John Raley to Judge: Never Again Show Poor Judgment on DNA

First, a disclaimer: John Raley is one of my heroes.

When John Raley met Michael Morton and became convinced of Morton’s innocence, Raley committed to doing whatever he could as a pro bono lawyer to bring truth to a terrible injustice. It would take years. Morton had been convicted of the 1986 bludgeoning murder of his wife Christine and sentenced to life in prison. But he was unwavering in claiming his innocence. And as it turned out, he was telling the truth.

Justice was delayed for Morton for twenty-five long years, six years longer than his exoneration could have taken if prosecutors had been cooperative in the review of this case. Unfortunately, Raley, Morton, and Innocence Project lawyers met only obstruction from the Williamson County (Texas) prosecutors.

Two of the “hard-on-crime” officials who were instrumental in the original conviction or in delaying the post-conviction search for truth, paid a price for their decisions. In a guest column (here) in the Austin American Statesman, Raley has asked a third official, now a judge, to take responsibility for his role.

In his letter to the citizens of Williamson County, Texas, yesterday, Raley reminded them that he and the Innocence Project filed a motion in 2005 for DNA testing of a bloody bandana found near the Morton home right after the murder. The evidence had been properly handled by officials, was retained and preserved, and the Innocence Project was willing to pay for the testing. Nevertheless, the Williamson County District Attorney, John Bradley, a popular multi-term prosecutor, opposed the DNA testing and turned a callous ear toward weaknesses in the case against Morton. The taxpayers of Texas paid for a protracted legal battle over the right to test the bandana.

When Raley and the Innocence Project finally won, the testing revealed the DNA of both the victim, Christine Morton, and a seasoned felon, Mark Alan Norwood. Not only did this prompt the release from prison of Michael Morton, but also the conviction of Norwood of Christine’s murder. Norwood’s DNA also linked to the similar murder of Debra Jan Baker, two years after Christine’s murder, while Michael Morton was languishing in prison. Norwood also has been indicted for Baker’s murder.

The horrific loss of twenty-five years of Michael Morton’s life and the murder of Baker, which would not have occurred if justice had not stumbled, raised this case to national attention, and prompted a rare court of inquiry into the handling of the Morton case by the original prosecutor, Ken Anderson, who had advanced to the position of district judge.

Anderson, 61, ultimately accepted a plea deal in November 2013 to serve 10 days in jail, provide 500 hours of community service, and surrender his license to practice law. He had previously been forced by the demands of his defense to resign as judge.

John Bradley, Anderson’s successor as Williamson County Prosecutor, fought the testing of the bandana and other evidence of the Morton case. The once-influential Bradley was defeated in his reelection bid by a lesser-known candidate, who utilized bandanas on her yard signs to remind voters of Bradley’s obstruction to DNA testing in this case.

The assistant district attorney who wrote the briefs and made the arguments opposing the DNA testing in the Morton case was Doug Arnold, described today on his campaign website as “a 20-year veteran of the Texas Court System.” Arnold is running for reelection for County Court-at-Law 3. He has a challenger in the Republican March 4 primary election but no opposition in the general election.

In his letter to the citizens of Williamson County, Raley notes that he is not speaking for anyone but himself, and he is not endorsing any candidate. He is, however, asking the judge to step up and make his intentions clear.

Raley is right to ask Judge Arnold to “publicly accept responsibility for his active role in opposing Michael’s search for truth,” and to express his hope “that Judge Arnold will make it clear, publicly, that he will never again oppose DNA testing of evidence that would have been tested by law enforcement if the crime had happened today.”

Years have passed since Judge Arnold was an assistant prosecutor fighting the DNA testing that could have made all the difference in many people’s lives. Hopefully, he learned a great deal from the years of delayed truth his misplaced advocacy prompted.

John Raley has challenged the judge as all citizens should challenge officials following a wrongful conviction: What have you learned from this error and how will it change your decisions going forward?

4 responses to “John Raley to Judge: Never Again Show Poor Judgment on DNA

  1. Great piece, Nancy. And you hit the nail on the head with the final sentence: “What have you learned from this error and how will it change your decisions going forward?” There is no institutionalized feedback mechanism anywhere in the justice system that prevents this kind of injustice from re-occurring. We need DATA, and we need a FEEDBACK MECHANISM.

  2. Excellent point, Phil. The criminal justice system should learn from other important service organizations that have a protocol following a “never event,” including a comprehensive investigation of what went wrong with new procedural and/or safeguard recommendations to prevent reoccurrence. The system should initiate such efforts to understand and improve, and citizens should demand no less.

  3. Docile Jim Brady – Columbus OH 43209

    Well said, Nancy.

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