The murder trial of Randy Allen Taylor, accused of the murder and abduction of 17-year-old Alexis Murphy, began May 1 in Lovingston with the selection of a jury in a case with no trace of the victim since she was last seen August 3.
Members of Murphy’s family already were seated in the Nelson County Circuit Court well before the 9:30am start time, many of them wearing pink, Alexis’ favorite color. Her mother, Laura Murphy, and grandmother, Gayle Taylor, wore magenta scarves, as did Gil Harrington, mother of Morgan Harrington, whose killer has never been identified, while Alexis’ father, Troy Brown, donned a pink shirt.
The man charged with two felony murder charges and abduction with intent to defile walked into the courtroom unshackled and in a tie and collared, long-sleeved shirt, which partially covered Taylor’s tattoos, a bias about which his attorney questioned potential jurors.
Defense attorney Michael Hallahan had earlier unsuccessfully sought a change of venue because of the massive publicity about the missing teen. And in a county with a population of around 15,000, there was also concern that it would be difficult to find 12 jurors and two alternates with no connection to Murphy or Taylor.
Indeed, several of the 69 jurors called were excused because of their connection to the Murphy family. “It would be hard for me to be involved,” said one. Another, a bus driver who knew Alexis, her mother, and Randy Taylor’s son, said, “I really don’t want to be here.”
Despite a county covered with posters of Murphy and media coverage that extended far beyond Central Virginia, four jurors had never heard of Murphy or Taylor. The rising Nelson County High School senior had tweeted and told her family she was heading to Lynchburg on the evening of August 3. She was captured on surveillance video at the nearby Liberty gas station after 7pm and was never heard from again. Her car was found several days later in the parking lot of the now-closed Carmike movie theater in Charlottesville. Taylor was arrested on August 11 and initially charged only with abduction. The additional charges were placed against him in January.
Both defense attorney Hallahan and Commonwealth’s Attorney Anthony Martin had a list of questions to ask jurors on potential hot-button issues. Hallahan, whose client also was the last person to see another missing girl, Samantha Clarke, 19, in Orange, who disappeared in 2010, succeeded in dismissing jurors who had knowledge of that case.
He also sought to find out if potential jurors had been to Taylor’s residence on U.S. 29 north of Lovingston—and one said he’d driven the tow truck that removed Taylor’s camper from the site. He was excused, as were a man who’d participated in a search for Murphy, and another who lived near Taylor and had the FBI come by his house twice.
Hallahan also pressed the jurors who said they believed Murphy was dead, some of whom confessed they believed it would be up to the defense to show she was still alive. They were also excused.
Prosecutor Martin stressed that the law does not require a body in a homicide case, and he asked jurors whether they were on social media or had strong feelings about marijuana use.
Four of those summoned for jury duty said outright they believed Taylor was guilty. Excused. And at least six others said, while they didn’t know if he was guilty of murder, they believed he was guilty of something. Also excused. Another half dozen said they’d find it difficult to be fair or already had an opinion.
Around 6pm, eight women and six men—one who is African American— had been picked to serve as the 12 jurors and two alternates. Judge Michael Gamble reminded the panel to avoid looking up information on the Internet during the trial, which is expected to last two weeks.
“I think it’s a good group, all walks of life,” said Murphy’s aunt, Trina Murphy, outside the courthouse. She predicted the upcoming trial would “be emotional for us to hear. It’s emotional for us to be here.”
Testimony begins Friday morning.