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Michael Morton

Kim Ogg’s swearing in

New DA Kim Ogg took her oath of office at an earlier time than the other Democratic elected officials, then had a more celebratory followup event afterward.

Kim Ogg

Ogg, who defeated incumbent Republican Devon Anderson in November, was first sworn into office just after the stroke of midnight on New Year’s Day.

But Monday’s event gave Ogg the opportunity to thank the people who supported her during her campaign and on the path ahead.

” ‘So how does it feel to be the Harris County DA?’ That is the question that nearly everyone is asking. The answer is gratitude,” she said.

She reiterated many of her campaign promises, such as ending the jailing of suspects in low-level, nonviolent drug cases. Ogg plans to implement what is essentially a “cite and release” program in which police officers would ticket offenders caught with small amounts of marijuana.

She also pledged to increase transparency in police shootings and to ramp up prosecutions of burglars and white-collar criminals.

[…]

During the inauguration ceremony, Ogg said she would seek justice above all, even convictions.

She elicited thunderous applause when she promised to uphold the Michael Morton Act, a 2014 law named after a Williamson County man who was convicted in 1987 of killing his wife but was exonerated in 2011 by DNA evidence.

The law requires prosecutors to share evidence with defense attorneys.

Ogg said she would restore integrity back into the DA’s Office by treating all crime victims with dignity, by using taxpayer money wisely and recognizing mental illness as a public health concern.

“Welcome to a new era of criminal justice,” Ogg said.

Not a whole lot new here – this is all stuff Ogg campaigned on. It’s all a matter of how she goes about it and how effective she is at achieving the goals she has set. But in case you were wondering why the other story only mentioned Ogg in passing, now you know.

John Bradley does John Bradley things

From Grits for Breakfast:

Former Williamson County District Attorney and Texas Forensic Science Commission Chairman John Bradley – who left Texas to become Attorney General of the island nation of Palau after facing national disapprobation, losing reelection, and struggling to find work in Texas as a prosecutor – has been suspended “for ten working days without pay on grounds of insubordination” by Palau’s Vice President, reported Pacific Beat.

In response, according to this source, Bradley issued a statement declaring the VP had no authority to suspend him, defending his record in Texas, suggesting the veep committed a felony by suspending him, and threatening a defamation suit.

Some people seem to make friends wherever they go.

This is vintage John Bradley; our man appears in top form.

The President, who is out of the country, was quoted as saying he hadn’t reviewed Bradley’s suspension but expected the vice president’s decision was made in the “best interest of the Republic.”

See here and here for the background. I admit, it’s a bit unseemly to keep piling on the man, who clearly can’t help himself. But honestly, how can one resist?

Michael Morton still has work to do

We should be glad he’s doing it.

Michael Morton, who spent nearly 25 years in prison for a murder he didn’t commit, said Monday that under current DNA testing requirements, he wouldn’t have had access to the evidence that led to his release.

Morton joined state Sen. Rodney Ellis, D-Houston, and lawyers from the New York-based Innocence Project at a press conference to urge passage of a bill to expand access to DNA testing in criminal cases.

“This is about making sure the right person is convicted and making sure our communities are safe,” Ellis said.

Senate Bill 487 would allow courts to grant DNA testing for pieces of evidence that have a “reasonable likelihood” of containing biological material, like saliva or sweat, that may not be visible to the naked eye.

A February 2014 ruling by the Texas Court of Criminal Appeals set a precedent of only granting DNA testing on pieces of evidence if there was proof that DNA evidence existed on those items. The court denied death row inmate Larry Swearingen’s request for DNA testing on the pantyhose used to strangle the victim because it wasn’t clear that tests would turn up any evidence.

“If the interpretation of the law as it stands now was enforced when I was trying to get access, I would not have been able to see that access,” Morton said. “We would not have been allowed to test it.”

SB487 would clarify another bill by Sen. Ellis from last session (SB1292) that mandated DNA testing for all biological evidence in death penalty cases. That’s in addition to the Michael Morton bill that will more tightly control the disclosure of evidence by prosecutors to the defense. The Observer highlights the importance of this session’s effort.

Innocence Project attorney Nina Morrison, who represented Morton, said that the bill “strikes the right balance” by giving judges the appropriate amount of discretion to order testing without turning the courts into DNA testing mills.

In Morton’s case, it took a court five years to grant permission to run a DNA test on relevant evidence.

“For somebody to be in a court battle about whether there is evidence for testing when the labs can just tell us—it just seems like a real waste of everybody’s time,” Morrison said.

Who knows, maybe if now-former Williamson County DA John Bradley hadn’t worked so hard to waste everyone’s time back then, he’d still be DA now. Too bad for him. SB487 should have bipartisan support but there still needs to be a House sponsor. Let’s get on with this, y’all. Grits has a copy of Sen. Ellis’ press release, and the Innocence Project has more.

Endorsement watch: State Senate

The Chron makes another curious choice.

District 17: Joan Huffman

In District 17, which includes parts of Harris County and counties to the east, Republican incumbent Joan Hoffman has a credible Democratic opponent in Rita Lucido, 58, a family law attorney and activist with such organizations as the Houston Area Women’s Center and Planned Parenthood.

Huffman, also 58, who initially won her seat in a 2008 special election, is vice chair of the Senate Criminal Justice Committee and has built strong working relationships with members of both parties. She is a strong advocate for mental health issues, particularly as they intersect with criminal justice, and she’s gaining in seniority.

Although Lucido is a strong candidate with an impressive command of the issues, we endorse Huffman.

Perhaps they missed what Texas Monthly had to say about Sen. Huffman’s tenure on the Criminal Justice Committee.

Sen. Joan Huffman

Intransigence, thy name is Joan Huffman. Consider, if you will, the evidence. She initially opposed one of the session’s most celebrated bills, the Michael Morton Act, named for a Williamson County man who served nearly 25 years after being wrongly convicted of murdering his wife. Huffman’s concerns about the bill, which requires prosecutors to share evidence with a defendant’s legal team, endangered the bill’s prospects for passage. Then there was a measure to create an innocence commission to review the convictions of the 117 people who have been exonerated in Texas, which was supported by Texas Supreme Court Chief Justice Wallace Jefferson and passed the House handily 115–28. What was Huffman’s opinion of the proposed legislation? “There’s nothing you can do to fix this bill for me,” she fumed as she closed out her ten-minute speech in a Criminal Justice Committee hearing. Huffman, the committee’s vice chair, had rattled off twenty pieces of legislation that, in her estimation, adequately reformed Texas’s criminal justice system, making the creation of the commission unnecessary. Cory Session, the brother of Tim Cole, the state’s first posthumous DNA exoneree, was especially incensed by Huffman’s remarks: “That’s your job—to figure out what went wrong in this state,” he said. “You don’t like it? Go find another.” (Session ultimately stormed out of the hearing room, calling Huffman a name for which he later apologized.)

Huffman’s monologue, which she began by saying, “ ’Cause I’m chair, I can take as much time as I want,” helped kill the bill in committee, making her guilty of Behavior Unbecoming a Senator. But the former prosecutor and district judge, who exerts a huge influence on her colleagues when it comes to criminal justice issues, received her own punishment for practicing such bad politics. The House sponsor of the innocence commission bill, Democrat Ruth Jones McClendon, talked to death several of Huffman’s bills on the local and consent calendar. Here’s a case where an eye for an eye made perfect sense.

Now Texas Monthly isn’t the final arbiter of things, and one could make a case that Huffman’s other contributions have outweighed this bit of petty bullying. But if you’re going to laud her for her ability to work with people, you might at least acknowledge that it isn’t always the case. My interview with Rita Lucido is here if you’d like to consider the alternative, and my interview with Sen. John Whitmire is here if you missed it back in January.

State bar grievance filed against Paxton

It’s getting to be hard to keep track of all of the complaints and legal actions being filed against the man who would be the state’s top lawyer. This one is a grievance filed with the State Bar of Texas by another watchdog group.

Sen. Ken Paxton

In its grievance, the Austin-based Texas Coalition on Lawyer Accountability requests that the state bar investigate whether Paxton broke at least four rules involving the disclosure of conflicts of interest.

“Like every other Texas lawyer, Mr. Paxton must comply with the legal ethics rules that govern the legal profession,” the coalition said in a news release.

Once a grievance is filed with the state bar, the Chief Disciplinary Counsel’s lawyers review it to see whether it actually alleges violations of the Texas Disciplinary Rules of Professional Conduct. If it does, it becomes a complaint that can lead to an airing of the issue in district court or before a panel of state bar lawyers from across Texas. If sustained, the complaint can result in the suspension or disbarment of an attorney.

