Confusion and Consequences: Part 1
Yadkin man accused by his daughter of sex abuse up for parole; her recantation failed to persuade officials to reconsider his case
By Sherry Youngquist | Journal Reporter
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 church directory
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.
Denise Smitherman, who served on the jury, said in a recent interview that the jury did, in fact, believe Julie because she knew so much about sex. The jurors did not have any information about the boyfriend, whom Julie Murphy would later accuse of being her actual attacker, Smitherman said.
"I was convinced she was being abused somehow or she would not have known those things," Smitherman said. "…A lot of the things they are saying now certainly would change things."
Saving a transcript
To this day, Cain keeps a copy of Murphy's file in his desk drawer.
The file contains a transcript of Julie's interview with Cain and a social worker, as well as a photo of Murphy. Inside, there's also a second report, from 1990, in which Julie Murphy claims that her uncle, Tim Murphy, also abused her.
"After talking to Julie, I formed the opinion she was not telling the truth," Cain wrote in his report in 1990. "Her story was very confusing. She could not give me specific answers to the questions that I asked her. According to her answers, her uncle sexually abused her the same night her father (Larry Murphy) did."
Cain wrote in the report that Julie could not have been at her grandmother's, where she alleged that the incident occurred, because social services had secured custody of her by then. And Larry Murphy was already in prison.
Cain, who was elected sheriff in 1998, said that Julie's allegation in 1990 did not cause him to rethink the allegation that had led to Larry Murphy's conviction just a year earlier.
But the 1990 statement should have raised some questions, said Stephen Ceci, a professor of developmental psychology at Cornell University who studies the accuracy of children's courtroom testimony in cases of physical and sexual abuse.
"The detective ought to have been suspicious and tested alternative hypotheses,'' Ceci said.
The 1990 statement could have indicated that something was amiss with the 1989 allegation, too, that, for example, she might have been coached by the mother or that no abuse had occurred, Ceci said.
But Cain's decision not to re-investigate the 1989 allegation after Julie's 1990 statement isn't unusual.
Once a jury convicts, it is difficult to persuade authorities to re-investigate.
That's especially true when a recantation is involved, lawyers and criminal justice advocates say.
Vince Rabil is an assistant North Carolina capital defender who is a former prosecutor in Forsyth County. He has been involved in investigation and prosecution of some of these cases.
"You almost have to have the real person confess, like in the Darryl Hunt case," he said.
The Hunt case is one of two prominent Forsyth County cases in recent years that reflect what happens after a jury renders a verdict.
Hunt was twice convicted in the 1984 murder of a newspaper copy editor, Deborah Sykes, and served nearly 19 years in prison. Even when a DNA test proved in 1993 that he was not the source of semen found on Sykes, no judge would agree to grant him a new trial.
It was only when police identified a new suspect through DNA in 2003 and that suspect, Williard Brown, confessed to the crime, that the district attorney's office agreed to release Hunt, who was later exonerated and has become an advocate on behalf of defendants claiming wrongful conviction.
The second Forsyth County case involves Kalvin Michael Smith, who has been in prison for more than 10 years after being convicted of an assault on Jill Marker, a clerk at the old Silk Plant Forest store in Winston-Salem. Smith has maintained his innocence, but he has failed in all of his appeal efforts, even after obtaining statements from every major witness saying that they had been coerced into their statements by the police.
A judge in January rejected Smith's most recent attempt to win a new trial, spurning the argument that prosecutors had relied on false testimony and that Smith's trial attorney was ineffective.
As in Murphy's case, police recovered no DNA evidence in the Silk Plant Forest case.
Motion for relief
Cain was subpoenaed to testify at a 2004 hearing on Murphy's motion for appropriate relief, a hearing called after Julie Murphy gave her statement in 2002.
Cain said he stayed in court only the day he was called to testify. He didn't think much of Julie's recantation, he said, believing that she made the statement only because she felt sorry at how things turned out.
"I'm not saying I did a perfect investigation," he said. "…I presented the evidence I had to the district attorney and they got a prosecution out of it. The jury figured that the evidence was enough to be beyond a reasonable doubt."
"If she concocted a story that every adult believed and sent an innocent man to jail, I hate that," he said. "But I honestly believe what that child told me on that cold day at that schoolhouse."
The parole commission recently wrote to him about the case, Cain said, and he told the commission that he didn't have any objections to Murphy's release.
"If this guy didn't do it, turn him loose. But the evidence presented to the jury at this time you'd be pressed not to believe it," he said. "If she is lying about this case, even if she was 10 years old, then shame on her."
|False Child Abuse
||Truth in Justice