Inside the Randy Allen Taylor trial: Jury rejects defendant’s claims, delivers murder conviction

Photo: Nelson County Visitor's Bureau/Inset by Lisa Provence Photo: Nelson County Visitor’s Bureau/Inset by Lisa Provence

Before a Nelson County jury found Randy Allen Taylor guilty on May 8 for the murder of 17-year-old Alexis Murphy, Commonwealth’s Attorney Anthony Martin had urged them to not reward Taylor “for disposing of this child’s body.” They didn’t, and Martin accomplished something extremely rare: a murder conviction without a body.

“There’s precedent, but such cases are few and far between.” said C-VILLE legal analyst David Heilberg, who recalled the last such local case, the 1983 conviction of Glenn Haslam Barker for the year-earlier murder of 12-year-old Charlottesville schoolgirl Katie Worsky.

“Murder cases are difficult enough, especially if you have no body,” said Heilberg.

Taylor was initially charged with the abduction of Alexis Murphy a week after she disappeared on August 3. She’d told her family she was heading to Lynchburg to buy hair extensions, and surveillance video from the Liberty gas station on 29 South placed her—and Taylor—there that evening around 7pm before she vanished. In January, a grand jury indicted Taylor on three additional charges: first-degree murder, first-degree murder during the commission of an abduction, and abduction with intent to defile.

Soon after his arrest, Taylor’s court-appointed attorney Mike Hallahan went public with Taylor’s claims that Murphy had come back to his Lovingston camper to smoke pot with a black man with cornrows on the night she vanished, and that she and that man had left together. The identity of that man and the evidence against Taylor supporting a murder charge, however, remained largely undisclosed before trial after Nelson County prosecutor Anthony Martin successfully argued to keep pretrial hearings closed, something Heilberg said allowed Martin to “keep his home court advantage.”

During the six-day trial, which began May 1, Martin finally laid out the physical evidence that tied Taylor to Murphy’s disappearance, including the surveillance video from the Liberty gas station that showed Taylor holding the door for Murphy as she entered the store and a later video that showed the white Nissan Maxima she was driving that night following Taylor’s camouflaged Suburban headed north on U.S. 29, away from Lynchburg and in the direction of Taylor’s camper.

An FBI search of his camper on August 7 turned up one of her hairs with the root attached, and in the carpet, investigators found a torn fingernail and a tiny stud that were matched to Murphy through DNA. In another search on August 11, after Taylor was arrested, an FBI agent found the blue T-shirt Taylor was wearing in the gas station video with Murphy’s blood, a hair extension, and a false eyelash rolled up under a sofa in the camper.

Taylor’s attorney raised questions about how the shirt appeared in the tiny camper after it was thoroughly searched by FBI, but the jury apparently believed the prosecution’s explanation: “The defendant thought he was smart and didn’t think they would come back,” said Martin in his closing argument.

Early in the investigation, Murphy’s cell phone records had led investigators to the vicinity of Taylor’s camper about a mile north of Lovingston. The smashed iPhone was found 70 feet from the camper on August 13.

The white Nissan Maxima she’d been driving turned up in the parking lot of the Carmike Theater on 29 North in Charlottesville around 10pm August 4, according to surveillance video, in which the driver was not visible. About 30 minutes later, Taylor showed up at nearby Applebee’s and ordered two Heinekens and a cab to take him back to Nelson, a bartender testified.

The jurors heard police interviews with Taylor in the days before his arrest in which he repeatedly lied about ever seeing Murphy, about being at the Liberty gas station, and about leaving his residence on August 4. When confronted with evidence that his story didn’t hold up, he first said he was buying pot that night from an unnamed buddy who later drove him to Charlottesville August 4. He didn’t mention the cornrow-haired man later identified as Dameon Bradley until he was presented with results from DNA testing that proved Murphy had been in his camper. No evidence of Bradley’s presence was found, investigators said in court, and Bradley testified he’d been in Madison Heights that night with his girlfriend, and had never been in Taylor’s camper nor sold him marijuana as Taylor alleged.

“The biggest problem in [Taylor’s] story—and it is a story—is that she left alone and was fine,” said Martin in his closing argument on May 7. “Is it reasonable to leave without her hair extension, her nail, her blood and cell phone?”