Anthony Holm, a spokesman for the Paxton campaign, called the grievance “yet another political stunt” by a group with Democratic ties, pointing out the acting executive director does not have a law license. “Frankly, it’s a bit silly,” Holm said in a statement.

The coalition did not immediately respond to a request for comment Tuesday, but in announcing the grievance said it aims to hold lawyers accountable regardless of their political affiliations.

As you may recall, a criminal complaint was filed in July, and a complaint with the SEC was filed in May. I didn’t recall hearing about the Texas Coalition on Lawyer Accountability before, but I did note the complaint they filed in 2011 against Ken Anderson, John Bradley, and Mike Davis over the Michael Morton case. As a reminder, to myself as much as to you, they are “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”. Their origin story is that the TCLA was established in 2010, initially to provide input from the public perspective on the proposed amendments to the Texas Disciplinary Rules of Professional Conduct. Here’s a letter they sent to then-Chief Justice Wallace Jefferson outlining their concerns. They eventually won a victory over this issue in 2011, when the proposed changes were voted down by the bar members.

Anyway. They’re definitely on the do-gooder side of things, but I wouldn’t dismiss their track record. Here’s their statement on the grievance, which outlines the basics of Paxton’s admitted and alleged bad deeds, the complaint narrative, which is the long version of the story, and the actual complaint form that they filled out. Any lawyers want to weigh in on this?

Palau catches a little heat for hiring John Bradley

Hilarious.

The president of Palau has defended appointing a US lawyer who left his previous role as Texas county prosecutor amid controversy over an innocent man who spent almost 25 years behind bars.

President Tommy Remengesau confirmed former Williamson County district attorney John Bradley would take up a position as assistant attorney general in the tiny Pacific nation later this month.

[…]

Remengesau said Bradley acknowledged he was wrong to block the DNA testing and “is painfully aware that his actions kept an innocent man locked up for longer than he should have been”.

But he said Bradley deserved a second chance and was seeking it in the island nation of 22,000 people, which is best known for its spectacular diving sites.

“Mr. Bradley says that the Morton case has changed him as a person and has made him a more balanced, fair, and humble prosecutor,” Remengesau said in a statement.

He said Bradley had more than 25 years of prosecution experience and had never been found to have violated any law or ethical rule over the Morton case.

“The Republic hired Mr. Bradley because our nation needs experienced and skilled prosecutors to help keep our community safe Mr. Bradley fits that bill,” he said.

See here for the background. Like Grits, who found this story, I don’t buy Bradley’s claims that he’s a changed man. As noted in that previous post, he has made claims to that effect before, but so far has not backed them up with action. I hope, for his sake but more importantly for the sake of the people of Palau, that he’s sincere this time. I’d nonetheless advise President Remengesau to keep a close watch on him.

John Bradley’s second act

Lisa Falkenberg brings a fascinating and unexpected update to the story of John Bradley, the former Williamson County DA and Texas Forensic Science Commissioner who served as one of the main villains in the Michael Morton case.

Since losing elected office, Bradley has tried to find work. In 2012, I wrote about him applying to lead the state’s Special Prosecution Unit.

No one would take him. Until now. It seems Bradley has landed another prosecutor’s post. Not in Texas. Not in the United States. In the tiny Republic of Palau, where, according to several sources, Bradley has accepted a position in the attorney general’s office.

The former U.S. territory of about 20,000 people in Micronesia was granted independence in 1994, and now operates in “free association” with the United States.

Barry Scheck, co-founder and co-director of the New York-based Innocence Project, said he learned about Bradley’s new job in a mass email from Bradley’s wife.

[…]

Rob Kepple, executive director of the Texas District and County Attorneys Association and a former colleague of Bradley’s at the Harris County District Attorney’s Office, said he hoped the island nation would provide a fresh start for his friend.

“It’s been awhile,” Kepple said, referring to the Morton revelations. “You know, maybe he gets another chance. Maybe he’s got to go all the way to Palau to get it. But I wish him well.”

Scheck, at the Innocence Project, echoed that sentiment.

“He’s certainly going quite a few thousand miles away in order to reinvent himself and we’re all in favor of second acts in American lives,” Scheck told me Tuesday.

Even Michael Morton maintained his graciousness when I asked what he thought about the prosecutor who wronged him returning to prosecuting.

“I don’t wake up every morning gnashing my teeth and shaking my fist at, you know, ‘where’s John Bradley?’ I’ve literally and figuratively moved on,” he said.

“At this stage of the game, I wish him well,” Morton said. “And, you know, adios.”

Morton’s Houston-based attorney John Raley, who worked the case for free, and fought Bradley at every turn as he tried to stymie Morton’s appeals, was a tad less gracious.

“I’m not aware of any evidence that he has learned the lessons of the Morton case,” Raley said of Bradley. “His actions in the future will answer that question.”

Part of me thinks everybody, even John Bradley, has the right to make a living, to learn from mistakes and to get on with life after grievous errors.

The other part thinks Bradley is still a danger to justice everywhere, even 8,000 miles away.

I’ve said repeatedly on this blog that I’m a believer in redemption. It’s the Catholic in me – I may not be a churchgoer any more, but what I learned while I was stays with me and still shapes how I think. The thing is, as we Catholics also know, you can’t be absolved of a sin until you stop committing it. Other than one brief feint in the direction of acknowledging his responsibility in the Morton saga, John Bradley has never shown any indication that he thinks he did anything wrong. If it were up to him, Michael Morton would still be in jail, Ken Anderson would still be on the bench, and the evidence that exonerated Morton and ousted Bradley and Anderson would be in a box somewhere, if it hadn’t been destroyed. So count me in the tad-less-gracious group here. It’s fine by me if John Bradley wants to put his life back together, but he can do that outside the practice of law. Flip burgers, sell cars, groom dogs, dig ditches, paint houses – there’s tons of honest, dignified jobs John Bradley can hold that won’t put him in a position of power over someone’s freedom. If he truly wants redemption, he knows what he has to do to earn it. Grits, who is more gracious than I, has more.

Some things are worth paying more for

How much would you pay for fewer faulty convictions?

Prosecutors say the state’s new Michael Morton Act, a measure designed to prevent wrongful convictions by forcing district attorneys to be more transparent in criminal cases, is driving up evidence costs.

“That is an issue for a lot of folks,” said Rob Kepple, executive director for the Texas District and County Attorneys Association.

Kepple says prosecutors will have to hire more people and invest in better technology to streamline the release of documents to criminal defense lawyers.

Lawyers on both sides of the criminal courtroom say the Michael Morton Act — named after an Austin man who spent nearly 25 years wrongfully imprisoned for his wife’s murder — has raised awareness of the importance of sharing evidence. Prosecutors, however, are concerned about the cost to taxpayers of reproducing reams of information. And defense lawyers worry that some prosecutors could use the law to keep some evidence away from them.

Kepple said that he’s heard from several counties that “documentation has been a strain.”

The new law requires Texas prosecutors to release all “exculpatory” evidence — information that could prove a defendant’s innocence — to defense attorneys. That means a lot of copying costs and document storage and delivery concerns for Texas prosecutors and the law enforcement agencies who investigate crimes, Kepple and others said.

[…]

In 1963, the U.S. Supreme Court decided in Brady v. Maryland that prosecutors must produce “exculpatory” information that points to the innocence of a defendant.

But in Texas, prosecutors had been responsible for deciding which information would be considered exculpatory. A Texas Tribune investigation found that among 86 overturned convictions from 1989 to 2011, in 17 cases courts found that prosecutors failed to give defense lawyers exculpatory evidence.

“The Michael Morton Act has codified Brady,” said Kathryn Kase, executive director of the Texas Defender Service, which represents defendants facing the death penalty.

All due respect, but prosecutors need to suck it up and follow the law here. I guarantee, whatever the cost of complying with the Michael Morton Act, it’s a lot less than the cost of locking up an innocent person, whether that person is subsequently exonerated or not. The criminal justice system is never going to be perfect, but the Michael Morton Act is a step in the direction of making it better. It’s worth the extra cost on your county’s DA office. Grits has more.

Charles Sebesta needs to be held accountable

Amen to this.

Anthony Graves

Former Texas death row inmate Anthony Graves, who spent 18 years behind bars before he was exonerated in the bloody 1992 slaying of a Somerville grandmother, her daughter and four grandchildren, is seeking justice against the man who put him there.

