Editor’s note: This is the first part in a two-part series examining the prosecution and exoneration of Michelle Murphy.
Prosecutor Tim Harris stood before jurors deciding Michelle Murphy’s fate and told them police found someone’s blood near her slain baby’s body — blood he implied could be hers.
“Ladies and gentleman, beyond a reasonable doubt this woman killed her child,” he told them.
What Harris didn’t tell jurors is that as the trial started Nov. 14, 1995, he possessed a report from the Oklahoma State Bureau of Investigation that said Murphy’s blood type was different than the type found at the scene. That test determined DNA found at the scene was not hers, contradicting Harris’ implication to jurors about what the Tulsa police lab tests showed.
A Tulsa World investigation shows the state of Oklahoma relied on faulty blood analysis, 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 should have been challenged in court. Also, jurors never heard other evidence that might have given them reasonable doubt about convicting Murphy, who spent 20 years in prison.
Harris maintains that the OSBI report didn’t exclude Murphy as the source of the unknown blood found at the scene, based on forensic science “at the time.”
It wasn’t entered into evidence, and Harris said he showed the report to Murphy’s defense attorneys.
Her attorneys dispute this, and there is no record that Harris gave them a copy before Murphy was convicted of first-degree murder in the near-decapitation of her 3-month-old son, Travis Wood.
More-advanced DNA testing this year proved the 1995 Tulsa police lab tests jurors were told about were inaccurate.
This wasn’t the first time DNA tests raised serious questions about the validity of Murphy’s conviction. In 2005, when a judge ordered new DNA testing by an independent firm, Harris, elected as district attorney in 1998, said he never saw the final report from the Reliagene lab that determined none of the blood retested from the scene was Murphy’s.
If he had seen that report in 2005, he would have dismissed Murphy’s charges at the time, he told the World.
“Believe me, it weighs heavy on my heart as a minister of justice that that information was known in 2005. Nobody connected the dots,” Harris said.
In fact, Murphy sat in prison for an additional nine years until Harris said one of his deputies brought the Reliagene report to his attention in May this year. At that point, he immediately filed a motion to vacate her conviction, he said.
Trial and appellate attorneys also failed to spot flaws in the case against her.
“We made some decisions that were bad decisions,” said Bill Hackathorn, one of her trial defense attorneys. “I knew all along the most innocent person I ever represented got convicted because I wasn’t good enough.”
Pete Messler, the former Tulsa County special district judge who presided over Murphy’s preliminary hearing, called her murder conviction “the biggest miscarriage of justice” in his 40-year legal career.
“The bottom line is that in this whole trial, anybody who ever had anything to do with it, they were honorable — every one of them were honorable, good lawyers,” Messler said. “Some of them just made some big mistakes.”
Murphy, now 37, was released from prison earlier this summer, when Tulsa County District Judge William Kellough vacated her life-without-parole sentence and first-degree murder conviction, based on the uncovered DNA evidence.
And on Sept. 12, exactly 20 years after the death of Murphy’s baby, Harris decided to drop the murder charges, saying he didn’t have the evidence for a new trial. Kellough dismissed the case with prejudice and declared Murphy innocent.
Her attorneys maintain her conviction should never have happened, that Harris and Tulsa police prosecuted Murphy at the expense of finding the real killer.
They want to know how key pieces of evidence appeared to go missing from Murphy’s case file over the past two decades. Why was an order to test another possible suspect’s blood type never followed?
Harris, promoted to first assistant district attorney while prosecuting Murphy’s case, has said the DNA evidence did not technically exonerate her.
But advanced DNA testing completed this summer with the help of the Innocence Project determined Murphy’s blood did not match samples from the scene and showed that blood analysis performed by the Tulsa police lab in 1995 was inaccurate.
“There was so much misconduct. So much exculpatory evidence that was not produced. There was a great deal of deception,” said Sharisse O’Carroll, one of Murphy’s appellate attorneys who helped win her release.
