Ten years lost: Harlingen man still coping with life after prison - Valley Morning Star : Local News

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Ten years lost: Harlingen man still coping with life after prison

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Posted: Tuesday, September 4, 2018 4:32 am

HARLINGEN — Murray Blackwell’s name popped up on the caller ID as the phone pulsed.

He’s been telling us the trials of his life for several months now, both in person and on the phone.

But this most recent call was different. He sounded down and defeated.

Usually upbeat, Murray’s voice instead sounded as though it was full of despair. He talked about his most recent experience — his tone of voice softer and speech pattern slower than normal.

Murray said he had obtained a job in Austin and worked for a week. But his background check came back showing a felony; he was let go the same day.

Now, Murray, 30, is back in Harlingen waiting for another job opportunity to come through — hoping someone will give him a chance.

He said he spends most of his time babysitting for his family members, helping his uncle as a provider and seeking employment.

His dream is to provide for himself and his family and put the past behind him. 

Never did he realize a decision made more than 13 years ago would continue to impact his life the way it still does.

Murray would give anything to take it all back.

He was released from prison in 2015 after serving a full 10-year sentence for robbery.

He was accused and convicted of attempting to steal a pizza man’s money bag and pizza on a local delivery when he was 17.

THE CRIME

As a kid Murray says he felt unstoppable and recalls being bold and running from police for taunting them.

But fate would have its way as Murray says the same policeman he would run from arrested him for alleged assault and robbery of the delivery driver.

Police reports from 2004 state that because Murray had been a suspect for robberies in Weslaco and San Benito, although he was never charged, it was the investigating officer’s opinion that Murray would have robbed the pizza delivery man if the man had not sped off in his car.

Harlingen police declined to comment on this old case.

“He never came near the money or the pizza,” the pizza delivery driver recently recalled.

The pizza driver, a Harlingen resident, requested that his name remain anonymous.

Police reports state it was Murray who flagged the pizza man down.

According to Murray, the pizza man was driving around his neighborhood until he finally stopped to ask for directions.

Murray says during that moment the delivery driver called him the “N” word.

And in response, Murray punched him and grabbed onto the car door in an attempt to hold the driver while he demanded the pizza because the delivery was late anyway.

Both Murray and the pizza man recall the punch grazed the pizza man’s left side of his head. The pizza man said he never would have used a racial epithet.

Scared during the altercation, the pizza man finally sped off, delivered the pizza and called police using the customer’s phone.

The very next day, on Nov. 25, 2004, police arrived at Murray’s home and arrested him for failure to identify himself.

Police reports state Murray was picked out of a photo lineup by the pizza man.

DRIVE TO APOLOGIZE

It was a chilly day this past November, but that didn’t stop Murray from catching a ride to the other side of Harlingen.

He was sitting shotgun in a muscle car, jamming to gangster rap music as the car cruised down Commerce Avenue to see if he could take back what happened that fateful day in 2004.

Psyched by the Dr. Dre, 2Pac and Easy-E music, he bobbed his head to the beat and then his phone rang.

“I’m busy doing something right now, it’s important. I can’t talk,” Murray said.

He pulled his hoodie back over his head as they kept rolling.

It was only a few days before Thanksgiving, but Murray was trying to find the “pizza man.”

He was getting closer to where he was going as he passed Jackson Avenue and downtown Harlingen.

Murray wanted to find the pizza delivery driver he punched all those years ago. It was the event that sparked his downward spiral and landed him in the Texas prison system.

But, Murray wasn’t looking for revenge, he wanted to apologize to the man he was accused of assaulting and robbing when he was a teenager more than 10 years ago.

But, he wouldn’t get the chance to say “I’m sorry.”

Sitting in the car looking over his shoulder, Murray waited for a sign to come apologize to the pizza man.

He looked as the pizza man stood at his doorstep.

Minutes passed as the pizza man began to recall the situation he had with Murray so long ago. And when asked if he would like to meet him knowing Murray wanted to apologize, he said no, not at this time.

The pizza delivery man said he was not ready to meet Murray, but he was shocked to find out Murray went prison for the incident involving them so long ago.

In COURT

In 2005, Murray pleaded guilty to the robbery of the pizza driver charge.

And Texas got tough.

It was a single punch a then 17-year-old Murray attempted to level on the delivery driver after he says the racial epithet was used.