In 2006, the 5th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals overturned Graves’ capital murder conviction when a three-judge panel said he deserved a new trial after ruling that Burleson County District Attorney Charles Sebesta elicited false statements from two witnesses and withheld two statements that could have changed the minds of jurors.

Graves, who was released from prison in October 2010, is taking advantage of a new state law that allows a grievance against a prosecutor to be filed within four years of a wrongfully imprisoned person’s release.

State Sens. Rodney Ellis, John Whitmire and state Rep. Senfronia Thompson, all Houston Democrats, stood behind Graves on the campus of Texas Southern University on Monday as he and his attorneys urged the Texas State Bar to investigate and discipline Sebesta.

“I am asking prosecutors who operate with the highest integrity to support me,” Graves, 48, told reporters. “I am seeking justice for the man who wrongfully prosecuted me.”

[…]

Graves and his attorney, Bob Bennett, said the new law remedies the statute of limitations rule.

“There’s been no final order,” Bennett said. “Even if it was dismissed, you still have the option of coming back because there’s been no final order.”

Whitmire and Thompson sponsored the bill that was one of several that passed last year as details of Michael Morton’s wrongful murder conviction and exoneration came to light.

Anthony Graves deserves justice in the same way and for the same reasons as Michael Morton. In many ways, the injustice done to Graves was worse. If you’re not familiar with Anthony Graves, read this report by Texas Monthly writer Pamela Colloff, who is the authoritative source on Graves and Morton. That article was published on the day that Graves was freed after the charges against him were dropped.

Not until yesterday morning did Burleson County district attorney Bill Parham and special prosecutor Kelly Siegler explain why they had made such a dramatic about-face. At a press conference at the D.A.’s office in Brenham—just across the street from the courthouse where Graves’s retrial was to have taken place early next year—Parham told reporters that he was “absolutely convinced” of Graves’s innocence after his office conducted a thorough examination of his case. Parham was clear that this was not a matter of having insufficient evidence to take to trial; charges were not dropped because too many witnesses had died over the years or because the evidence had become degraded. “There’s not a single thing that says Anthony Graves was involved in this case,” he said. “There is nothing.”

Former Harris County assistant district attorney Kelly Siegler, who has sent nineteen men to death row in her career, went even further in her statements. Siegler laid the blame for Graves’s wrongful conviction squarely at the feet of former Burleson County D.A. Charles Sebesta. “Charles Sebesta handled this case in a way that would best be described as a criminal justice system’s nightmare,” Siegler said. Over the past month, she explained, she and her investigator, retired Texas Ranger Otto Hanak, reviewed what had happened at Graves’s trial. After talking to witnesses and studying documents, they were appalled by what they found. “It’s a prosecutor’s responsibility to never fabricate evidence or manipulate witnesses or take advantage of victims,” she said. “And unfortunately, what happened in this case is all of these things.” Graves’s trial, she said, was “a travesty.”

So yeah, this is a big deal. You need to read Colloff’s two feature stories to get the full measure of outrage at this horror. Sebesta avoided any repercussions for his abhorrent actions initially because Texas’ law at the time started the clock on the statute of limitations way too soon. Here’s Colloff again with the details.

At first glance, the bar’s lack of action against Sebesta is confounding. Why would the statute of limitations prohibit the agency from taking action against Sebesta, who prosecuted Graves in 1994, but not against Anderson, who prosecuted Morton seven years earlier, in 1987? The answer lies in one simple detail: the statute of limitations does not begin to run until the facts of the offense—such as withholding evidence favorable to the accused—are discovered (or, in legalese, “become discoverable”). In the recent proceedings against Anderson, the bar persuasively argued that the statute of limitations did not begin running until 2011, when the transcript describing Morton’s son’s account of the killer was found in Anderson’s files. Such a strategy was not possible with Sebesta, Acevedo told me, because “the information at issue”—i.e., that he withheld favorable evidence—“was known more than four years before the grievance was filed.”

Bennett, who filed the grievance, takes issue with that, arguing that the Fifth Circuit’s ruling “was the official notice of what had taken place.” And Graves’s attorney, Cásarez, believes that’s key. While it’s true that Graves’s lawyers learned in 1998 that Carter had repeatedly told Sebesta of Graves’s innocence, when they took a deposition from Carter at that time, it was simply a defendant’s word against that of a sitting district attorney. It was not until 2006 that the Fifth Circuit made an official finding that Sebesta had withheld evidence. “Now, how can someone file a grievance and expect to get anywhere until a court finds that the prosecutor engaged in misconduct?” Cásarez wondered.

Thankfully, SB825 took care of that loophole last year. Now maybe Charles Sebesta will finally be held to account for his actions. The Trib and Colloff again have more.

We need a Conviction Integrity Unit in Harris County

From the DMN:

Craig Watkins

Dallas County District Attorney Craig Watkins has gained a national reputation for spearheading prisoner exonerations.

As he prepares to seek a third term, Watkins said Thursday he wants to expand on that role and add a few others. …

Watkins, a Democrat who was first elected in 2006, gained attention for using DNA tests to overturn convictions, and he said his office has a few more such cases pending.

When prosecutors finish with those next year, Watkins said, he wants his team to take another look at people convicted of arson and those accused of shaking their babies to death. Watkins said he has concerns about the science used in the prosecution of both types of cases.

“The science has changed. We need to revisit it,” Watkins said without elaborating.

That was via Grits for Breakfast, who adds the following:

With the passage of SB 344 by Whitmire/Turner, people convicted based on junk science now have a clear path to pursue habeas corpus writs to challenge their convictions, with old arson and shaken-baby cases high on the list of bad science likely to be challenged. It will be welcome news if Watkins takes leadership and gets out in front of those issues the way he did on DNA testing. The main difference will be that, until the Legislature changed the law in 2011 (SB 122 by Ellis), DAs could prevent DNA testing in old cases if they chose, just as Williamson County DA John Bradley thwarted testing in the Michael Morton case for many years simply by objecting. By contrast, the passage of SB 344 means junk science cases can now get back into court via habeas writs on their own, so Watkins and other District Attorneys will be forced to revisit them whether they want to or not.

Craig Watkins has done groundbreaking work in Dallas reviewing old convictions for which DNA evidence was available to allow for it. This was possible in part because Dallas County obsessively kept all their old case evidence, but it was Watkins who had the vision to look at old cases where the potential existed for a conviction that had been based on potentially shaky evidence and for which a more definitive answer could be established. Dozens of wrongly convicted men were freed as a result. DNA evidence only exists in a small percentage of cases, but there are other kinds of cases that can and should be reviewed, beginning with the “junk science” cases highlighted in SB344. It’s way past time for Harris County to conduct a systematic review of its own of old cases to see which of them deserve a closer look. We will be under the mandate of SB344 for some of these cases, but there’s no reason to limit ourselves, or to wait till the last minute. It’s beyond question that there are people currently in jail after being convicted in Harris County that are provably innocent of the crimes they were convicted for. In some cases, as with the just-released “San Antonio Four”, the crime in question never actually occurred. We already have to take action for some of these. Let’s commit to doing a thorough and exhaustive job of it. I look forward to hearing what Devon Anderson and Kim Ogg have to say about this.

Ken Anderson accepts a plea deal

Some closure in the Michael Morton case.

Former Williamson County State District Judge Ken Anderson, who oversaw the wrongful murder conviction of Michael Morton as a prosecutor, was sentenced to nine days in jail on Friday and will surrender his law license as part of a deal to resolve criminal charges and a civil lawsuit.

Anderson entered into a comprehensive settlement involving all matters before the court. Those include a charge of criminal contempt tied to an accusation of failing to disclose evidence during Morton’s 1987 trial, and the State Bar of Texas’ disciplinary case against Anderson over prosecutorial misconduct allegations. Charges of tampering with evidence were also dropped as part of the settlement.

Presiding District Judge Kelly G. Moore ordered that Anderson’s jail sentence — a 10-day sentence with a 1-day credit for time served — should begin on or before Dec. 2. Anderson was also ordered to pay a $500 fine along with serving 500 hours of community service in the next five years. His resignation to the State Bar will be acted on by the Supreme Court of Texas and will be treated as disbarment. Anderson did not address the presiding judge during Friday’s session and exited the courtroom promptly after the hearing was adjourned.

“There’s no way that anything we can do today will resolve the tragedy that occurred related to these matters,” Moore said, before addressing Morton, who was present in the courtroon during the hearing. “The world is a better place because of you.”