Harris maintains he never withheld evidence and that Murphy’s trial attorneys were aware her blood had been tested by the state, but they never provided him proof her blood was type A.
“Well, if they think that her blood is exculpatory, why aren’t they giving it to me?” Harris said. “You gotta understand the train has left the station.”
Harris continues to fight a request by Murphy’s attorneys to unseal documents from the case. In a motion filed Friday, Harris’ office claimed the judge made “a mistake” by placing prosecutors’ notes on the case, which are allowed to be withheld by law, under seal in the court file.
Kellough will hear arguments Oct. 24 over the documents and whether Harris should be held in contempt for what Murphy’s attorneys say are false statements.
In the eyes of the law, Murphy is innocent and cannot be retried. Through her attorneys, she declined to be interviewed for this story.
On the day Kellough dismissed the case, Murphy told the World: “I’ve always known I was innocent. I just wanted other people to believe it.”
‘I think my baby is dead!’
Summer had dragged into September, so Murphy, then 17, chose to sleep downstairs on the couch that hot night, near the window unit air-conditioner in her west Tulsa apartment. Her 2-year-old daughter and infant son slept on the L-shaped couch with her.
According to Murphy, when she woke up about 6 a.m. on Sept. 12, 1994, her head ached and she noticed a footstool — the one she placed next to the couch to keep 3-month-old Travis from falling off — had been moved. Her baby was gone.
She found her 13-pound infant in a pool of blood on the kitchen floor, nearly decapitated and stabbed in the chest.
Murphy ran to the neighbors’ apartment and pounded on the door: “I think my baby is dead!”
Her friends called 911, and watched as Murphy wailed, “Why would anyone kill my baby? Why would anyone do this to me?”
The blood spilled out from his neck to the floor, and a bloody smudge marked the curtain separating the kitchen from the living room where Murphy slept that night with her baby and daughter.
Detectives found blood smeared on the outside of the open front door, but what they didn’t find was blood on Murphy — none on her clothes, arms, face, her kitchen sink or bathroom faucet.
There are no records showing that Tulsa police used luminol — a chemical commonly used at crime scenes to reveal cleaned-up bloodstains — anywhere around her kitchen or bathroom sink, on the door handles or walls. Detectives lifted a set of latent fingerprints at the scene, but police never revealed whether they found a match for the prints.
Investigators did not explain how they believed Murphy had slashed her baby’s throat without getting a drop of blood on her. Or how the teen mom with an eighth-grade education could have cleaned all traces of the crime off her clothes and body.
When police began questioning her, Murphy seemed to have no clue what had happened. She complained of a knot on her head, a splitting headache and bruises on her legs. The detective who interrogated her said he didn’t feel any bumps on her head and never took her to a hospital to be examined.
Murphy had no idea someone else had already called 911 early that morning, claiming he’d heard “pounding, fighting, hollering, cursing” at her apartment.
She didn’t know Tulsa police had already been to her apartment around 3 a.m., knocked on her partly open door and unsuccessfully tried to wake her and her daughter on the couch. Officers didn’t see signs of a disturbance, or the dead baby on the kitchen floor, so they left.
Hours later, Detective Michael Cook arrested Murphy based on an incriminating statement she allegedly made to him during an interrogation lasting more than seven hours — only 26 minutes of which was recorded.
In that statement, she repeatedly denies involvement. She talks about a fight with LaDonna Summers, another woman who lived in her complex, and repeatedly mentions getting hit in the head.
Murphy says she remembers getting hit in the head or the baby getting dropped, and mentions a knife that could have accidentally cut her baby when she leaned over him. Allegedly, the women were fighting about a rumor that Travis’ real father wasn’t Harold Eugene Wood, Murphy’s common-law husband. She kicked Wood out of the apartment months earlier because he wasn’t helping to financially support the family.
