The Texas Coalition on Lawyer Accountability (TCLA) announced that its Executive Director, Julie Oliver, is today filing disciplinary grievances against prosecutors in the Michael Morton case: current Williamson County District Attorney John Bradley; former Williamson County District Attorney (and current District Judge) Ken Anderson; former Williamson County Assistant District Attorney Mike Davis.
Published reports indicate that those lawyers may have violated several of the ethics rules that govern Texas lawyers. The apparent violations had tragic, horrific consequences—including the wrongful imprisonment of Michael Morton for 25 years, and the undermining of public confidence and trust in the criminal justice system in Williamson County.
Collectively, Anderson, Bradley, and Davis appear to have violated one or more of the following ethical standards governing the conduct of Texas lawyers (the Texas Disciplinary Rules of Professional Conduct).
In 1987, a jury convicted Michael Morton of murdering his wife, Christine. Morton was sentenced to life in prison. After serving almost 25 years in prison for a murder that he did not commit, Mr. Morton was released in October 2011 after DNA testing exonerated him. Published reports suggest that the Morton prosecution team withheld key evidence from the defense during the murder trial, misrepresented the testimony of certain key witnesses during closing arguments, and failed to comply with a court order.
All of these actions likely caused Mr. Morton’s wrongful conviction—and kept the true murderer on the street.
“What is clear is that the prosecution in the Morton case dramatically failed to meet the burden imposed by court rules, statutes, and the Constitution, to disclose evidence tending to negate guilt,” said Julie Oliver, Executive Director, Texas Coalition on Lawyer Accountability. “In Texas, for far too long disciplinary enforcement against prosecutors who engage in unethical conduct has been lax or non-existent.”
Article 2.01 of the Texas Code of Criminal Procedure best states the critical message of this case: “It shall be the primary duty of all prosecuting attorneys, including any special prosecutors, not to convict, but to see that justice is done.” This disciplinary case, if investigated thoroughly and prosecuted vigorously, can help make that critically important ethical rule a functional reality in our criminal justice system. Justice in Texas requires no less.
“We are filing these grievances today so that public scrutiny of the investigation will be assured, vigorous, and ongoing,” said Julie Oliver. “Effective lawyer discipline requires such public vigilance and involvement.”
The Texas Coalition on Lawyer Accountability (TCLA) is a nonprofit 501(c)(3) organization dedicated to educating the public and advocating the public interest to hold the Texas legal profession accountable to its statutory, constitutional, and ethical obligations. Coalition members include the Mexican American Legal Defense and Education Fund (MALDEF), Public Citizen, the Environmental Defense Fund (EDF), the Southwest Voter Registration Education Project (SVREP), the Texas Civil Rights Project (TCRP), Texas Watch Foundation, and the Texas Housing Justice League (THJL).
I’ve no idea how likely it is that this will go anywhere, but as long as we let prosecutors who break the rules get away with it unscathed, there’s no incentive for them to not break the rules. Someone needs to be made an example of why you shouldn’t break those rules. This would be a good place to start. Grits and EoW have more.