A column earlier this year addressed Williamson County funding bad behavior over good government. That pattern again came to mind earlier this week while attending the Michael Morton murder case hearing in 26th District Court Judge Billy Ray Stubblefield’s courtroom. Williamson County taxpayers are increasingly aware of officials too often appearing to participate in questionable practices that don’t necessarily well serve public interests or well use public funds. Media coverage leading up to and following Tuesday’s hearing served to remind how many past and current Williamson County officials are associated with this now 25-year-old case and the careers its outcome could impact.
New DNA results as well as questions regarding Williamson County District Attorney John Bradley’s bias toward the case and its legal team were key points in a motion recently filed by the Innocence Project, a non-profit national litigation and public policy organization dedicated to exonerating wrongfully convicted people through DNA testing and reforming the criminal justice system to prevent future injustice. The motion, denied by Stubblefield, requested that Bradley be recused and replaced with an independent prosecutor.
The battle for new DNA testing, old evidence believed withheld
Michael Morton was convicted in 1987 of the 1986 homicide of his wife, Christine. Maintaining his innocence, Morton and the Innocence Project spent six years fighting for DNA testing of a stained bandanna found about 100 yards from the crime scene. Over objections from DA Bradley, the Texas Court of Appeals finally granted testing on the bandanna and a report issued in June identified Christine Morton’s blood and hair on the bandanna intermingled with DNA belonging to a man other than Michael. Per attorney John Raley, the DNA has now been matched to a man with a state and federal felony record for offenses in three states that include burglary of a residence, “extensive” drug use and assault with intent to kill. Raley characterized the man as a violent criminal and noted that he is not currently incarcerated.
Also troubling is resistance to a Public Information Act request seeking documents from the Williamson County Sheriff’s Office. Documents were ultimately ordered released by the state Attorney General’s office in 2008 despite objections by the WCSO and its counsel (Bradley) against disclosure citing “the defendant is currently appealing his request for post-conviction DNA testing” and that “release of the information at issue would interfere with the appeal.”
The documents released included transcripts of the state’s chief investigator’s interview with Christine’s mother, an interview conducted less than two weeks after the murder which describes a conversation with the couple’s three-year-old son who told of witnessing an unknown man murder his mother. The released documents also contained reports of a green van and suspicious occupant on the street behind the Morton’s address as well as information suggesting investigators apparent failure to pursue leads related to the use and recovery of Christine Morton’s missing credit card from a San Antonio store just two days after the murder.
The DNA battle and apparent withholding of evidence takes on greater meaning when viewed in the context of Bradley’s public statements as documented in the recusal motion:
For example, he derided Mr. Morton’s request to be allowed to perform comparative DNA testing on evidence from the scene of his wife’s murder with that of a similar, unsolved murder in the Mortons’ former neighborhood as “silly” (DNA Could Overturn 21-Year Wrongful Conviction, KXAN-TV (Austin), Aug. 6, 2008). He dismissed counsel’s continued efforts to obtain DNA testing on the bandana after an initial failure to secure such an order as “grasping at straws” (Rick Casey, New Science Panel Chief Fights DNA, Houston Chronicle Oct. 11, 2009); and mocked Mr. Morton’s claim that DNA testing on the bandana and other items could possibly be linked, in Mr. Bradley’s words, to “a mystery killer” (Joyce May, Williamson County Sun, Aug. 11, 2008).
Legal posturing underway
Denigration, denial, delay, distraction. Those commonly used legal tactics appear in high use with this case. Adjust the facts as needed, feign respectability, stick to the talking points and, above all else, protect your friends and associates. These are the realities of Williamson County government and Tuesday’s hearing seemed no exception.
Raley presented to the court a description of the ordeal to attain both the DNA testing and PIA request documents and Bradley’s impact on those efforts. He emphasized the need for “fresh eyes” saying that we (counsel) are entitled to it as also is Michael Morton. Raley reiterated that there is a man in prison, a suspect on the loose.
Raley cautioned that Bradley appearing to delegate the investigation to an assistant district attorney – and not being in attendance at the hearing – was no assurance that he wasn’t still controlling the case. Someone who doesn’t have “investiture” is needed.
After pronouncing her intention to “keep an open mind” and cooperate with the defense team, Assistant District Attorney Kristen Jernigan then argued the bandanna findings as potentially questionable due to chain of custody issues. She discussed how Bradley didn’t even work for the District Attorney’s office during the prosecution as neither did she – in fact, she was in high school when the crime was committed. “Factual allegations or what are reported to be factual allegations are being thrown about like they’ve already been established as fact,” Jernigan said.