Summers testified she knew the rumor wasn’t true and was never at the apartment the night Travis was killed.
Records show Detective Cook took five pages of handwritten notes during his interrogation, without noting the time of day. Cook, now retired, did not respond to numerous interview requests from the World.
Neither did his former supervisor, Sgt. Wayne Allen. Tulsa Police Chief Chuck Jordan declined to speak on the department’s behalf, citing ongoing litigation.
In Cook’s notes, Murphy’s incriminating statements don’t begin to appear until the bottom of the fourth page.
The only statement Cook included on Murphy’s arrest affidavit and attributed to her appears on the final page.
“I could have been so angry, I needed to take it out on somebody and ended up hurting my son,” the notes read. “I think that might be what happened.”
At this point, according to Harris, Cook stopped taking notes and turned on the audio recorder. Murphy makes some vague statements about dropping the knife, and the knife cutting or hitting the baby.
Other than the last page of Cook’s handwritten notes, there is no recorded proof of Murphy actually saying the words touted as her confession.
Cook: “OK. You said earlier…”
Murphy: “Oh, I’d never do that.”
Cook: “You said, ‘I could’ve been so angry I needed to take it out on somebody and ended up hurting my son.’”
Murphy: “You mean … I was … blacked out … I mean, I didn’t know what I was doing. It wasn’t me.”
Murphy never repeated the incriminating statement in other interrogations, or on the witness stand in court. She testified at trial that she only made the statement about hurting her baby because Cook told her if she confessed, she could see her daughter.
‘Then there was quiet’
Two days after arresting Murphy, Cook learned who had called 911 the night Travis was killed. The caller was the same person who lied repeatedly to police and later claimed to be watching outside Murphy’s windows as the crime happened: William Michael Lee.
The troubled 14-year-old with a crush on Murphy quickly became the state’s star witness against her.
When police officers first started interviewing William, he lied four times.
Two days after Travis’ murder, Sgt. Allen, then in charge of the homicide unit, spoke to a man who had been visiting his girlfriend at Murphy’s apartment complex the night of the crime.
The man told Allen he went outside about 3 a.m. after a fight with his girlfriend, when he saw a young white teen — whom he identified as William — running barefoot across the complex wearing jean shorts with no shirt. He said he saw the teen run back into his family’s apartment.
Allen questioned the teen, who initially lied and said he had never left the apartment, and then told several different stories. Allen wrote in a police report that he “became more suspicious” and took the teen downtown to be questioned by Cook.
Police believed William was telling the truth in the version of the story told to Cook. He’d been up in the middle of the night and began looking in Murphy’s windows after hearing an argument.
William spent about 30 minutes outside her window that night, watching her argue with the father of her children, Harold Eugene “Gene” Wood.
He said he saw Wood with a small kitchen knife in his back pocket; then Wood left and William called 911 anonymously.
He told the dispatcher he heard what sounded like a knife being thrown at a wall in Murphy’s apartment.
Wood later testified he was not at Murphy’s apartment that night.
After calling 911, William went back to his apartment to watch TV. In court testimony, he said he returned to peek through her windows around 4:30 a.m., to make sure Murphy was OK.
That time, when he looked through the window, he saw Murphy pick up a crying Travis, go into the kitchen “and then there was quiet,” he testified.
So he went around the complex and looked in the back window.
He saw Travis on the floor, lying in blood with his throat cut. William also mentioned seeing the chest wound. Defense attorneys have noted that fact because the medical examiner failed to spot the chest wound until he started cleaning the baby for the autopsy. It was not visible through all the blood, the medical examiner said.
William testified he could see this small detail while peeking through holes in the strings of the closed blinds.
He said he heard Murphy muttering and turning on the kitchen sink. And while he called 911 about the fight he’d allegedly heard earlier, he chose not to call about the dead baby.
The transcript shows that the hearing recesses at this point, and Messler meets with prosecutors and defense attorneys.