See here, here, and here for some background. Grits said that “compared to what Morton faced”, the punishment Anderson received was “relatively weak tea”. I agree with the sentiment, but honestly anything short of a life sentence could be called that. For what it’s worth, Michael Morton himself seems satisfied with the outcome.

Morton sat in the front row of the courtroom on Friday with his wife, Cynthia, and his attorneys and celebrated with his legal team following the hearing.

“When it began, I was asked what I wanted. I said ‘The only thing that I want, as a baseline, is for Ken Anderson to be off the bench and no longer practice law,'” Morton said. “Both of those things have happened and more.”

“I don’t know if satisfying is the right word,” he added, but he said the Anderson case “had to be done.”

My hope is that this will serve as a cautionary tale for other prosecutors. Now they know there will be at least the possibility of real consequences for the bad behavior Ken Anderson displayed. The reforms that Sen. Rodney Ellis passed that will require more disclosure from prosecutors will be beneficial, too. These are steps in the right direction, and there will be more to follow. Nothing can give Michael Morton back what was taken from him, but he will help others avoid a similar fate, and that’s something.

State Bar seeks sanctions against Ken Anderson

Seems reasonable to me.

Arguing that a trial is no longer needed, the State Bar of Texas has asked a judge to summarily rule that former Williamson County District Attorney Ken Anderson engaged in professional misconduct by hiding evidence in the murder trial of Michael Morton, who was exonerated after spending almost 25 years in prison.

Such a ruling would allow the State Bar, which oversees lawyer discipline, to proceed directly to a state district court hearing on sanctions against Anderson, who could be disbarred, temporarily lose his law license or receive a public reprimand for his handling of Morton’s prosecution in 1987.

A lawyer for Anderson, now a state district judge in Georgetown, said he will oppose the bar’s motion and plans to move for a dismissal of the State Bar’s lawsuit.

The civil lawsuit is separate from criminal charges that are also pending against Anderson, but both cases rely on the same accusations – that Anderson hid evidence that could have raised questions about Morton’s guilt, then lied when he assured Morton’s trial judge that he had no favorable evidence to turn over to the defense as required by law.

Morton served almost 25 years in prison for the murder of his wife, Christine, before he was exonerated in 2011.

In its motion for summary judgment, the State Bar’s Commission for Lawyer Discipline argued that a Sept. 30 trial wasn’t necessary because its allegation – that Anderson violated his duties as a lawyer – had already been proved in a court of inquiry that examined Anderson’s handling of Morton’s prosecution.

[…]

The criminal case against Anderson is still in the early stages, and Anderson’s legal team has filed an appeal arguing that the charges are improper because the statute of limitations had passed two decades ago.

Anderson’s lawyers believe the State Bar’s lawsuit also is barred by the statute of limitations and plan to file a competing motion for summary judgment asking that the lawsuit be dismissed, lawyer Eric Nichols said.

In its motion, the State Bar argued that Anderson mounted a vigorous defense during a weeklong court of inquiry hearing in February and isn’t entitled to retry the facts after losing that case.

The law “prevents relitigation of particular issues that were litigated and decided in a previous lawsuit,” argues the motion from Linda Acevedo, the commission’s chief disciplinary counsel.

Nichols disagreed, saying the court of inquiry didn’t result in a final decision or judgment against Anderson, who insisted he did nothing wrong, and operated under looser rules of evidence, providing a questionable result.

As noted in the story, the judge in the court of inquiry issued an arrest warrant for Anderson in April, charging him with tampering with physical evidence and tampering with a government document. I can see Anderson’s point that this wasn’t a normal courtroom procedure and the standards of evidence may have been different, but he got to put on a defense and it’s hard to see how things would play out differently in civil court. Unless some of the previously introduced evidence was suppressed via a successful motion by his attorneys, which would add a layer of irony to the whole thing that I’m not sure any of us could handle. The statute of limitations argument completely fails to impress me. It may be technically right if we are forced to start the clock when Michael Morton was tried, but under the much more sensible interpretation that the limitations period began when the crime was actually discovered there’s no leg to stand on. I say Anderson has had his chance to prove that the misconduct allegations were meritless. The Bar has a responsibility to act, and it should be allowed to do so.

Michael Morton Act signed into law

Excellent news.

With exoneree Michael Morton by his side, Gov. Rick Perry on Thursday signed a measure that aims to avoid wrongful convictions by preventing prosecutors from suppressing evidence.

“This is a major victory for integrity and fairness in our judicial system,” Perry said of Senate Bill 1611, which was named for Morton, who spent 25 years in prison before being exonerated. It was the governor’s first public signing ceremony of the session.

[…]

Under SB 1611, prosecutors will be required to turn over evidence to defendants accused of crimes and to keep a record of the evidence they disclose. The landmark 1963 U.S. Supreme Court ruling in Brady v. Maryland already requires prosecutors to give defendants information that is “material either to guilt or to punishment.” The Morton Act requires disclosure of evidence regardless of its materiality to guilt or punishment. It is the first significant reform to Texas discovery laws since 1965.

[…]

State Sen. Rodney Ellis, D-Houston, who co-authored the bill with state Sen. Robert Duncan, R-Lubbock, said the bill’s passage represented “an important milestone in the journey toward justice in Texas.” Duncan said the legislation would help preserve liberty in the state.

After signing the bill, Perry handed Morton the pen he used to do it, and state Rep. Senfronia Thompson, D-Houston, presented Morton with the gavel used to mark the passage of the bill in the House.

Well done all around. When SB1611 was first introduced, it was opposed by the Texas Criminal Defense Lawyers Association on the grounds that it would have also required defense attorneys to open their files to discovery, much like prosecutors are required to do. I hadn’t followed this bill very closely so I wasn’t sure if the TCDLA was now on board with SB1611 – their website and Facebook page give no indication that I could find. I eventually found a comment by TDCLA President-elect Bobby Sims on this Grits post (scroll all the way down; Sims’ handle is Longhorn74) which makes it clear that in the end the TDCLA did support SB1611. All’s well that ends well. It would be nice if there were an equally happy ending for HB166, the bill to establish an Innocence Commission, but that doesn’t appear to be the case. One step at a time, I guess.

Court of inquiry issues arrest warrant for Ken Anderson

Wow.

A judge issued an arrest warrant for former Williamson County District Attorney Ken Anderson Friday, after finding probable cause to believe Anderson withheld critical evidence in Michael Morton’s 1987 murder trial.

Judge Louis Sturns concluded his court of inquiry by charging Anderson, who is now a state district judge, with tampering with government records (a misdemeanor), tampering with physical evidence (a felony) and failing to comply with a judge’s order to turn over such evidence, for which he could be held in “contempt of court.”

The rare court of inquiry, in which arguments were made in February, was held to determine whether Anderson, a former district attorney, committed criminal misconduct during the trial that led to Morton’s wrongful murder conviction. Morton, who was in attendance for Friday’s decision, spent nearly 25 years behind bars for his wife’s murder before he was exonerated.

Sturns said that Anderson purposefully concealed evidence from Morton’s defense attorneys, hiding reports that neighbors had seen a green van outside of the Mortons’ home and a phone transcript in which Morton’s son was said to have told his grandmother a “monster” murdered Morton’s wife.

Rusty Hardin, the special prosecutor in the court of inquiry, told reporters that Anderson would turn himself in at the Williamson County Jail on Friday afternoon, and that he would have to pay a $2,500 bond for each of three separate counts.

As for what happens next, Hardin admitted that nobody involved is sure. “We’re all kind of operating on a clean slate here,” he said, adding that Anderson would be “treated like anybody else.”

See here and here for some background. I wasn’t terribly sympathetic to Anderson after reading his testimony, so I’m not particularly sorry for him now. But as Michael Morton himself reminds us, this is not about punishment but transparency and accountability. Whatever happens next, it’s good that Ken Anderson is being held accountable for his actions. A statement from Sen. Rodney Ellis, who has authored and advocated for more legislation that would help promote that kind of transparency and accountability, is beneath the fold.

UPDATE: Grits has a copy of Judge Sturns’ order.

(more…)

Court of inquiry concludes

The court of inquiry that was examining the behavior of then-prosecutor Ken Anderson has concluded with Anderson’s testimony in his defense. Having seen what he had to say for himself, I find myself not terribly sympathetic to him or his situation.

At times fighting back tears, Anderson called Morton’s case his “worst nightmare” but defended his conduct.