Hallahan stressed that there was no proof Murphy was dead, and offered an alternate theory: “What if someone paid him $10,000 to kidnap and sell her overseas?” he asked.

“You’re going to find there’s not enough beyond a reasonable doubt,” said Hallahan. “You may not like him, but that’s not enough to convict him.”

In a dramatic rebuttal, Commonwealth’s Attorney Martin grabbed the stack of evidence envelopes containing Murphy’s hair, torn fingernail, diamond stud, broken cell phone, and Taylor’s t-shirt with Murphy’s blood.

“This stuff doesn’t lie,” said Martin. “DNA doesn’t lie.” He produced a chart titled, “Randy Taylor’s Lies,” and another called, “Why Randy Taylor Is Guilty.”

Then he silently opened one of the evidence bags, put on gloves, and held up Taylor’s T-shirt and Murphy’s hair extension. “No abduction? No murder?” asked the prosecutor.

A grim-looking jury that avoided looking at Taylor filed back into the courtroom shortly before 4pm on May 8 after deliberating for six hours. Judge Michael Gamble read the two guilty verdicts. Parole was abolished in Virginia in 1996, and the jury in the Taylor trial was clear that they didn’t want him to ever be released, taking less than 30 minutes during the sentencing phase to recommend a life sentence for both charges.

“It has been a living hell for us,” said Laura Murphy, Alexis’ mother, during the sentencing portion of the hearing. “If [Taylor] were in my shoes, how would he feel?” She recounted that her daughter missed her “most important year”—her senior year in high school—and will not get her diploma next week on May 17, before breaking down in sobs.

At that point, Taylor’s court-appointed attorney, Michael Hallahan stood up and said to the judge, “Mr. Taylor requests not to be present in court.” Taylor rushed to the exit before the judge could say anything.

Hearing the verdict “was like winning the lottery,” said family spokesperson Trina Murphy, Alexis’ great aunt. “It was justice being served.”

After court was in recess, Laura Murphy hugged Nelson Sheriff’s Office investigator Billy Mays, before Murphy’s family, friends, investigators in the case, and Martin held a brief press conference in front of the courthouse. Martin said the jury had “put a dangerous man in jail.”

The jurors seated weren’t told that Taylor was a suspect in another missing teen case, the disappearance of 19-year-old Samantha Anne Clarke in Orange in 2010. The night Clarke was last seen, Taylor, who had met the teen the previous weekend, had contacted her by phone at least five times.

Investigators there were so convinced that Taylor was involved in Clarke’s disappearancethat they put a GPS tracker on his car. Taylor said in October 2012 that they’d planted evidence and were harassing him, when he had only been trying to warn Clarke that night that other people had threatened to beat her up. And just as he had fingered another man, Bradley, in the Murphy case, Taylor said he heard an unidentified man’s voice in the background in one of those phone calls to Clarke. Clarke has never been found.

Town of Orange police Detective Evans Oakerson sat in the Lovingston courtroom and watched Taylor get convicted for the murder of another missing teen nearly four years after Clarke disappeared. His boss, Chief James Fenwick, referred a reporter to the Orange commonwealth’s attorney.

“It certainly is good news in the Nelson County case,” said Assistant Commonwealth’s Attorney Clarissa Berry, who noted that the case is still open and ongoing. “Like in the Samantha Clarke case, we wish there was a body the family could mourn.”

Berry said there are quite a few differences between the Murphy and Clarke cases. “Law enforcement got involved a lot quicker and had more information” in the Murphy case, she said. “Not to say we’ve given up hope.

“Our office is no stranger to long cases,” said Berry, noting the conviction of Eric Abshire five years after his wife, Justine Swartz, was found dead in the middle of a remote Orange County road in 2006. “We’re patient, but it is frustrating,” she said asking for the public’s assistance in the Clarke case.

One person who won’t be helping to solve that case—or find Murphy’s body— is Taylor. In a post-conviction interview with Newsplex reporter Chris Stover, Taylor reasserted his innocence and promised to appeal the conviction.

“Sure, I lied, but I didn’t hurt nobody,” he said. “I can’t believe they’re going to make me spend the rest of my life behind bars.”

Taylor will be formally sentenced on July 23.

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