Messler, who retired as a judge in 2000, told the World that in chambers, he asked Harris if William had an attorney.
Why does he need one, Harris asked?
“I looked at him very sternly and I said, ‘Because that’s the murderer of this baby and everybody in the courtroom knows it except you, apparently,’ ” Messler said.
Murphy’s lead defense attorney, Curtis Parks, died in 2013. His co-counsel, Hackathorn, recalled the conversation exactly as Messler described it.
Harris said if Messler had reservations, he had authority to rule the state lacked sufficient evidence to try Murphy for murder.
Messler said he had no choice other than binding Murphy over for trial. The state had shown probable cause that a crime was committed. With Murphy’s incriminating statement and William’s testimony, Harris had shown probable cause she could have committed the crime, Messler said.
Murphy’s attorneys thought they would get their chance at trial to tell the jury about William’s violent history and mental instability. One psychological assessment taken when he was 10 years old states: “It appears that, when faced with rejection, William will react in an aggressive manner.”
Messler said he thought a jury would never believe the teen, who had made sexual advances and been spurned by Murphy. Jurors did not get a chance to see him in person. Before the case went to trial, William died at age 15.
Jurors never heard the disturbing way William died on Jan. 12, 1995, documented in his autopsy: autoerotic asphyxiation.
The teen died when he accidentally hanged himself while masturbating in the family’s garage, with a sheet wrapped around his neck to heighten the euphoria.
Details ruled inadmissible
The jury did hear a recording of William’s earlier testimony that was played in court.
But they didn’t hear from a neighbor who said William had decapitated a cat, or a teacher he assaulted.
They did not hear from a school counselor who reported William arrived to school early in a good mood the day after Travis was slain, telling her: “The bitch will pay.” When the counselor asked what he was talking about, William told her: “Someone had killed a baby and soaked it in blood.”
Since William was dead, many of the concerning behaviors Murphy’s defense attorneys wanted to tell jurors about were not deemed admissible.
District Judge Ned Turnbull ruled those details were considered impeachment of a witness who was not there to defend himself. Turnbull did not return calls seeking comment for this story.
William’s sister, Melanie Holmes, told the World her brother may have had a “rough” childhood but could never have committed the crime. She said William frequently baby-sat her daughter, 15 months old at the time, and also Murphy’s baby on occasion.
Holmes said she doesn’t know whether Murphy killed her own baby but that it is unfair for defense attorneys to blame her brother, who isn’t alive to defend himself.
“What I do know is if she didn’t do it, she doesn’t deserve to do the time, She never did,” Holmes said of Murphy. “But that doesn’t mean that this deserves to be hanging over my brother, either.”
Because of how William died, his body was autopsied, and blood and tissue samples were preserved by the Medical Examiner’s Office.
Detective Cook asked the TPD lab to determine William’s blood type shortly after his death.
This was important, because Tulsa police were testing blood found throughout the scene of Travis’ death.
But despite a written order dated Jan. 25, 1995, requesting the test, Tulsa police say the test was never done.
Police and the DA’s Office stated Cook’s lab request never made it to the lab.
Harris said the test was only related to William’s death instead of the baby’s murder and that he was unaware of Cook’s request until months later.
Defense Attorney Sharisse O’Carroll questions what really happened to the homicide detective’s lab request.
“This is a first-degree murder case, so you’d have to believe that Cook never followed up on his lab request, nobody said anything, he didn’t care,” she said. “He never called and said, ‘Hey, I’m kind of waiting on that.’ ”
If that test wasn’t done in 1995, following through on it in 2014 also did not seem to be a priority for Tulsa police or Harris.
Murphy’s legal team asked earlier this year to test the state’s existing samples of William’s blood and tissue, and attorneys for the state and city fought those requests, records show. The state eventually turned over samples for testing.
“Every single day we would find something new that was exculpatory that proved her innocence, and every single day throughout, we would try to get the state to try to negotiate with us and the state continued to fight us, the city fought us at every stage,” O’Carroll said.