“We had a lot to be proud of, we still do,” Anderson said, his voice wavering. Then, pounding on the witness stand, he continued: “The office I ran was professional, it was competent. We did things right. We got it right as much as we humanly could.”

After testimony ended, [Judge Louis] Sturns said it will be several weeks before the parties reconvene. He did not say whether he will issue a ruling then.

[…]

Anderson, who testified Friday that he’s spent his life savings “defending myself against accusations that I think we all know are false,” claimed the judge only asked for a small portion of the police notes — and he complied.

Asked if there was any weight to accusations he hid evidence, Anderson responded that he’d reviewed the case “until I’m blue in the face. There is nothing in that record that even remotely says that.”

He was later shown a portion of the trial transcript where the judge asked: “Mr. Anderson, do you have anything that is favorable to the accused?” Anderson replied that he did not.

[…]

Anderson said all evidence could be seen differently with the benefit of hindsight. He also accused Hardin of wanting to “see me handcuffed and taken to jail” on matters “that are so bogus it’s unreal.”

Given the chance to address Morton directly, Anderson said he had been gracious since his exoneration and added, “I’ve apologized that the system screwed up and it obviously screwed up.”

“I’ve been beating myself up on what else I could have been done different,” Anderson concluded, “and I frankly don’t know.”

The Trib has a fuller version of that money quote: “I had to spend the money to hire lawyers. And I worked my entire life and now they have it,” he said. I have to say, you’d think a guy who spent a decade or more as a District Attorney would be familiar with the cost of competent defense attorneys. I’m sure some of the people he’s prosecuted could bring him up to speed on that. But be that as it may, he sure is weirdly disconnected from his role in this. I mean, “the system screwed up”? Last I checked, the District Attorney is a pretty integral part of the system. I get that he’s probably limited in what he ought to say during this proceeding, but an “I’m sorry” would have been nice.

Eye on Williamson sums it up nicely.

In watching all of this over the last year and a half or so, I’m not positive that Anderson technically broke any law. But I’m damn near positive there were moral and ethical lapses. And that former Sheriff Boutwell and Anderson knew, deep down in their souls, that Morton was guilty and were bound and determined to put him in jail – no matter what the evidence said. Their egos got in the way of reality. And that later on John Bradley was willing to keep him there for the same egotistical reasons. And lends credence to the many unfair justice stories, that are common place for anyone who has lived in Williamson County for an extended period of time.

Hopefully this will be a cautionary tale for all prosecutors that they are not the judge and jury. That they should allow everyone to look at all the evidence in a case – all the way through the appeals process – to make sure they’re not putting innocent people in jail for crimes they didn’t commit. Because, as this shows, when an innocent person goes to jail it not only ruins their life, but when the truth comes out it ruins the lives, and legacy, of those that put the innocent person in jail as well.

If there’s one other lesson that I hope everyone learns from this, it’s that if a convicted murderer requests that some old piece of evidence be tested for DNA, go ahead and let it be tested. What can it hurt? If he’s as guilty as you believe him to be, the DNA test will vindicate you. And if it proves him right and you wrong, isn’t it better to know, and to not be the villain that tried to keep the truth from coming out? Don’t be like John Bradley, that’s what I’m saying. Texas Monthly has more.

The court of inquiry

Going on this week is a court of inquiry in the matter of Williamson County Judge Ken Anderson, who was the District Attorney that won a conviction against Michael Morton for the murder of his wife, Christine, which as we know has since been overturned after DNA evidence cleared him and implicated another man. The court of inquiry is to evaluate the claims made by Morton’s attorneys that Anderson deliberately withheld exculpatory evidence, which may lead to criminal charges being filed against Anderson if that allegation is found to have merit. The Statesman and the Trib have all the background on this unusual proceeding, and for everything you need to know about the Morton case, read the two-part Texas Monthly story (and be prepared to have your heart broken by it) as well as Scott Henson’s interview with author Pam Colloff. Finally, you can follow the inquiry itself at the Trib’s liveblog.

Whatever else comes out of this inquiry, what I would like to see happen is a re-evaluation of how we think about those who fight crime. From the Trib story:

Anderson, who declined through his lawyer to be interviewed for this story, has contested allegations of wrongdoing and has said that he is sick over the wrongful conviction. And those in the Central Texas city of Georgetown, who have known Anderson over the years, say they can’t believe that the church-going Boy Scout troop leader — who tried to steer young people who veered into his courtroom onto a productive path — could do the unethical things he’s accused of doing. Even some defense lawyers who sparred with Anderson in the courtroom say allegations that he behaved underhandedly are hard to fathom.

“I never thought of him as acting unethically or in violation of the rules,” said veteran defense lawyer Roy Minton. “I did think of him as being very strong and hard on crime, but that was the history of that county.”

In Georgetown’s small courthouse circles, there are different ideas about who may have contributed to the injustice that befell Morton.

Williamson County’s legendary Sheriff Jim Boutwell, a tall, thin cowboy of a lawman who was rarely without his white Stetson, cowboy boots and handcuff tie clip, helped forge the county’s tough-on-crime history.

A former Texas Ranger, Boutwell became famous in 1966 when Charles Whitman went to the top of the University of Texas tower with three rifles and a sawed-off shotgun and fired at students and faculty. Boutwell flew an airplane over the campus, distracting Whitman with gunfire long enough for officers on the ground to take him down. Boutwell cemented his reputation in 1983 when he and a task force of officers extracted hundreds of murder confessions from Henry Lee Lucas. After Lucas was sentenced to death, then–Attorney General Jim Mattox issued a report that dismantled many of the confessions and concluded that the drifter wasn’t even in the same state when some of the killings were committed. In 2001 — eight years after Boutwell died of cancer — then-Gov. George W. Bush commuted Lucas’ death sentence to life in prison.

There’s no question that the path to Michael Morton’s conviction was paved by Sheriff Boutwell’s myopic, almost comically flawed investigation of the case. And whether Anderson was criminally negligent or not, there’s no question that exculpatory evidence was not made available to the defense. By their actions, geared towards convicting Michael Morton, Boutwell and Anderson are responsible for at least one other murder apparently committed by Mark Alan Norwood, who now stands accused of Christine Morton’s death. To me, anyone who by their actions could allow this to happen doesn’t get to be “hard and strong on crime”. Too many people who have that reputation – and this certainly includes now-former Williamson County DA John Bradley, who lost his primary race last year after waging and finally conceding a long battle to keep Michael Morton from doing the DNA test that led to his exoneration – who are more accurately described as being “tough on defendants” or “tough on suspects”. The two are not the same, a lesson I hope is finally starting to sink in. Maybe Mark Alan Norwood would not have been caught in time to prevent him from killing Debra Baker in 1988, but there’s no doubt that Boutwell and Anderson’s zealous pursuit of Michael Morton cost him 25 years of his life, for no good purpose. Had they been as committed to the truth and to justice with the same fervor, the world would be a better place today. It’s time for us to rethink what it means to be “tough on crime”, because the way we use that phrase now, it’s not a virtue.

In praise of CODIS

We’re catching more crooks thanks to DNA. Not exactly an earth-shattering revelation, but it’s always nice to have some numbers.

I want one of these

The number of Texas crimes solved after a suspect’s DNA matched with offenders’ DNA samples stored in the national repository known as CODIS (Combined DNA Index System) recently passed the 10,000th mark.

The state averaged only about 200 matches a year during the first five years after the database was created in 1996. That number leaped to an average 1,000 hits a year for the next 10 years. In just the last 11 months, the number of matches has nearly doubled to 1,943, records show.

[…]

Harris County now processes an average of 400 cases a month, compared to about a dozen cases in the past, said the lab’s director, Dr. Roger Kahn, explaining how automation has replaced the tedious repetitive tasks once done by human hands.

The number of samples of offenders’ DNA stored in Texas’ database also has mushroomed to more than 660,000. Texas law requires all registered sex offenders, felons sent to prison or placed on community supervision, and juveniles committed to Texas’ juvenile justice system to submit a DNA specimen.

“The more samples in the pool, the greater opportunity for a match,” said Skylor Hearn, who oversees the crime lab that manages the state’s database. “There is a degree of recidivism in (the) criminal world, and we’re catching up to them.”

At the same time, the ability to make a match is increasing because DNA profiles can be developed from material that’s often invisible to the eye.

“Originally, we required a blood stain the size of quarter. Now it’s not visible. A dandruff flake is enough; just touching something leaves behind cells that can be enough. The systems are much more sensitive,” Kahn said.

