EDITOR’S NOTE: This story is the second in a two-part series examining the conviction and exoneration of Michelle Murphy.
Twenty years to the day that Michelle Murphy found her son’s lifeless body on the kitchen floor, she heard Tulsa County District Judge William Kellough say the words she had been waiting for: “This court finds you, Miss Murphy, innocent.”
She cried in the courthouse hallway as her attorney, Sharisse O’Carroll, explained the date’s significance to reporters.
Though she’d been out of jail on bond for three months, it wasn’t until after Kellough’s declaration that Murphy was ready to do something she had never done: visit her son’s grave.
Murphy didn’t want to go to Travis’ grave until her name was cleared, O’Carroll said.
Murphy, 37, was released from prison on bond in May, when the judge vacated her life without parole sentence and murder conviction, based on newly uncovered DNA evidence.
And on Sept. 12, District Attorney Tim Harris decided to drop the murder charges and dismiss the case, saying he lacked the evidence to convict her again.
Murphy was 17 when she was imprisoned for the brutal slaying of her infant son. The same prosecutor who convicted Murphy also took away her 2-year-old daughter, placing the girl with another family.
Twenty years behind bars has given Murphy a lot of time to contemplate what happened to her.
“It meant the world to me to finally hear that it’s been acknowledged, something I’ve been trying to prove for 20 years,” Murphy told reporters after the charges were dismissed in September. “Something I’ve known in my heart.”
A Tulsa World investigation shows the state of Oklahoma relied upon faulty blood evidence, the dubious testimony of a troubled 14-year-old neighbor and an unrecorded incriminating statement to convict Murphy. All three elements were so problematic they likely should not have been allowed in court — and jurors were prevented from hearing other evidence that might have given them reasonable doubt about convicting Murphy.
Attorneys for her trial and initial appeal may also have missed chances to challenge the evidence against her. Her appellate attorneys maintain none of this should have ever happened, that Harris and Tulsa Police prosecuted Murphy at the expense of finding the real killer. In court filings, they claim Harris and other investigators knew they had falsely claimed that unknown blood found at the scene could be Murphy’s, something disproved by several outside lab tests.
When police arrived at the crime scene that morning in 1994, they took Murphy’s daughter into protective custody. The crime scene video shows an officer walking away with the toddler in his arms as the sun is beginning to rise.
Murphy testified in court that she only made incriminating statements to a Tulsa police detective during questioning because he badgered her and promised she could see her daughter if she confessed. She never saw her little girl again.
Through her attorneys, Murphy declined to be interviewed for this story. Sharisse and Richard O’Carroll, the attorneys who worked to free her, said Murphy is acclimating to life outside prison. She’s currently focused on learning to drive and to use computers at the local library, they said.
“She lost all those years where you develop and learn who you are,” Sharisse O’Carroll said. “She’s now struggling to figure that out.”
Since her release from prison, Murphy has lived with a woman in Broken Arrow who was once her GED program teacher.
Murphy wrote letters to her daughter while she was in prison. She never got a response.
Her daughter, now 22, told the World she is not interested in getting to know her mother.
“They let me come to it on my own. ... There was never anybody who told me that she did it or she was a monster. For me, God put me in that position to really appreciate what I have today,” said the young woman, who wanted her name withheld.
Raised by her adoptive family, she said she enjoyed a happy childhood with plenty of love and support. She is expecting her first child, a girl.
“I couldn’t have been any luckier,” she said.
Murphy, then a teen mother of two, was arrested the day of her son’s death before police investigated William Lee, a neighbor boy who made an odd phone call that night and then lied to police several times.
Her attorneys say the troubled 14-year-old had a grudge against Murphy, who’d spurned his sexual advances, and his violent history should have made him a suspect instead. He died before her trial, when he accidentally hanged himself while masturbating.
But two months before he died, Lee was the state’s star witness at Murphy’s preliminary hearing, claiming he’d seen Murphy with blood on her arms that night. Police never found blood anywhere on Murphy’s body or clothes, and they never found the knife used to kill baby Travis.
Police never examined Murphy medically after she complained of a bump on her head, or looked into who might have stolen her keys a month earlier. Some pieces of evidence at the crime scene weren’t gathered until months after Travis’ death.
“They could have done anything, but they didn’t care,” said Bill Hackathorn, one of her trial attorneys. “If it was somebody in a different part of town, they would have done all kinds of things.”
Michelle Murphy and William Lee were kids from the wrong side of the tracks in west Tulsa, families with prison records and histories of abuse. At one time, Murphy was best friends with William Lee’s older sister, Melanie Holmes.
Holmes told the World her brother wasn’t a violent kid, and he wouldn’t have hurt Murphy or her children, she said.
”Yeah, there was a crush. She was real pretty, long blonde hair, really tall, Michelle has always been pretty,” Holmes said. “I mean, it happens. It doesn’t mean ‘I’m going to sneak into your house and you know, kill your baby because you reject me.’ ”
And in the end, DNA tests released this summer proved that neither Michelle nor William was the source of unknown blood found at the crime scene in 1995. Baby Travis’s murder remains unsolved. Tulsa police say the investigation has been reopened.
Harris maintains he made a good-faith argument at Murphy’s 1995 trial based on the Tulsa Police Department lab science at the time. As a “minister of justice,” he said, he filed a motion to vacate her conviction as soon as he realized a 2005 lab report contradicted his argument to jurors.
He handled the initial foster placement of Murphy’s toddler daughter in 1994 because he had been working in the juvenile division of Tulsa County Court — before he was eventually promoted to first assistant district attorney while prosecuting Murphy’s criminal case.
Defense attorney Richard O’Carroll said Harris should apologize to Murphy for getting the facts wrong.
“What we do is hard, and Lord knows I have made mistakes,” he said. “But I tell my clients when I do, and I apologize. Ms. Murphy is entitled to the same from my friend, Mr. Harris,” he said.