The tests seemed to move slowly in 1995, too. Though Harris requested in June the OSBI lab test comparing Murphy’s blood to samples found at the scene, results took several months and arrived the day before the trial began.
Harris said he recalled showing those test results to Parks at the courthouse. Hackathorn said they were never given a copy, and they had been repeatedly told all the blood found at the scene was baby Travis’s.
The OSBI report was curiously vague about Murphy’s blood type: “consistent with type A, but unable to confirm group.”
Her blood type could have been easily verified by medical records — had anyone bothered to obtain them before trial. Murphy had given birth to two children by age 17. Healthcare clinic records from January 1994 — before Travis was born — list her blood type as A positive.
Harris maintains it was not his responsibility to find Murphy’s medical records, and that the OSBI test results were ambiguous.
“DNA analysis is just coming on the scene, OK? It’s just barely scratching the surface, so AB blood typing was what it’s all about — but it wasn’t a perfect science,” Harris said. “The fact that somebody is A doesn’t exclude them from possibly also being an AB.”
In 1995, forensic DNA testing was relatively new. Blood typing was not.
Human blood types were discovered around 1900, and hospitals routinely and quickly type blood every day thanks to a test developed in 1936.
Type AB blood is rare — found in about 3 percent of the population. AB blood also has both A and B antigens — proteins that can trigger an immune response if foreign to the body — while type A blood has only the A antigen.
Harris did not introduce the OSBI report at trial or ask its author, OSBI criminalist Thomas Gibson, to testify. Instead, Harris chose to use the report and testimony of Ann Morris, the Tulsa Police Department lab employee who tested blood found at the scene.
Morris’ report found blood from the kitchen and outside the front door to be type AB. She tested a drape with a large bloody handprint clearly visible and found that blood type “inconclusive.”
Her report also states that the known sample of Travis’ blood was also “inconclusive.”
In his closing argument, Harris reminded jurors that Morris determined there was type AB blood found at the crime scene, blood that was not the baby’s.
“Isn’t it amazing, that Ann Morris says the child’s blood, which is taken from the pool by Detective Noordyke, is inconclusive, I can’t test it, and all the blood is collected at the same time, but the blood outside the door is AB. Isn’t that interesting. It is not the child’s blood.”
Morris left the Tulsa police lab in 1995 and now lives out of state. She could not be reached for comment.
‘Blood all over’
In 2005, Tulsa District Judge Tom Gillert ordered additional DNA tests in Murphy’s case requested by the Oklahoma Indigent Defense System. The company chosen to perform the tests, Reliagene, received three envelopes from the Tulsa police lab. Two of the envelopes that were supposed to contain blood samples from the crime scene arrived empty. It is unclear why.
And, on the samples the lab received, none of the DNA matched Murphy. It all belonged to the baby.
Gillert ordered the test results, once complete, sent to Harris and OIDS. Harris knew results were coming because he told the World in 2005 that while he didn’t object to the testing, he was confident he put the right person behind bars.
Harris told the World last week he never saw the results of that test. Records show the test was sent to the District Attorney’s Office, to Harris’ attention.
In July, extensive DNA testing by another company on the blood samples from the baby’s murder scene determined once again that Murphy was not a match. The testing was sought in an appeal filed by O’Carroll and her husband, attorney Richard O’Carroll, as well as the Innocence Project in New York.
“Blood was all over that apartment, and none of it was Michelle’s,” said Hackathorn, her lone surviving trial attorney.
The newest DNA tests show the baby’s blood was type O, and the blood from the unknown person? Also type O, not type AB as a Tulsa police lab test had initially stated.
But those tests also showed the unknown type O blood wasn’t William Lee’s. His DNA didn’t match.
The baby’s killer would not necessarily leave blood at the scene unless injured while committing the crime, however.
