The once powerful Williamson County (TX) District Attorney John Bradley is looking for a new job. He was the definition of a hard-nosed prosecutor and had served at the voters’ pleasure since his appointment by Governor Rick Perry in 2001 until his stunning defeat in the primary for his re-election earlier this year.
Bradley became high profile nationally when Governor Perry appointed him to chair the Texas Forensic Science Commission during the contentious discussions regarding arson forensic evidence in general and the Todd Willingham case in particular. Willingham, who always claimed innocence in the fire death of his children, was convicted in part on arson forensic theories that have been discredited. He was executed with unsettling lingering questions for many, as indicated in this comprehensive 2009 article on the case in The New Yorker.
But it was Bradley’s opposition to DNA testing of a bloody bandana that became the key issue in his primary re-election bid last May. Michael Morton spent 25 years in prison for his wife’s murder until the testing finally exonerated him. It became abundantly clear when the bandana contained the DNA of both Morton’s wife and a known felon that Bradley had delayed an innocent man’s exoneration and release by six long years.
Bradley was soundly beaten in the primary by a reform candidate. A man with a reputation for a tireless work ethic, Bradley apparently wants to continue doing what he knows best. The Texas Tribune reports here that he has applied for and is one of three finalists vying to lead the state’s Special Prosecution Unit, which prosecutes crimes committed in Texas prisons, jails, and juvenile detention facilities, among other duties.
A year ago when Bradley was coming upon an election amidst revelations of the wrongful conviction of Morton, he indicated in a Texas Tribune article (here) that he was learning some of the most important lessons of his career. The article said that the once unwavering, “legendarily tough” prosecutor’s certitude had been “shaken” by Morton’s exoneration.
Awakening to wrongful conviction is an evolution for many, and the resulting more intentionally careful approaches—including support of best practices in criminal justice procedures—are exemplary outcomes of lessons learned by an exoneration. Decisions revealing a commitment to seeking the truth over just getting or defending convictions are characteristic of prosecutors who properly understand their role. These are also becoming a litmus test for voters.
Whether or not Bradley is given the opportunity to demonstrate his enlightenment in a new prosecutorial position in Texas, the lessons of his fall from voters’ grace should go well beyond him and Texas. The world is not the same as it was even a few years ago for those in the U.S. criminal justice system and for the public they serve. This election is not the first nor will it be the last in which voters reveal that their mandate is changing from tough-on-crime to accurate-on-crime.