She also claimed that her office was not opposed to the DNA testing – a statement in direct contradiction with Raley statements of how Bradley and Doug Arnold, a former assistant district attorney, argued against the testing. And furthermore, how would an appeals court have rendered any ruling on the testing if someone had not been against it? It certainly wasn’t Morton’s team!
As the future of this case will involve a hard look at actions of the past, it’s interesting to take a look at those involved from the initial prosecution forward.
John Bradley was appointed as Williamson County’s District Attorney in 2001 and elected in 2002. His tenure as head of the Texas Forensic Science Commission was marked by much controversy and his involvement (or suspected lack thereof) with investigations of official misconduct in Williamson County has also been called into question. The Morton case is bringing renewed attention to Bradley even from within the legal industry.
While serving as Williamson County’s longest tenured district attorney, Ken Anderson prosecuted the Michael Morton case. After serving as district attorney for 16 ½ years and as an assistant district attorney for 5 ½ years, he became judge of Williamson County’s 277th District Court in 2002.
Mike Davis, who now has a private law practice in Round Rock, was an assistant district attorney who worked with Anderson on the Morton case. Davis continues as a prominent figure in this case as weeks after the 1987 verdict was rendered, Morton’s then-legal team filed a motion for a new trial which included a description of Davis making post-verdict remarks to the jury about the case investigator’s evidence saying that “Sgt. Wood’s reports were sizable (he held up his hand and indicated about one inch between his fingers), and if the defense had gotten them, we would
have been able ‘to raise more doubt than we did.’”
Davis’ relationship with former County Court at Law No. 3 Judge Don Higginbotham and County Judge Dan Gattis became an issue when two former county employees filed a lawsuit alleging sexual harassment and other profane behavior by Higginbotham. Gattis’ alleged unlawful hiring and payment of Davis as a “fixer” for this situation again became an issue when County Attorney Jana Duty filed a lawsuit seeking to remove Gattis from office for “incompetence and official misconduct.”
Doug Arnold became County Court at Law No. 3 Judge in 2010 replacing Don Higginbotham. In the Higginbotham sexual harassment lawsuit, the plaintiffs alleged that though Arnold, as incoming judge, advised intentions to keep them on staff, he subsequently fired them one day after their receiving Plaintiffs’ Federal notice of right to sue. In their filing, they also noted Mike Davis listed as an endorser of Arnold in the 2010 election.
Arnold served as a Williamson County Assistant District Attorney from April 1998 through November 2010. At Tuesday’s Morton hearing, John Raley mentioned Arnold as having assisted Bradley in arguing against the DNA testing.
Judge Billy Ray Stubblefield presides over Williamson County’s 26th District Court. He served as county attorney from 1977 to 1992, serving longer than any county attorney in Williamson County’s history. He also is presiding judge of the Third Administrative Judicial Region, a position that includes authority to assign visiting judges. He presumably approved Don Higginbotham to work as a visiting judge during the same timeframe in which county commissioners were authorizing a $375,000 settlement for the Higginbotham sexual harassment lawsuit.
The road ahead
Though Stubblefield extended a gag order for those currently involved with the case, Mike Davis told The Williamson County Sun that he has “absolutely no doubt” regarding Morton’s guilt. He says the previously withheld evidence “isn’t relevant to the case” and attributes the new claims of innocence to “a political fight between Mr. Bradley and the Innocence Project…” Per The Sun, “This is a battle between New York fruit-of-the-looms and Mr. Bradley. They’re just a bunch of nuts in my opinion,” said Mr. Davis referring to the Innocence Project’s attorneys. “These issues were already ruled upon.”
Meanwhile, Stubblefield concluded Tuesday’s hearing saying “”This is an extraordinary case. The evidence is extraordinary. What you told me privately here at the bench is even more extraordinary.” With warnings of no “foot dragging” and claims of plans to be “very tough” on both sides when it comes to sharing evidence, he scheduled a Sept. 27 court date to review progress.
While Williamson County takes prides in its “tough on crime” image, Tuesday’s proceeding suggests it might be better described as “light on justice.” Indeed bad acts occurred with regard to the Michael Morton case. At this point, however, it’s unclear if the real evil involved Michael Morton murdering his wife or if in fact, it has more to do with a corrupt legal process.
John Raley told Stubblefield “the citizens of Williamson County, the citizens of Texas are watching to see how the justice system responds to this situation.” Indeed. The eyes of Williamson County and beyond are watching this one!