Williamson County District Attorneys Gain Distinction for Hiding Evidence, Wrongful Conviction and Hard Fought Cover-Up
By: Houston Criminal Lawyer John Floyd and Paralegal Billy Sinclair
Ken Anderson was a prosecutor in Williamson County, Texas, in 1986. In fact, he became Williamson County’s longest tenured district attorney with 16 ½ years as the county’s chief prosecutor and 5 ½ years as an assistant district attorney. Anderson knew his prosecuting business—so much so that his political pal, Gov. Rick Perry, appointed him to a District Judge position in January 2002. Why not, the State Bar of Texas Criminal Justice Section named Anderson “Prosecutor of the Year” in 1995 and five years later the Texas Crime Victim’s Clearinghouse tagged him the “Outstanding Prosecutor Upholding Victims’ Rights.” Along the way, he became a “Board Certified Criminal Law Specialist” and was elected as President of the Texas District and County Attorneys Association. And as if this was not enough for one man to achieve, Anderson lectured at over 300 schools where he told the leaders of tomorrow about the value of honest public service.
John Bradley succeeded Anderson as Williamson County district attorney in 2001 after he was appointed to that position by none other than Gov. Perry. It was only natural that Bradley would get the political plum. He had been Anderson’s assistant since 1989. In 1993 Bradley decided to give the Texas Legislature a hand in re-writing the state’s Penal Code, and in 1996 he was appointed to former Gov. George W. Bush’s Committee to Rewrite the Code of Criminal Procedure. And, like Anderson, Bradley also likes to talk, speaking “regularly at continuing legal education seminars” in Texas and across the country. He also contributes frequently to “legal magazines and newspapers.”
And while Bradley’s professional resume does not stack up to Anderson’s, the current Williamson County district attorney gained national attention in September 2009 when Gov. Perry fired the chairman (and two other members) of the Forensic Science Commission which was about to investigate the Cameron Todd Willingham execution (here and here) and appointed Bradley as the commission’s chairman. The ensuing political firestorm notwithstanding, Bradley canceled a scheduled hearing in the Willingham case and made it clear that the commission under his direction would not investigate whether the condemned inmate was wrongly executed.
Besides being good talkers and an asset to their prosecutorial profession, what do Anderson and Bradley have in common? Most notably, one sent an innocent man to prison for 25 years and the other did everything he could to cover up this travesty. You would think that these two prosecutors, with all their credentials as top-notch, sate of the art prosecutors, would know that a district attorney’s primary duty is to prosecute the guilty and protect the innocent. Not these two birds of a feather. “Convict at any cost” was, and remains, their professional and political mantra.
The innocent man’s case began on August 13, 1986 when a neighbor noticed the 3-year-old son of Michael and Christine Morton wandering around outside their residence. According to the Third District Court of Appeals, the concerned neighbor entered the Moore residence where she called out to Christine, and while moving through the house, she found a note Christine apparently written by Michael before he left for work. The note read: “Chris, I know you didn’t mean to, but you made me feel really unwanted last night. After a good meal, we came home, you binged out on the rest of the cookies, then with your nightgown around your waist and while I was rubbing your hands and arms, you farted and fell asleep. I’m not mad or expecting a big production. I just wanted you to know how I feel without us getting into another fight about sex. Just think how you might have felt if you were left hanging on your birthday.” It was signed, “Love Michael.”
Having read the note, the neighbor walked into the master bedroom where she found Christine’s bloodied body. She immediately called the police.
The investigation had barely begun before law enforcement officials and Anderson formed the theory that Michael Morton, who had been having conflict with Christine about her “personal appearance” and “lack of interest in sex,” had planned a romantic evening with Christine on his birthday. These public servants surmised that Christine rejected Michael’s attempts to have an intimate sexual experience with her and he became so “enraged” by “sexual frustration and anger” that he beat his wife to death with a “billy club” before masturbating on the sheets.
Morton denied this focus of the law enforcement investigation against him. He admitted that while he was frustrated at his wife’s rejection and their continued conflict, he said Christine was alive when left for work and must have been “killed by an unseen and unknown burglar.” And there was some evidence indicating a burglary. The back sliding glass door their residence was unlocked and a pistol and Christine’s purse was missing from the residence.
And the way Christine’s body was found was bizarre. Williamson County Sheriff Deputy Wayne Lock was the first law enforcement person to arrive at the scene. He first searched the house to make sure it was empty before returning to the master bedroom where he saw Christine lying on the bed, covered with a quilt with a suitcase and laundry hamper stacked on top the quilt. Lock called for backup, and additional deputies arrived at the scene at which time they conducted a six or seven hour search of the residence.