Tulsa police say they’ve reopened the investigation into Travis’ death.
Hackathorn wonders what the outcome could have been if police had not focused immediately on Murphy. Over the past 20 years, he never doubted her innocence.
When Hackathorn met Murphy at the jail soon after her arrest, she didn’t ask him to get her out of prison.
Her plea to Hackathorn: “I want you to find out what happened.”
Long path to freedom
Sept. 12: Three-month-old Travis Wood is found dead in Michelle Murphy’s apartment at Riverview Park, 2275 S. Maybelle Ave., at 6 a.m. Murphy is arrested hours later.
Sept. 14: William Lee, a 14-year-old neighbor, tells police he peeked through her blinds and saw Murphy with blood on her arms and the baby dead.
Sept. 15: Murphy charged with one count of first-degree murder.
Oct. 5: Murphy’s 2-year-old daughter is placed with a couple who would later adopt her.
Jan. 12: William Lee dies in a hanging, later ruled accidental — caused by auto-erotic asphyxiation.
Jan. 25: Detective Mike Cook sends TPD’s lab a request to test Lee’s blood. The lab never received the request.
April 6: TPD test shows AB blood found at crime scene.
June 30: TPD sends some blood from scene to OSBI for more tests.
Nov. 13: One day before Murphy’s trial, Harris receives OSBI’s test results. It finds blood that is likely the baby’s on a drape but no AB blood. It states Murphy’s blood is “consistent with group A however not able to confirm group.”
Nov. 17: During closing arguments, Harris tells jurors blood found in two places was “not the child’s blood” and implies it was Murphy’s blood. Murphy is convicted of first-degree murder by a jury in District Judge Ned Turnbull’s court.
Nov. 26: District Attorney David Moss dies at age 48. Harris, then first-assistant district attorney, takes over as acting district attorney.
Dec. 11: Turnbull sentences Murphy to life in prison without parole.
Feb. 20: Oklahoma Court of Criminal Appeals affirms Murphy’s conviction.
Nov. 3: Harris elected to his first term as Tulsa County district attorney.
May 3: District Judge Thomas Gillert signs an order, requested by the Oklahoma Indigent Defense System, to permit post-conviction DNA testing in Murphy’s case. He orders results of the tests by Reliagene sent to OIDS and to Harris.
June 14: TPD’s lab states it retrieved the evidence Gillert ordered sent to Reliagene, but envelopes that were supposed to contain several blood samples from the scene arrived empty.
July 29: The DNA test conducted by Reliagene concludes that blood from the scene belonged to the baby rather than Murphy, contradicting what Harris had suggested in his closing argument in 1995. The results are sent to the attention of Tim Harris, who later said he never saw the report until 2014.
Aug. 1: OIDS drops attempts to gain post-conviction relief for Murphy because “all samples belonged to the victim.”
Sept. 5: Attorneys Richard and Sharisse O’Carroll, along with the Innocence Project, file an application for post-conviction relief on Murphy’s behalf.
Nov. 18: Harris announces he will not seek re-election.
March 24: District Judge William Kellough signs an order for new DNA tests of evidence in the case.
May 23: Harris receives a subpoena to testify about evidence related to William Lee’s blood type. Kellough sets the hearing for May 30.
May 29: Harris’ office files a motion to vacate Murphy’s first-degree murder conviction, citing the 2005 Reliagene test results.
May 30: Harris announces his motion to vacate, and the evidentiary hearing ends without testimony. Murphy, now 37, is released from prison on bond.
Sept. 5: Harris receives a subpoena to testify at a Sept. 12 hearing involving whether the state has complied with discovery requirements including documents relating to William Lee’s blood type.
Sept. 12: Harris dismisses the murder charge against Murphy, stating he cannot retry the case. Kellough states: “This court, Miss Murphy, finds you innocent.”
Cary Aspinwall 918-581-8477
Ziva Branstetter 918-581-8306