Q. WHEN DOES A LOCAL story become a national story?

A. When the New York Times says it does.

Take the case of Lacresha Murray, the eleven-year-old Austin girl twice convicted of causing the death of two-and-a-half-year-old Jayla Belton. On May 24, 1996, Belton died after apparently suffering blows that, among other things, cut her liver in two. The medical examiner’s estimation of Belton’s time of death led police to conclude that the last person with her—Murray, who had been looking after Belton—was the killer. Murray was arrested and convicted two months later in juvenile court. But in a highly unusual move, the judge presiding over the case threw out the jury’s verdict, questioning whether “justice was served.” At a second trial five months later, Murray was defended by new lawyers with almost unlimited resources, but she was once again found guilty. This time she was sentenced to 25 years in a juvenile youth facility.

For two and a half years Murray’s supporters criticized the conduct of the police and questioned the validity of the evidence against her. They pointed to her lack of motive, the absence of any witnesses, and the fact that her confession was extracted by two police officers after she had been interrogated for more than two hours without an attorney present. Still, coverage of the Murray story was mostly limited to the local press, despite her supporters’ best efforts to get it before a national audience. “The only thing that has stopped 60 Minutes, 48 Hours, Dateline NBC, and even the New York Times from doing it was someone saying, ‘Well, she’s been tried twice. She’s been found guilty twice,’” says Barbara Taft, an Austin community activist who heads Murray’s support group, People of the Heart. Then, on November 15 of last year, New York Times op-ed columnist Bob Herbert wrote the first of several columns defending Murray and brutally assailing Travis County district attorney Ronnie Earle. Now everything has changed: Thanks to that exposure, 60 Minutes, National Public Radio, and People magazine are planning stories on the Murray case, and other national media may join them.

How did Herbert come to write about Murray? He declined to be interviewed by Texas Monthly—“I won’t discuss a story while I am working on it,” he told me by phone from his room at the Four Seasons Hotel in Austin—but it is known that he was first put in touch with People of the Heart by McKinney and McDowell Associates, a Washington, D.C., public relations firm (motto: “Public relations with a conscience”). “Bob Herbert, whom I’ve known for many years and respect immensely, loves to do stories on justice,” says Gwen McKinney, the founder of McKinney and McDowell, “but only if he’s absolutely sure there is innocence. When there’s a case involving innocence and it’s compelling and it’s unusual and no one else has done it, Bob is interested.” Indeed, Herbert’s résumé makes him a natural for the subject. A twice-weekly columnist for the Times since 1993, he is a truly liberal voice on an ever-more-conservative op-ed page. He frequently writes about the justice system, championing underdogs against the establishment—and he gets read. Last October Herbert wrote about a New York man he said was falsely convicted and sentenced to eight years in prison; soon after his columns were published, the man was released.

Not long after that victory, Herbert took out after the Murray case. In the first of what have been, at press time, six columns on the subject, Herbert called the interrogation of Murray “a travesty.” In the fourth column, which ran in the Times on November 26, he called a late prosecution tactic to ensure a conviction  “unconscionable.” In the fifth column, on December 3, he turned up the heat: He began with the words “Now the lies” and went on to attack Earle, who had defended his conduct and that of his staff in a phone call to Herbert at his Austin hotel earlier that week.

That December trip to Austin by Herbert was the first time he had come to Texas to report on the Murray story, but it was not the first time he’s written about the state. Last January, in a column about Karla Faye Tucker, he attacked Texas criminal justice officials as “bloodthirsty” and called Texas a place “where liberals are required to carry visas and compassion is virtually illegal.” Herbert also wrote three columns in July 1997 attacking the case against David Wayne Spence, who had been executed that April for the so-called Lake Waco murders. In those columns Herbert labeled the conviction of Spence a “travesty” and the investigation that led up to it “appalling.” Truman Simons, the McLennan County lawman who had built the case against Spence, felt so maligned that he considered filing a libel suit against the Times. “But they could outlawyer me,” Simons says. “They have more money.”

Earle undoubtedly understands Simons’ ire. A progressive Democrat, he does not conform to Herbert’s image of Texas law enforcement. When I met with Earle and assistant district attorneys Gary Cobb (who prosecuted Murray) and Rosemary Lehmberg at their office on December 3, they were drained from having been grilled by Herbert for two hours that morning. They insisted to me that the case against Murray was solid and that trying a case in the press is different from trying it in a court of law. “The national media is insulated from the controls of community,” Earle said. “The result is that there is no accountability and no context.” For a full hour Earle held forth passionately in his own defense, but only off the record. On the record he displayed extreme caution. “I know better than to get into a public fight with somebody who buys his ink by the barrel,” he said.

In one of his few comments for publication, he described how it felt to be attacked by Herbert: “It was like being tied on the track in front of a runaway train of misinformation.” He added that he felt vindicated by the fact that Murray has been convicted twice. “Any one person can prove anything by picking and choosing which pieces of evidence to consider,” he said, “but two juries heard all the evidence and both returned guilty verdicts. Those verdicts speak volumes. No one person, even if he does write for the New York Times, has all the truth. That’s why twelve people sit on juries.”

Still, if Herbert’s columns have indeed paved the way for other national media to poke around the Murray case, things could get even worse for Earle and the DA’s office. Murray’s supporters are awaiting a decision by the Third Court of Appeals, which could let her prosecution stand, throw it out and let her go free, or overturn it but send it back to Earle, who would have to decide whether to try her a third time. Though Herbert’s past crusades in Texas have been unsuccesful—he was too late to save David Wayne Spence, and he couldn’t save Karla Faye  Tucker—it remains to be seen if the Times columnist will ultimately have an impact on Murray’s fate.