In dueling commentaries in the Austin (TX) newspaper The Statesman, Williamson County District Attorney John Bradley here and John Raley (eight-year pro bono attorney on the Innocence Project team that represented Michael Morton) here, are giving voters two versions of why Michael Morton spent an extra 2,400 days in prison for a crime he did not commit. At stake is an election in which Bradley is struggling to keep his job. Bradley, who has been a popular tough-on-crime prosecutor in Texas for ten years, is trying to refocus the race on anything but the issue that is dominating it: His long record of resisting a second look at the conviction of Michael Morton.
For those who have observed prosecutorial resistance to post-conviction DNA testing that eventually proved a wrongful conviction, the story is tragically familiar.
The case of Morton, who spent 25 years in prison after the wrongful conviction of the murder of his wife, has been covered repeatedly on this blog and is one of the nation’s higher-profile cases of alleged prosecutorial misconduct. DNA evidence freed Morton and prompted an investigation that revealed stunning alleged Brady violations (failure of the prosecutor to share with the defense any evidence supporting the defendant’s innocence, as required in Brady v Maryland). District Attorney Bradley was not the district attorney in the case; he did not prosecute Morton. However, it has been widely reported that he fought for six years the truth-telling DNA testing of the bloody bandana found near the crime.
Bradley writes that his opponent, Christine Jana Duty, has been dishonest. He says that she was the county attorney who represented the county in the lawsuit Morton filed to win the right to test the evidence. The judge in the case dismissed the lawsuit but an appellate court ruled that the testing should proceed.
Morton’s lawyer, John Raley, however, details the lengths to which Bradley went to fight the DNA testing and defend the conviction. His description of Bradley’s techniques are familiar to those who have watched other prosecutors defend convictions rather than agree to look at new evidence in worthy post-conviction cases. Bradley claimed that the evidence had been contaminated. Raley said this was not so as he elaborates on how Bradley opposed the testing “every way he could.”
According to Raley, Bradley’s resistance included refusing to test the evidence until a judge ruled he had to do so. It included ignoring the results of two lie detector tests Morton passed. It included publicly disparaging the efforts of the Innocence team by calling the evidence “irrelevant” as they were “grasping at straws” to find a “mystery killer.” He belittled Morton for not accepting responsibility for the murder he didn’t commit—in hindsight a strong testimony to Morton’s character.
According to Raley, Bradley fought Morton’s exoneration and disparaged the test results when they linked to Mark Allen Norwood, who has since been indicted for the murder and implicated in a similar murder that occurred while Morton sat in prison.
Bradley is trying to refocus the election campaign on his opponent. He says that she lied about her involvement in the opposing the DNA testing, that she has been reprimanded by the State Bar of Texas for professional misconduct, sanctioned by a judge, and has never prosecuted a felony case.
But for the Morton case, John Bradley would likely have another shoo-in election as a tough-on-crime prosecutor. Instead, organizations such as the Williamson County Sherrif’s Association, the Austin Police Association, the Combined Law Enforcement Associations of Texas, and many others have endorsed Jana Duty.
The Michael Morton case has all of the tragic elements to focus the American public’s attention on the familiar, expensive efforts tough-on-crime prosecutors have utilized to defend convictions before DNA eventually proved them to be wrongful convictions. The fact that a once-powerful and popular district attorney is fighting for his job against a less-experienced opponent is evidence that voters are questioning high conviction statistics as the hallmark of a great prosecutor. Accuracy statistics are indeed a better measure. An indicator of which standard—defending convictions or seeking the truth—a district attorney embraces is how he or she responds to worthy claims of wrongful conviction.