Williamson County Justice System under Scrutiny by State Bar of Texas
By: Houston Criminal Lawyer John Floyd and Paralegal Billy Sinclair
Since our last post about the tragic case of Michael Morton, the “prosecutor of the year” in that case, now District Judge Ken Anderson, and his cohort, Mike Davis, who actually prosecuted Morton for the 1986 murder of his wife, face investigations by the State Bar of Texas and Morton’s attorneys, according to the Austin Statesman. The State Bar investigation is, as the newspaper accurately reported, a “rare step” by the Bar, as is the public acknowledgement that it has undertaken a disciplinary investigation against two of its members. Morton was freed from the state’s prison system on October 4, 2011 after serving 25 years for a murder he did not commit and on October 11, 2011 the Texas Court of Criminal Appeals formally exonerated the man after DNA testing of a critical piece of evidence not only cleared Morton of the murder of his wife but identified the real killer as well.
Anderson and Davis, along with key law enforcement personnel, withheld critical evidence at Morton’s 1987 trial which almost certainly led to his wrongful conviction. For example, the prosecutors withheld the transcript of an interview with Morton’s mother-in-law who questioned the couple’s 3-year-old son shortly after his mother, Christine, was beaten to death with a “billy club.” The boy told his grandmother that he saw his mother beaten to death and that his father was not at home at the time of the murder. Other significant evidence withheld was a document disclosing that Christine’s credit card, which was in her purse and taken by her killer, was used in a San Antonio store, and another document showing that a check made out to Christine was cashed nine days after her death and the signature on it appeared to be a forgery.
While the prosecutors and law enforcement withheld this critical evidence and focused their sole attention on convicting Morton for murdering his wife, the real killer, who has only been identified as “John Doe” pending further investigation, was roaming the streets of Austin where he killed yet another woman in 1987—the same year Williamson County officials were wrongfully convicting Morton for the brutal murder of his wife.
Maureen Ray, who works in the office of the chief disciplinary counsel for the State Bar told the Statesman: “We decided, because of the high-profile nature of the thing, that we were going to tell the public that we were looking into it.”
Anderson is none too happy about either the State Bar’s investigation or the investigation by Morton’s attorneys into his handling of the murder case. Through his attorney Mark Dietz, the “prosecutor of the year” filed a motion contending that District Judge Sid Harle did not have “jurisdiction” to issue a subpoena in connection with the investigation being sought by Morton’s attorneys into “professional misconduct” accusations leveled against both Anderson and Davis.
In addition to these two ongoing “investigations,” the Texas Attorney General’s Office is also leading an investigation into Christine Morton’s murder which includes, according to the Statesman, “efforts to build a case against the a suspect those DNA was found on a bandanna containing the victim’s blood.” And Travis County law enforcement officials are investigating the “John Doe” suspect, who is not in custody but who is known because his hair was found at the crime scene.
All this “investigation” attention has the culprits involved in Morton’s wrongful conviction, and the delay of his release from prison, quite antsy and testy—and for good reason. Chuck Herring, an Austin attorney who specializes in lawyer disciplinary cases, told the Statesman that is so “very, very rare” for the State Bar to impose sanctions on a prosecutor. “In over 25 years doing this area of law practice,” Herring told the newspaper, “I have never represented a prosecutor. I can remember only a very few instances of reports of prosecutors being disciplined for any violation of the rules.”
Davis, now a Round Rock attorney who was a prosecutor for the Williamson County District Attorney’s Office, obviously sees the proverbial handwriting on the wall. Anderson occupies a powerful seat as a District Judge, Bradley the power of a sitting District Attorney, which not only provides them with political insulation but gives them the opportunity to hang Davis out to dry because he was the ADA who actually prosecuted Morton. As reported in a recent Houston Chronicle column by Patricia Kilday-Hart, Davis, through his attorney Shawn Dick, filed a motion trying to prevent efforts to have him testify under oath about the Morton case. Davis’ motion describes himself as an “innocent bystander” in the “political battle” between Morton’s attorney, John Raley, and D.A. Bradley.
Davis’ motion also states that he “would like to personally explain to Mr. Morton (his) deep sorrow and regret that Mr. Morton spent 25 years in prison for a crime he did not commit [and] that he can never give back to Mr. Morton his lost life, his lost wife, nor his son, and a simple apology is not sufficient buy that is all (he) has to offer at this late date.”
Raley was professional and courteous in his response. Pointing out that “apologies carry a lot of healing power,” the Houston criminal defense attorney said that “Michael has asked us to try to do whatever we can to prevent this from happening to another innocent man.”
We agree. An apology to a innocent man who served 25 years in prison is simply not enough. Beyond the horrific injustice done to Morton by Anderson and Davis, we must not forget the brutal murder of Debra Masters Baker, the innocent victim murdered in Austin by the John Doe killer one year after he killed Christine. Had these prosecutors, as well as local law enforcement personnel, not become possessed with convicting Morton, there is a good chance the John Doe killer would have been captured before he killed Baker. That is the underlying but inescapable tragedy in this entire sordid episode.
Over-zealous prosecutors sometimes fail to consider the harsh reality that convicting a potentially innocent person leaves the true offender on the street to commit further crimes, sometimes with deadly consequences.
We can only hope the State Bar will fairly and honestly investigate this tragedy of justice gone awry.
We further hope the State Bar’s investigation with look into Bradley’s handling of the case. He was also involved in efforts to cover-up the misconduct in the Morton case. He not only opposed DNA testing on the bandanna, but also withheld the exculpatory evidence that would have led to Morton’s release six years ago.
Having said this, let us add that we do not think disciplinary sanctions alone are sufficient. It appears, from all reports, that there was official foul play in the original conviction of Michael Morton as well as an intentional cover- up to keep it from being disclosed; which resulted in an innocent man being “framed” for a murder he did not commit. This is criminal conduct—and the AG’s office should consider criminal charges against any officials who were directly and intentionally involved in this travesty. Political patronage should not stand in the way of this investigation or the resulting prosecution. What was done to Michael Morton, and the official cover-up that followed, is nothing short of criminal—and a finding of professional misconduct is simply not enough to address the wrong done to this innocent man.
By: Houston Criminal Attorney John Floyd and Paralegal Billy Sinclair
John Floyd is Board Certified in Criminal Law by the Texas Board of Legal Specialization
Special thanks to wilcowatchdog.org for keeping us posted on the political and legal developments of this case.