Harris County also has a special “CSI-style” seven-member team that it can dispatch to collect potential DNA from sensitive murder scenes.

That last bit is somewhat of a commercial for the Harris County crime lab, which as you know is getting a new facility soon, but what the heck. Keep up the good work, y’all.

Using DNA analysis is often associated with innocence and exoneration these days, and for good reason. It’s important to remember that every time DNA absolves someone who had been convicted of a crime, it also points a finger at the real perpetrator. For every innocent person in jail, there is some number of guilty people who aren’t in jail. (Some may be in jail for other reasons, or they may be dead, or as with some questionable arson cases, there may have been no crime in the first place.) None of those exonerations, and subsequent arrests of the real criminals, would have been possible if the original DNA evidence had been destroyed upon conviction, as prosecutors like now-former Williamson County DA John Bradley have advocated. If he had gotten his way in the Michael Morton case, not only would Morton still be incarcerated, but a man who is now also suspected in the murder of at least one other woman would still be walking free. Think about that. And while you do, be sure to read Pam Colloff’s outstanding two-part story in the November and December editions of Texas Monthly about the Michael Morton saga. If you don’t have a tear in your eye, and a belly full of outrage, by the ending, you should consider talking to your doctor. See also Grits’ interview with Colloff for more.

Beating Bradley

The Statesman writes about the aftermath of the GOP primary for District Attorney in Williamseon County where voters resoundingly threw out John Bradley.

Jana Duty

Michael Morton wasn’t on the ballot, didn’t campaign and didn’t back a candidate, but the recently exonerated former inmate cast a long shadow on the Williamson County district attorney race, becoming the key issue in the defeat of a once-popular John Bradley.

Jana Duty, a 10-point victor in Tuesday’s Republican primary, made Morton a centerpiece of her campaign, focusing on Bradley’s decision to fight Morton’s 2005 request for DNA testing. It would take six years for a court to order tests that cleared Morton of the 1986 murder of his wife, Christine, and led authorities to another suspect, Mark Alan Norwood.

Voters responded by turning out Bradley, Williamson County’s lead prosecutor for the past 10½ years and one of the state’s most prominent district attorneys.

Political observers said Duty was aided by lingering resentment over Morton’s treatment, a superior campaign organization and votes from crossover Democrats drawn to the GOP primary by an opportunity to torpedo Bradley.

And unlike prior years when Bradley made news by securing long prison sentences — accounts that played well with Williamson County’s conservative-leaning voters — this election cycle was punctuated by headlines involving controversy in and out of the courtroom.

Beyond the Morton affair, Bradley also was criticized for his leadership of the Texas Forensic Science Commission, which was investigating the science used to convict and execute Cameron Todd Willingham for the arson murder of his three young daughters.

[…]

One of Bradley’s leading backers, Dan Gattis Jr., said the Morton connection meant “everything” to the district attorney race.

“Jana Duty’s whole campaign was tying him to the Morton case,” Gattis said, adding that the Morton case “humbled and matured” Bradley and would have made him a better DA. Instead, his handling of the Morton matter left him vulnerable to challenge.

I’m pretty sure Michael Morton’s attorney John Raley would disagree with the assertion that Bradley was in any way changed for the better as a result of this experience. As people like Sen. Rodney Ellis and Scott Henson said back when Bradley was proclaiming that he had learned his lesson, actions speak louder than words, and Bradley’s actions were loud and clear. The voters made the right choice, and Bradley got what he deserved. Not that he has any need to fear for his future, of course. I’m sure his patron Rick Perry will find something for him to do, and if not there’s always the professional airing-of-grievances circuit. Don’t you worry about ol’ John, he’ll be just fine.

“Open letter to Williamson County”

John Raley is the attorney who worked for years to exonerate Michael Morton on the charge of murdering his wife in 1987. The key to the case was a bloody bandana, which DNA testing showed belonged to the real killer. Williamson County DA John Bradley fought against allowing the DNA test to proceed at every step. Bradley has had to explain his role in this process since Morton was declared “actually innocent”, and lately he’s been saying some things that Raley says are untrue. Raley wrote the following to set the record straight:

Open Letter To Williamson County:

I have resisted becoming involved in the upcoming election for District Attorney of Williamson County, because I believe that the decision should be made by local citizens. However, I have become increasingly concerned about statements made by Mr. Bradley regarding the Michael Morton case, and now feel the need to set the record straight. In doing so, I am not speaking on behalf of my dear friend and pro bono client for the last eight years, Michael Morton, nor am I speaking on behalf of my co-counsel with the Innocence Project who fought with me so long for DNA testing. I am speaking personally, and am not endorsing any candidate.

The world now knows that Michael is, and always has been, innocent. His dear wife was murdered in their home while he was at work, just as he has always maintained. When Michael was formally exonerated last fall, Mr. Bradley called to apologize to me and asked that I convey his apology to Michael. I hoped at the time of the call that Mr. Bradley had learned from this experience and had changed. However, I am concerned from reading recent statements by Mr. Bradley during the campaign that he is retracting his previous admission of responsibility for decisions that kept Michael in prison an extra six years and eight months.

On February 11, 2005, we filed our motion for DNA testing of, among other things, a bloody bandana found behind the Morton home after Christine’s murder. Such testing would cost the State of Texas nothing, because the Innocence Project offered to (and later did) pay for it completely. In 2005, and in virtually every brief and argument since, in state trial and appellate courts and in federal court, we contended that the bandana was found behind the house along the likely escape route of the murderer. We also pointed out that the bandana (1) may contain the blood of Christine Morton, (2) may also contain the DNA by blood, sweat, or skin cells of the murderer, and (3) the DNA of the murderer may lead to a hit on the national databank of known offenders. [Note: we did not know at the time that the DA’s trial file from 1987 contained a description of a stranger seen the days before the murder, driving an old van, and walking around behind the Morton house – exactly where the bandana was found.

Michael’s 1987 trial defense counsel have signed affidavits that they never were made aware of this key document and other critical investigative documents that would have been used in Michael’s defense.] Contrary to Mr. Bradley’s statements during the campaign, there are no valid chain of custody issues or contamination issues regarding the bandana. The bandana was seen by law enforcement on the very spot it was found by Christine’s brother and immediately handed to law enforcement for safekeeping. Following protocol, it would have been placed in a separate bag. There is no evidence otherwise. The blood, one day after the murder, would have dried. But the DNA was there, waiting like a time capsule to be tested.

I am not a criminal lawyer, but I come from a law enforcement family. I sought the advice of my father, a retired prosecutor, and he recommended that I call Mr. Bradley on a personal level to see whether he would agree to the testing, or at least not oppose it. I made several such efforts, even driving from Houston to Georgetown for a meeting with Mr. Bradley and my co-counsel from the Innocence Project, but all such efforts were rebuffed.

Instead of agreeing to a simple test, that can only reveal the truth, that would be free to the State, Mr. Bradley spent countless hours and taxpayer dollars opposing the testing every way he possibly could. It cannot reasonably be denied that if the murder happened in 2005, the bandana would have been DNA tested as part of law enforcement’s efforts to identify the murderer. The technology was not available in 1987, but it is now. There is no good reason not to allow DNA testing to reveal the truth – whatever it is. When I asked Mr. Bradley why he was fighting so strongly against DNA testing, he said “it would muddy the waters.” I responded, “Mr. Bradley, truth clarifies.” I tried to explain to Mr. Bradley the many flaws in the State’s presentation at trial against Michael, but Mr. Bradley was not interested in hearing about it. I tried to hand him the two lie detector tests Michael passed shortly after his wife’s murder, and he refused to look at them.

During this time, Mr. Bradley publically belittled our efforts, saying the bandana was “irrelevant”, that we were “grasping at straws”, and that we were searching for a “mystery killer.” He wrote letters to the parole board opposing a parole for Michael (who had by that time spent 23 years in prison) because Michael had not “accepted responsibility for the murder of his wife by mercilessly beating her to death.” He told the media: “The public might want to remain skeptical of a defendant who to this day doesn’t accept responsibility.” Around this time, Michael was informed that he would be likely paroled if he would “show remorse for his crime.”

Michael Morton is one of the finest men I know. He is a man of honor and integrity. He refused to lie to get out of prison. He said “All I have left is my actual innocence. And if I have to stay in prison the rest of my life, I am not giving that up.”

