Skip Ribbon Commands
Skip to main content

Michelle Murphy

Other Oklahoma Exonerations
About 6 a.m. on September 12, 1994, police in Tulsa were summoned to the townhouse of 17-year-old Michelle Murphy who said she found her 15-week-old son, Travis, stabbed to death in her kitchen.

The baby was lying in a pool of blood, with a puncture wound in his chest and a deep laceration of his neck that resulted in a near decapitation.

By 2 p.m. that afternoon, police said Murphy had confessed. Police said that Murphy gave a statement in which she said she was holding a knife and quarrelling with another woman. She said she leaned over Travis and Travis was accidentally stabbed. No knife was ever linked to the crime.
Although Oklahoma law prohibited police from questioning minors without a parent or guardian present, Murphy was interrogated alone for eight hours. At the time, she was wearing only shorts and a t-shirt and was barefoot. Although Detective Mike Cook had a tape recorder, he only recorded the last 20 minutes of the interrogation.

Soon after, police discovered that a 911 call had been placed at about 3:00 a.m. by 14-year-old William Lee, a neighborhood resident who reported that Murphy and her husband were quarrelling in the townhouse. In response, police went to the townhouse, but did not enter, and left when no one answered the door. Murphy had separated from her husband, Harold Wood, earlier in the year and lived there with Travis and her two-year-old daughter, also named Michelle.

Detective Cook questioned Lee, who said that while he was walking the neighborhood because he could not sleep, he heard Murphy and Wood arguing. Lee said he called 911 and went home, but left his apartment again at about 4:30 a.m. and again walked by Murphy’s townhouse.

Lee said that this time, as he peered through the window of the townhouse, he saw Murphy carry Travis, who was alive, from the living room into the kitchen. Lee recounted that he walked around the building to try to look into the kitchen, and although the blinds on the kitchen window were shut, he was able to see through holes in the blinds that the baby was on the floor in a pool of blood and Murphy had blood spots on her arms. Despite seeing this, Lee claimed that he went home and did not call police.

Lee testified to those details at a preliminary hearing. By the time Murphy went on trial in Tulsa County District Court in November 1995, Lee was dead as a result of asphyxiation during an auto-erotic hanging. Consequently, the tape-recording of his testimony at the preliminary hearing was played for the jury.

The prosecution’s case relied upon Lee’s testimony at the preliminary hearing, Murphy’s confession, testimony from a crime analyst, and from Detective Cook.

Detective Cook admitted during his testimony that he touched Murphy during the interrogation, claiming he was “examining” her for evidence that she had been molested or attacked. He admitted he touched her head and examined her thighs.
Cook testified that his entire investigation – after obtaining the statement from Murphy – consisted of his interrogation of Lee, an interview with one of Murphy’s neighbors, visiting the townhouse to look at the blinds that Lee said he looked through, and going back to Murphy’s vacant townhouse six months after the murder. Cook told the jury no suspect had ever falsely confessed to him.

Serology tests had been performed on numerous blood samples collected from the crime scene. The prosecution had informed the defense that all the blood samples collected were determined to be from Travis. However, at the trial, a crime lab analyst falsely testified that Travis’s blood type could not be determined because he was too young, that all the blood around the baby was the same blood type, and that blood type AB had been found as well. The analyst said Murphy could not be ruled out as the source of the type AB blood. In fact, the analyst had determined that Travis had type O blood and Murphy had type A blood, which excluded them as the source of the AB blood. That information was not disclosed to Murphy’s defense attorney. The lab’s analysis of all the blood samples from the scene failed to find any of Murphy’s type A blood.

The defense called Murphy’s estranged husband, Harold Wood, who testified that he was not in the townhouse that night. He said he was with other friends - several of whom testified that Wood was with them that night.

In rebuttal, Assistant District Attorney Tim Harris called Scott Richie to the witness stand. Richie testified that about a month after the murder, Wood said that he had been at the townhouse on the night of the killing, and that he and Murphy had quarreled because Wood suspected that he was not Travis’s father. According to Richie, Wood said that he told Murphy that if she got rid of the child, he would move back in with her.

Although Harris had printed out records showing that Richie had numerous prior convictions and at least three hospitalizations in a mental institution, those records were not disclosed to the defense. Consequently, Murphy’s lawyer did not question Richie about his mental problems. He also failed to question Richie about his past convictions. Richie was the last witness the jury heard.

During closing arguments, despite having lab reports that showed that none of Murphy’s blood was found at the scene, prosecutor Harris suggested to the jury that Murphy’s blood was present and that it was proof that she killed Travis.

On November 19, 1995, a jury convicted Murphy of first-degree murder and she was sentenced to life in prison without parole. Her daughter was given up for adoption.

At the time of the murder, Murphy was studying to obtain a high school equivalency credential. An instructor, Susan Jones, believed Murphy was innocent. For more than 15 years after the conviction, Jones attempted to get legal help for Murphy. In 2011, she persuaded Tulsa lawyers Richard and Sharisse O’Carroll to begin investigating the case.

The lawyers discovered that the prosecution knew that the type AB blood that was found at the scene could not have come from either Murphy or Travis.

They also discovered that Detective Cook – who testified that he never had a defendant falsely confess – had in fact obtained a false confession several years earlier.

In January 2014, the New York-based Innocence Project joined Murphy’s defense team as they filed a motion for DNA testing.

In May 2014, after DNA testing on the bloodstains revealed the DNA profile of an unknown male (not that of William Lee), prosecutor Timothy Harris, who was by then the elected District Attorney, agreed to vacate Murphy’s conviction. Murphy was released on bond on May 30, 2014.

On September 12, 2014, Harris dismissed the charges. On that date, Judge William Kellough also declared Murphy innocent. In 2015, Murphy received $175,000 in compensation from the state of Oklahoma. Despite the judge’s finding, Prosecutor Harris continued to publicly state that he believed Murphy was guilty.

In September 2015, Murphy filed a federal civil rights lawsuit against the city of Tulsa. The lawsuit was dismissed in 2018. The dismissal was upheld on appeal in 2019, and the U.S. Supreme Court declined in 2020 to review that ruling.

– Maurice Possley

Report an error or add more information about this case.

Posting Date: 9/20/2014
Last Updated: 10/6/2020
Most Serious Crime:Murder
Additional Convictions:
Reported Crime Date:1994
Sentence:Life without parole
Race/Ethnicity:Native American
Age at the date of reported crime:17
Contributing Factors:False Confession, False or Misleading Forensic Evidence, Perjury or False Accusation, Official Misconduct, Inadequate Legal Defense
Did DNA evidence contribute to the exoneration?:Yes*