Not realizing his wife had been murdered, Morton arrived at the home of the “family baby sitter” at 3:00 p.m. to pick up his son at which time he learned the boy had not been dropped off. Morton called home. Sheriff Jim Boutwell answered the telephone at the Morton residence and told the husband he should come home. Once there, Morton was told by Sheriff Boutwell about Christine’s murder, was advised of his Miranda rights, and questioned by the sheriff. Morton told the sheriff that he had taken his family out to an Austin restaurant the previous evening to “celebrate his birthday.” Upon returning home, he put his son to bed before joining his wife in the living room where they started one of the two video rentals he had purchased earlier. He told the sheriff that he and his wife had an argument about sex before she fell asleep. Morton got up and went to bed where he was joined sometime later by Christine who apologized. He said that’s why he left the note in the bathroom before he left for work the next morning.
Already suspicious of him, Anderson and law enforcement officials zeroed in on Morton when the county medical examiner said Christine had been killed within four hours after she had eaten. Records from the Austin restaurant showed the Mortons had finished eating by 9:30 p.m. Investigators surmised that Christine had been murdered before 1:30 a.m., long before Morton went to work. This finding would cause Anderson and law enforcement to develop what’s called prosecutorial “tunnel vision” against Michael Morton. This warped vision became even more focused after testing of a semen stain on the sheet and a pubic hair on top of Christine’s hand was consistent with Morton’s hair and blood types.
That was the sum of evidence Anderson used to seek, and secure, a murder indictment against Morton. But was that all the evidence in the case? The Austin Statesman recently reported about significant evidence withheld by Anderson and law enforcement officials that probably led to Morton’s conviction:
“A taped police conversation with Christine Morton’s mother, who said the Mortons’ 3-year-old son described the attack, identified key details about the murder scene and said his father was not home at the time.
“A document that reported that Christine Morton’s missing Visa card had been apparently recovered at a San Antonio store. There is no record that the lead was followed up in the sheriff’s or district attorney’s case files.
“A document reporting that a check made out to Christine Morton was cashed nine days after her death, and the signature on the back appeared to be a forgery of her name.
“Had those clues been disclosed, it’s possible Morton never would have been convicted and the true killer found.”
Six years ago the New York-based Innocence Project became convinced that Michael Morton was innocent, as he had claimed all along. The group, along with Houston criminal defense attorney John Raley, launched efforts to have a bloodied bandana found at a construction site one hundred yards from the Morton residence DNA tested. And here’s where Bradley enters the picture. As Williamson County’s district attorney, he launches a bitter resistance against DNA testing of not only the bandana but any other possible exculpatory evidence. There were two motives behind Bradley’s determination to keep an innocent man in prison: his hatred of the Innocence Project, with whom he has repeatedly clashed over the Willingham case, and his desire to protect his mentor (Anderson) from any political embarrassment.
After six years of trying to overcome Bradley’s wall of resistance, the Innocence Project finally managed last year to get the Third District Court of Appeals to order DNA testing of the bandana. This past June the DNA testing lab released a report that found, according to the Innocence Project, “the bandana contained the DNA of a man other than Michael, along with Christine’s blood and hair. The male DNA was put through the national DNA database and has been linked to a convicted offender.”
This offender has publicly identified only as “John Doe” but he has been linked by DNA evidence, according to the Statesman, to the murder of another woman in Austin in 1988, Debra Masters Baker.
On October 3, 2011, 26th Judicial District Judge Sid Harle granted Morton’s post-conviction application, formally declaring the inmate actually innocent. Morton was released shortly thereafter, and just eight days later the Texas Court of Criminal Appeals agreed with Judge Harle and formally exonerated Morton. The popular criminal justice website, Grits for Breakfast, posted a piece about the state and national criticism Bradley’s has drawn because of his hardnosed refusal to accept Morton’s claim of innocence and his failure to provide the innocent man’s defense team with exculpatory evidence in the file. Grits called attention to a recent piece in Time Magazine by columnist Mark Benjamin who pondered whether Bradley’s handling of both the Morton and Willingham cases would haunt Gov. Perry in the presidential campaign efforts:
“[The withheld evidence] probably would have sprung [Morton] from prison years ago were it not for the role of Williamson County District Attorney John Bradley, a well-connected ally of Texas Governor Rick Perry, who fought tenaciously for six years to keep Morton behind bars. Twice a Perry appointee to influential legal posts, Bradley has generated controversy in his handling of two high-profile cases: Morton’s incarceration and the forensic review of evidence against Cameron Todd Willingham, a man who was executed in 2004 despite a cloud of uncertainty around the expert testimony that led to his conviction.
“In early 2005, Morton’s attorneys sought DNA testing on a blood-stained bandana found outside the Morton home on the day after the brutal murder, which took place on August 13, 1986. Court records show that Bradley, who was appointed by Perry in 2001 and was not Morton’s original prosecutor, sought to prevent that testing from ever taking place and tried to limit its effect on the case.
“At first, Bradley argued that testing the bandana would open the floodgates to an indeterminable amount of new evidence. ‘One has to wonder whether petitioner will file another motion at some future date seeking additional testing of even more items,’ he wrote in October 2005. In a 2009 filing, Bradley argued that the bandana was irrelevant because it was found ‘a football field’s length’ from the Morton’s house, and if any DNA testing did take place ‘it should not incorporate the possibility of a match of any DNA profile recovered from the bandana to a known offender.’