When we finally obtained testing of the bandana, after many years of strenuous opposition by Mr. Bradley, the highly sophisticated technology revealed (1) Christine Morton’s blood, (2) the DNA of a man who is not Michael, which when run through the databanks of known offenders (3) led to a direct hit on Mark Allen Norwood, who has a long criminal record in several states for, among other things, breaking and entering residences and assault with intent to murder. Thus, the DNA testing Mr. Bradley fought against so long not only proved Michael is, according to the State of Texas, “actually innocent” — it also led directly to the arrest and indictment of Mark Allen Norwood, who is now awaiting trial for the murder of Christine Morton.

Even after the hit on Norwood, Mr. Bradley’s office continued to fight against Michael’s exoneration, and Mr. Bradley publically discounted the bandana’s importance. Our office and the Innocence Project informed the Travis County District Attorney that a cold case in Austin of the murder of Debra Jan Baker, who was killed in her bed exactly the same way as Christine, might be linked to Norwood because he lived nearby at the time. They investigated and found important evidence, which they shared with Judge Sid Harle who was, at that time, presiding over the Morton case. Mr. Bradley could no longer oppose Michael’s exoneration, and a few days later backed down and agreed to Michael’s release.

I am hopeful people remember that when an innocent man is convicted of murder and wrongfully incarcerated, that means that the real murderer is allowed to go free and commit other crimes. Resistance to an honest search for the truth through DNA testing only prolongs the time that the the real murderer (or rapist, or other form of serious criminal) may be at large. People like to talk about being “tough on crime.” I propose, rather, being “smart on crime” – making sure that the guilty party is the one who is caught and eventually convicted. That’s what keeps our streets safe, and is what prosecutors should strive for. Although Mr. Bradley did not try the case that wrongfully sent Michael to prison and let the murderer go free, he is largely responsible, in my opinion, for adding the last six years and eight months to Michael’s tragic story. For nearly 2,400 additional days, the cell doors clanged shut on an innocent man. At one time Mr. Bradley accepted responsibility for his role. I hope he has not changed his mind about that.

Truth and justice are more important than winning an election.

John W. Raley

All I can say is “wow”. Via Grits and Wilco Watchdog.

Court of inquiry appointed in Morton case

Maybe now we’ll get some answers.

A special court will examine whether Georgetown District Judge Ken Anderson acted improperly when, as Williamson County’s district attorney in 1987, he prosecuted Michael Morton for a murder the authorities now acknowledge he did not commit.

Texas Supreme Court Chief Justice Wallace Jefferson convened a court of inquiry Thursday to examine allegations, leveled by Morton and his lawyers, that Anderson hid evidence that could have spared Morton from the murder conviction and almost 25 years in prison.

Jefferson also appointed District Judge Louis Sturns of Fort Worth to conduct the court of inquiry, a rarely used feature of the Texas criminal code designed to determine whether state laws have been broken.

“This is a historic moment for Texas justice,” said John Raley, a Houston lawyer who has represented Morton for free for the past eight years.

[…]

A court of inquiry is a fact-finding exercise that cannot result in a criminal conviction or punishment against Anderson, but a finding of misconduct could lead to criminal charges or disciplinary proceedings before the State Bar of Texas, according to Morton’s lawyers.

I have no idea how long this may take, but we may finally get some closure on this.

In the meantime, this made me angry.

[Last] week, the State Bar of Texas opened testimony in its lawsuit against a Lubbock attorney who faces possible disbarment for taking millions of dollars in compensation from 12 men cleared after DNA evidence showed they were innocent of charges. Attorney Kevin Glasheen acknowledges he collected $5 million in fees, a 25 percentage contingency fee taken from the payments the state of Texas pays to wrongfully convicted prisoners who prove their innocence.

Glasheen claims the fees are fair, saying his clients received more money from the state because he successfully lobbied for legislation increasing state payments to exonerees, from $50,000 to $80,000 for every year served in prison. He also says he kept only $3.5 million, sharing the rest with Amarillo attorney Jeff Blackburn, chief counsel for the Innocence Project of Texas, who assisted with the cases because of his expertise.

The Lubbock attorney entered into contracts with the wrongfully convicted men because he intended to file federal civil rights lawsuits on their behalf. But he changed his strategy, and chose to lobby for passage of legislation awarding more state compensation, rather than pursue the federal lawsuits.

Sen. Rodney Ellis, D-Houston, who has made helping wrongfully convicted people his signature legislative issue, was appalled at Glasheen’s enormous fee – and his reasons for collecting it. “It’s amazing, when a bill passes the Legislature, how everybody other than the people in the Legislature are responsible for it,” said Ellis, a co-sponsor of the legislation. “My staff and I did a heck of a lot of work.”

Ellis is board chairman of the Innocence Project of New York, an entity separately run from the Innocence Project of Texas, where Blackburn works. Ellis said he knows nothing about the inner-workings of the Texas-based group.

“I did not know they had this arrangement,” referring to Blackburn and Glasheen’s fees from the exonerated men, Ellis said. When they appeared at the Capital favoring his bill, “I thought they were there because they cared about the issue. I’m very disappointed.”

The State Bar ultimately lost their lawsuit, so Glasheen and Blackburn stand to collect their lobbying fees. Good luck sleeping at night, fellas.

Court of inquiry recommended in Morton case

Good.

Former Williamson County District Attorney Ken Anderson should face a court of inquiry to examine allegations that he hid evidence that could have spared Michael Morton from a wrongful murder conviction and almost 25 years in prison, a state district judge ruled Friday.

The finding means District Judge Sid Harle found probable cause to believe that Anderson violated state law in his prosecution of Morton.

But, Harle emphasized, he agreed to seek a special review court as the best way to balance competing needs, giving Anderson a chance to clear his name and Morton the opportunity to seek a greater measure of justice.

“I personally cannot imagine, having been a former prosecutor, a worse stain or tarnish on a prosecutor’s reputation, integrity or legacy,” Harle said.

The deeper examination of the allegations of prosecutorial misconduct would also serve the public’s need for answers in the high-profile case, Harle said at the close of a 75-minute hearing.

[…]

Harle’s request for a court of inquiry, an affidavit certifying that he found probable cause that state laws were broken, will be reviewed by Texas Supreme Court Chief Justice Wallace Jefferson.

If Jefferson agrees, he would name a state district judge to oversee the special court, which would have the power to issue subpoenas, take testimony and make a finding about whether Anderson violated state law. Designed as a fact-finding body, the court would not issue a punishment or criminal conviction.

This is all well and good, but it seems to me that if this much care had been taken back in 1986 to protect Michael Morton’s rights, we wouldn’t need to be doing any of this today. There’s a reason why prosecutors need to be held to a high standard of professional conduct. Grits, EoW, the Trib, and State Sen. Rodney Ellis have more.

“Beyond DNA”

The Dallas Observer has a good story about the state of the exoneration business now that most of the cases involving DNA have been handled.

Since Dallas County District Attorney Craig Watkins took office in 2007, incidents of wrongfully convicted men being released from Texas prisons have become almost commonplace. Dramatic scenes of innocent men finally walking free from county courtrooms are like nectar to reporters, who churn out stories praising Watkins’ creation of his office’s Conviction Integrity Unit, established in 2007 to review potential wrongful convictions. While most of these stories mention DNA testing and the fact that, unlike most counties, Dallas stored DNA evidence indefinitely, Duke’s case was different. Out of 17 exonerations in Dallas since 2007, his was one of only four cases without biological evidence, according to data from the Center on Wrongful Convictions at Northwestern University School of Law.

When Watkins became the county’s top prosecutor, he faced a backlog of about 500 cases involving DNA evidence that had previously been denied testing and that would, in many cases, prove guilt or innocence. In the first couple years of the Conviction Integrity Unit’s existence, DNA-based exonerations rolled out every few months. Most were old sexual assault cases in which semen from a rape kit was still available for modern-day tests. “The classic ‘DNA case’ is a stranger-on-stranger sexual assault. Nothing connects the defendant to the crime except for eyewitness ID obtained through questionable procedures, and the sexual assault kit is preserved years later,” says Mike Ware, who led the Conviction Integrity Unit from its inception until this summer.

After Ware resigned to return to private practice in Fort Worth, Russell Wilson, another long-time criminal defense attorney, took his place. Watkins’ first assistant, Terri Moore, also resigned this summer, and Michelle Moore, the public defender who worked with Watkins’ office on exonerations, left in October to help open a public defender’s office in Burnet County. Duke’s case was the first exoneration under the unit’s new leadership.

