and convicted in 1989. And there would be no new trial; her father failed to persuade a judge that his daughter's statement meant that he had been wrongly convicted.

Now 58, Larry Murphy has been in prison for 20 years. These days, he spends his time in the geriatric ward at Albemarle Correctional Institution, where he has been eligible for parole since January.

The Murphy case is unusual and complicated, and the truth is difficult to ascertain. A man was convicted on the word of a child who in her behavior immediately before and in the years afterward showed signs of rebellion and deception. She had been physically abused by another man just months before her father won a contentious custody battle with the girl's mother and brought her back to live in Yadkin County.

There was never any DNA evidence in the case; the only physical evidence was abrasions on the girl's thighs two days after the alleged abuse occurred. Which leaves a simple question: Do you believe the story told by 10-year-old Julie or the one told by the older Julie?

The case points to one certainty about North Carolina's legal system -- the original stories told by a victim, a suspect or both are difficult to take back. The only picture of Larry Murphy and his two daughters is from 1989, in an East Bend church directory. He's smiling, and the girls -- one on his knee and the other on his shoulder -- are laughing.

Murphy had been raised in Yadkin County and left at 19 to enlist in the Army, where he became a dental hygienist. He began dating Anita Carol Robinson while at Fort Leonard Wood, Mo. They later married and had Julie in 1978 while he was at Fort Riley, Kan. Stephanie was born in 1981 in Honolulu. Family life was marked by moves and acrimony. By 1983, Murphy was assigned to Korea, and his wife and daughters were living in North Carolina near Murphy's family. But the couple split in 1987, and the girls moved with their mother and her boyfriend to Iowa. There, in the summer of 1988, began a series of critical events that would change the lives of father and daughters.

An Iowa juvenile-court report lays out the basics of what happened on one particular day, though the details are not clear. Julie and Stephanie were in a second-floor bedroom and they stuck their heads out the window. The mother's boyfriend became upset, striking Julie on the arm several times with a belt and lifting her up by grabbing her neck, the report says.

It is unclear what action, if any, was taken against the boyfriend. A judge did note that "because of his attitude and based on the history of physical abuse it is likely the children would be physically abused in the future." Robinson could not be reached for an interview. Both daughters say they haven't seen their mother in at least 10 years and don't know where she is.

That same summer, Murphy went to Iowa and won temporary custody of the girls. After Murphy and the girls returned to North Carolina, Robinson and her boyfriend called social services in Yadkin County and accused Murphy of abuse. Social services talked with the girls and determined that nothing had happened.

The girls started school that fall and seemed to be settling in, but Murphy said he was having almost daily power struggles with Julie. He had told the girls that he was going to divorce their mother and mentioned a woman he hoped to begin dating. Then, in January 1989, Julie told two friends at school and later a school counselor that on a particular Saturday night her father had come into her room and "done bad things to her."

When a sheriff's deputy came to interview her, she gave him more details, alleging that her father had tried to rape her, and when he couldn't, he rubbed himself against her. On Jan. 12, 1989, sheriff's deputies arrested Murphy at the poultry plant where he worked.

Murphy said he was dumbfounded. "I said ‘I know why she's doing this. She doesn't want me dating,'" he said.

Sheriff Mike Cain, who was then a detective, was assigned the investigation. He had never handled a child sex-abuse case before, he said. He didn't go to the house or collect any physical evidence. Nor did he investigate anyone besides Murphy, saying that Julie's words implicated only her father. As he listened to what Julie told him, he said, it was clear that she had been abused.

She knew things about sex that a 10-year-old shouldn't have, Cain said in a recent interview. In the end, he said, the case went to the grand jury. The jury heard Julie's testimony and gave its verdict. Murphy was indicted. "I don't buy a child gives out that kind of details. Never once did she mention another house or another person," Cain said.

Julie's testimony during the trial in April 1989 in Yadkin Superior Court was convincing, agreed Tom Fagerli, Murphy's post-conviction attorney. She was this adorable little child and she was talking about semen, he said. "And these people, I'm sure they couldn't get over it," he said. "These jurors were going to convict whoever was sitting in that room."

Murphy's defense attorney, Lee Zachary, called a few witnesses to back up Murphy's story that the girls had spent the entire night with his sister on the Saturday that the abuse was alleged to have occurred. The sister, Ruth Cave, lives outside Dobson; she confirmed in a recent interview that she had the girls on the Saturday night in question....

More here

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