“District attorneys vary widely in their willingness to consider new evidence, but Bradley’s efforts make him an outlier. The Innocence Project says it has to fight a prosecutor’s to DNA testing in less than half of its cases, and most resistance dries up quickly.”
Grits called attention to more localized criticism articulated in a The Wilco Watchdog blog:
“Williamson County District Attorney John Bradley, who fought for years to keep key evidence that would have exonerated Michael Morton under wraps, plans to insert himself into the investigation of prosecutorial misconduct and find out who deep-sixed the evidence that should have been turned over to Morton’s defense attorneys for the 1987 trial.
“Morton was released from prison last week after a series of hearings which finally took notice of the scintillating evidence, much of which had been sequestered by Bradley for years while he fought its release…
“Morton was convicted by a Williamson County jury for murdering his wife and then sentenced to life in prison. But evidence that should have been revealed at trial by prosecutors Ken Anderson (now a district judge in Williamson County) and Mike Davis (a Round Rock lawyer who does work for Williamson County as outside counsel) which clearly exonerated Morton was suppressed. And other evidence, including a bloody bandana found near the murder scene which contained DNA showing that Morton didn’t commit the murder, took years to be tested because Bradley fought hard not to release it and only did so when a Texas appeals court forced his hand.
“And now Bradley, who admits to a close friendship with Anderson, is trying to insert himself into the case. Bradley himself is responsible for sequestering important evidence which, if released many years ago, would have allowed Morton to leave prison then, not last week. It would have also allowed law enforcement agencies to look for the prime suspect, who name is known from the DNA on the bandana and DNA from another murder committed in Austin last a year after Morton went to prison. The same suspect who is still at large. Bradley’s actions not only cost taxpayers hundreds of thousands of dollars, but more importantly, it cost an innocent man his freedom for several additional years.
“Bradley maintains he was not a prosecutor on the original case in 1986 stating ‘the ink on my law degree was barely dry.’ However, in 2008, Morton’s lawyers received a transcript between Christine Morton’s mother and Det. Sgt. Wood regarding a conversation between her and Morton’s son. This information was received after a Texas open records request was filed over the objections of Bradley who also fought the release of this information. Morton’s attorneys also found a summary of the telephone transcript in a district attorney case file marked ‘trial documents’ leading many to believe Bradley was fully aware the evidence existed.
“Morton’s lawyers argue that withholding the transcript violated the U.S. Constitution by tramping Morton’s right to fair treatment by the legal system and his right to view prosecution evidence that could cast doubt on his guilt.
“His knowledge of the note about Christine Morton’s credit card used after the murder, the forged endorsement on the check cashed after the murder, and the transcript with the eyewitness account stating that Morton wasn’t the killer, all of which were held in Bradley’s files, raise serious questions as to why Bradley sought to keep such evidence under wraps. Because of Bradley’s unexplained attempts to sequester this evidence, Bradley, of all people, should not be involved in any follow-up investigation of prosecutorial misconduct.
“Even in the absence of all of the evidence that Bradley sequestered, Bradley’s friendship with Anderson alone is enough, in and of itself, to kick Bradley off the case involving prosecutorial misconduct.
“A special prosecutor should investigate all the front-line suspects involving the misconduct, including Anderson, Davis, Bradley, and Detective Wood.”
We wholeheartedly agree with The Wilco Watchdog and the Statesman that the State Bar should appoint a special counsel to investigate the egregious misconduct that led to Morton’s conviction and his continued incarceration when there was overwhelming evidence of his innocence. No individual in the State of Texas should spend 25 years in prison because prosecutors are trying to build, promote, and sustain their political careers. We have been making this argument in a long list of previous posts (here and here). We believe Anderson, that “prosecutor of the year,” and law enforcement officials involved in this case are directly responsible for the murder of Debra Masters Baker who would probably be alive today were it not for the unethical and possible criminal misconduct of these public servants. As the Statesman put it: “There are many lessons in this miscarriage of justice. Perhaps the most tragic is that in focusing solely on Michael Morton, a vicious killer remained loose, free to kill again, which he is suspected of doing in 1988.”
The State of Texas leads the nation in DNA exonerations, and the leading cause for this dubious distinction is prosecutorial misconduct. These rogue prosecutors have sent innocent men to their death and required countless more to serve thousands of years in prison for crimes they did not commit. These miscarriages of justice are a blight on our criminal justice system. As surely as rain is the only cure for drought, holding rogue prosecutors accountable both through professional sanctions and criminal prosecutions is the only cure for prosecutorial misconduct.
By: Houston Criminal Lawyer John Floyd and Paralegal Billy Sinclair
John Floyd is Board Certified in Criminal Law by the Texas Board of Legal Specialization