With all of the changes, Michelle Moore worries that the unit’s gears are sticking and cases that could be moving forward more quickly are stalled. “I think I see the tendency now to be overly cautious and it’s to the detriment of the innocent man,” she says.

“I get that sometimes it’s not as clear-cut as a simple DNA test, because that’s a gold standard, but there are cases … where there should be some things happening,” she says, though she wouldn’t mention any specifically, fearing they would take even longer. “[Russell Wilson] is a very well respected attorney; he’s the nicest man on the planet. I just want to see more action,” Moore says.

Granted, she concedes the system would naturally slow down as the DNA cases thin out and the question of guilt or innocence becomes thornier and more subjective. “I’ll be honest with you: We took the easiest cases first, the ones we could prove definitely by DNA testing,” Moore says, but she’s still concerned that the Conviction Integrity Unit is simply not visiting prisoners, administering polygraphs and calling victims as expediently as it once did.

In the meantime, the sheer number of DNA exonerations — and the efforts to uncover how the courts failed so miserably — have revealed troubling gaps in the criminal justice system: Eyewitnesses are more fallible than jurors might think; forensic evidence isn’t always reliable or interpreted correctly; the way police run lineups can lead to wrongful convictions. The trouble is, those problems may just as easily plague cases in which no DNA exists. Modern science has shown the justice system the tip of the iceberg, but how many innocent men and women are suffering in prison and likely to stay there because they have no evidence to test? Where do law enforcement and innocence advocates, faced with sorting out the guilty and innocent, go from here?

“There’s been a strong shift,” Wilson says. DNA-based cases are still filtering through his office, but for the most part, he says, “the newer cases are non-DNA. … It’s a lot more fact-intensive.”

The good news about DNA exonerations is that they have freed a bunch of innocent men from prison, and that they have forced people to recognize the fact that there are unjustly convicted people in prison. The bad news is that DNA is a factor in only a small number of cases, and it was preserved as evidence in a small share of those cases, so if DNA evidence has become the de facto standard for triggering the exoneration process, a whole lot of other innocent people will be left behind. As Grits points out, there are still many arson cases that need review, and an untold number of people whose convictions were due in part to the no-discredited “scent lineups” of former Fort Bend County Sheriff’s Deputy Keith Pikett. On top of that, as the Michael Morton case has so clearly shown us, prosecutorial misconduct is another potentially large and under-explored factor in unjust convictions. Local defense attorney Robert Fickman wrote an op-ed on that topic, but did not include any actual policy prescriptions for how to deal with it. Clearly, depending on the State Bar won’t do much, so it’s up to the Lege, and they will need good guidance. There’s still a lot of work to be done to ensure justice for those who have been wrongly convicted and those who could be in the future if nothing is done, and that work gets harder from here.

Grievances filed over Morton case

Interesting.

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.

It’s a long way to Damascus

The Trib has a good story about Williamson County DA John Bradley, whom you may recall as Rick Perry’s chief hatchet man on the Forensic Science Commission, and his apparent conversion to open-mindedness in the wake of the DNA exoneration of Michael Morton, who was convicted of murdering his wife in 1987 by Bradley’s predecessor and mentor, Ken Anderson. It’s a big scandal now because Anderson, now a district court judge, apparently withheld exculpatory evidence to the defense, and Bradley, as is his wont, fought against Morton’s attempts to get DNA testing done and unseal prosecution files for years before finally losing and learning how wrong he was to have fought. I have not followed this saga on the blog – you should read Eye on Williamson and Wilco Watchdog if you want the full story. Anyway, Bradley is now claiming to be a changed man as a result of this experience.

“I have been through a series of events that deeply challenged me,” Bradley, the Williamson County district attorney, said during an extended interview with The Texas Tribune. “I recognized that I could be angry, resentful and react to people, or I could look for the overall purpose and lesson and apply it to not only my own professional life but teach it. And I chose the latter path.”

In the last two years, Bradley and his trademark sharp tongue have been at the center of two of the most controversial murder cases in Texas. In 2009, as chairman of the Texas Forensic Science Commission, he and the New York-based Innocence Project battled aggressively over re-examining the case of Cameron Todd Willingham, the Corsicana man executed in 2004 for igniting the 1991 arson blaze that killed his three daughters. For six years, Bradley also fought the Innocence Project’s efforts to exonerate Michael Morton, who was wrongly convicted of murdering his wife under Bradley’s then boss in Williamson County 25 years ago.

Bradley discovered that not only was he wrong all those years about Morton’s guilt, of which he had been so certain, but that there are serious questions about whether his predecessor may have committed the worst kind of prosecutorial misconduct: hiding evidence that ultimately allowed the real murderer to remain free to kill again.

[…]

Bradley said he regrets that his opposition to DNA testing over the last six years meant more time behind bars for an innocent man. He also regrets sending letters to the Texas Board of Pardons and Paroles urging them to keep Morton locked away.

Had he known then what he knows now about the Innocence Project and Scheck, he said he might have handled the Willingham case differently, too.

This experience has taught him to be more open-minded, to try to see cases from both sides, he said. Bradley emphasized that his office is more open than his predecessor’s was. And in the future, when defense lawyers bring him cases to review, Bradley said, he will have a new perspective.

“If I had to come up with a slogan,” Bradley said, “I don’t know that I would use it, but essentially the slogan would be ‘We are more than tough on crime.'”

Some of his critics, though, see Bradley’s contrition as too little, too late. And they note that he is facing re-election next year. They want more than words.

“The jury is still out on whether those words will manifest themselves into real actions to help fix what is clearly a broken justice system,” said state Sen. Rodney Ellis, D-Houston, chairman of the Innocence Project.

Scott Henson, who writes the well-regarded criminal justice blog Grits for Breakfast, said Bradley could demonstrate his changed perspective by joining with innocence advocates to promote reforms to the Texas justice system. “He’s got a long record,” Henson said. “And it will take more than a few words of humility to get everyone to believe that he’s had some road to Damascus moment.”

I’m as big a believer in redemption as the next person, but talk is cheap. I agree with Sen. Ellis and Henson that it’s what Bradley does next that will determine if he means this or is just hoping to deflect a weapon that will surely be used against him in the 2012 election. A phone call to Craig Watkins for advice on how to go about ensuring the integrity of past convictions would be a good start. There’s a lot Bradley can do to try to atone and get right with the universe. It’s up to him to do it. Link via Grits, who has more here.

Investigating the DA

There may be something interesting going on in the grand jury room.

A Houston grand jury apparently investigating recent allegations about the Houston Police Department’s troubled mobile alcohol-testing vehicles may now be setting its sights on the Harris County District Attorney’s Office.

An appellate court ruled on Thursday that the grand jury can continue to exclude prosecutors from listening to witnesses testify in secret proceedings in the ongoing investigation, despite protests from Harris County District Attorney Pat Lykos.

Because grand jurors meet behind closed doors, their intentions are unclear, but court documents filed this week shed light on the investigation. Defense attorneys involved in the case also have their suspicions.

Chip Lewis, an attorney representing a former police crime lab super­visor who testified Thursday, said it is his understanding that she was called to talk about problems with the HPD’s breath alcohol testing vehicles – known as BAT vans – as well as issues with the DA’s office and the police department.

Lewis also said it was possible the grand jury is investigating the district attorney’s office.

“I wouldn’t call it a runaway grand jury,” he said, as much as I would call it a well-focused grand jury.”

I don’t have a particular opinion about this one way or another. It makes sense to me that if there were issues with the evidence, then those issues are most likely not limited to just the police, but beyond that I don’t know enough to comment. I’m noting this story mostly because of how unusual it is for the DA’s office to be investigated in this manner. It seems to me that in general, a lot of DA’s offices operate without a whole lot of oversight, and that this is how you get situations like that of Michael Morton, in which an innocent man was convicted of a crime in part because exculpatory evidence was never given to the defense attorneys. When you look at all the legal maneuvers the current DA in Williamson County and the District Court judge who was the DA at the time are pulling to avoid having to go on the record about what they did and why they did it, you can clearly see the incentives they have for playing to win rather than working for justice. It may well be that the voters will ultimately hold John Bradley and Ken Anderson accountable at the ballot box, but if that’s the only consequence for conspiring to deprive a man of 25 years of his freedom, well, that ain’t much of an incentive to play by the rules, if you ask me. I don’t know what the answer to this is, but I do know that we ought to be asking some questions about it.

UPDATE: See Murray Newman for more on the Harris County story.