Murray knows that decision was the spark that landed him in county jail and then district court. With no help from his family he was represented by a court-appointed lawyer.

He said his attorney advised him that if he went to trial he would be facing a 20-year sentence based on the evidence the Cameron County District Attorney’s Office had at the time.

Murray said he signed the plea bargain for the 10 years because he was scared.

All these years later, Murray believes his punishment was too extreme.

“I was a kid they sent to prison for a crime I didn’t commit,” Murray said. “I didn’t know what I was doing.”

He received a sentence of 10 years’ probation, which he later violated.

According to court documents, Murray was sent to prison for violating his curfew at least five times, failing to report to eight consecutive office visits, and for allegedly being involved in a theft of alcohol from Feldmans’ Valley Wide Liquor, associating with a felony probationer who allegedly committed burglary of a habitation and deadly conduct.

It had only been three months after being sentenced on March 29, 2005.

LOCKED UP

Murray joined the prison gang.

He went on to serve a full 10 years in prison with men who were in for rape and murder. Murray said some of them even served less time for their crimes.

He was beaten up for cheering for his favorite football team, and he was embarrassed to say what landed him in prison.

He went through depression, anxiety and would talk to a psychiatrist in prison about feeling down and depressed.

“I would write letters to the judge asking for a second chance,” Murray said. “I used hundreds of stamps asking lawyers to help me and to reporters to write my story.”

His messages went unheard.

Going to prison changed Murray, he said.

That is where he finally learned to respect authority and people.

He said “you cannot play around and think you won’t get punished.”

After never receiving a parole hearing and eight years into his prison term, Murray recalls a new cellmate asked him why he was locked up.

And embarrassed, Murray with his gangly six-foot frame turned away from the magazine he was reading, pulled off his headphones and said, “For punching a pizza man.”

His cellmate looked confused and then quickly pulled out a law book that he said had information showing Murray was wronged by the system.

The problem was, Murray had already chipped away at more than eight years in prison when he read the law book.

Murray’s mother Denise Moore says her son has changed.

“I seen people do worse than he did,” Denise said. “And they are in and out of prison.”

She said she cried many times and especially during the holidays Murray missed.

“I had to pay to go see him in prisons so far away,” Denise said about catching rides as far as Amarillo. “Now that he is home no one gives him a job, they say no, no, no.”

LIFE AFTER PRISON

Now, three years after being released from prison in 2015, Murray is home in Harlingen and cannot find work.

He is hoping construction jobs in Mercedes and Weslaco will hire him.

Being in the “free world” has not been easy for Murray.

Now out of prison, Murray realizes he has a second shot at life, but he has limited opportunities.

“I want to be a real estate agent so bad,” Murray said. “You can’t get a license with a robbery charge.”

Murray never finished high school; he has never voted for president and has no driver’s license.

Murray still owes court costs and fines, which prevent him from receiving a Texas driver’s license.

“I paid my time,” Murray says.

He did receive his G.E.D. and electrical trade certificate in prison, he said.

Murray has spent most of the year working as a provider for his uncle — a job he cares about because he feels like it’s catching up on lost family time to him.

He takes his uncle to and from dialysis clinics and helps him around the house.

It is the only job he has held in his hometown.

Murray said he applied for more than 30 jobs and feels he is being discriminated against for having a felony conviction.

As described in Michelle Alexander’s book, “The New Jim Crow,” Murray feels he’s living in the modern world as if he were in the Jim Crow Era when black people were denied the vote, public assistance or trade licenses.

The only job he has been offered was to do cleanup in Rockport, Texas, where Hurricane Harvey devastated the town.

After prison Murray resorted to breeding pit bulls to make a living.

Growing up he had aspirations of becoming a veterinarian.

Murray’s felony charge locks him out of many opportunities he says most people take for granted.

“These days I speak to my nephews to keep them on track,” Murray said. “I’m not that person that I was more than 10 years ago.

“I want to be the warning to all these kids,” Murray said. “I was 17, and thought nothing was going to happen to me.”

He’s waiting to be called for a job opportunity in construction.

Murray is optimistic and says he stays away from trouble, and he is willing to speak to kids about his past.

“They are the future, and I wouldn’t want them to make a mistake like I did,” Murray said.

rgarcia@valleystar.com

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