Tuesday, September 27, 2011

Possible false convictions from decades past

A pair of stories out this week raise questions about possible false convictions from 25-40 years ago in which new evidence points to the likely real perpetrators.

From the Austin Statesman, check out Chuck Lindell's latest offering, "Mystery filing could bolster prisoner's innocence," reporting on new evidence submitted to a closed court that may end up erasing the conviction of Michael Morton in Williamson County. Wrote Lindell:
Most of the discussion of the Travis County case took place in a closed hearing at the request of Morton's lawyers, who wanted to review the details in greater depth. A court reporter was present for the half-hour hearing, though Harle said the transcripts would be kept from public view, at least for now.

But piecing together statements the lawyers made in open court, the Travis County case appears to be a 1980s-era murder that includes DNA evidence of a suspect who matches the DNA recently discovered on a key piece of evidence in the Morton case — a blue bandanna found at a construction site near the Mortons' Williamson County home.

When Morton was prosecuted in 1987, tests on the cloth determined that the stains were human blood but could not identify who it came from.

But forensic tests conducted this summer over prosecutors' objections discovered that the bandanna contained Christine Morton's blood and the DNA of an unnamed felon with a lengthy record that included convictions for burglary and assault with the intent to kill. That man, identified from samples taken from felons and maintained on the national Combined DNA Index System, was not in prison or police custody as of last August, according to court proceedings.
The DNA evidence in Morton's case appears to point strongly to actual innocence, but Williamson County prosecutors told the court they want to re-test the evidence. (Good thing they didn't destroy it, which Williamson DA John Bradley has argued would prevent inconvenient post-conviction innocence claims like this one.) But that's not the only potential grounds for Mr. Morton gaining post-conviction relief. Yesterday in court, defense attorneys announced they'd discovered in prosecutors' old files evidence that:
suggests prosecutors hid a key piece of evidence that could have raised questions about Morton's guilt — a transcript of a police interview with Christine Morton's mother. That conversation, taped by police 11 days after the murder, revealed that the Mortons' 3-year-old son said that he saw a "monster" hurting his mother and that his father was not home at the time of the attack.

Defense lawyers didn't learn of the transcript until 2008, when it was provided by the sheriff's office under Texas open records laws.

On Monday, [defense attorney John] Raley said he found a summary of the transcript in the district attorney's files. The information gives Morton a second avenue on appeal — a violation of his constitutional right to view evidence that could cast doubt on his guilt — if his innocence claim bogs down.

Meanwhile, a septuagenarian prisoner has confessed to multiple murders committed decades ago for which at least three other people were convicted. Reported Lise Olsen at the Houston Chronicle:
Edward Harold Bell, admitted sex offender, convicted murderer and self-described serial killer, has given multiple chilling confessions from his locked prison cell of abducting and slaying teenage and adolescent girls in the 1970s, describing crimes even now unsolved.

In disturbing letters sent to Harris and Galveston county prosecutors in 1998 - but kept secret for 13 years - Bell claimed to have killed seven girls, including two Galveston 15-year-olds shot as they stood tied up and half naked in the chilly waters of Turner Bayou, according to excerpts and descriptions of Bell's letters obtained by the Houston Chronicle.
One of the men convicted of crimes Bell now claims he committed, Michael Self, died in prison two years after Bell first began sending his confession letters to prosecutors. Self was:
a League City mechanic, convicted in 1972 for the murder of Sharon Shaw. But his conviction was tainted by corrupt police officers who used Russian roulette to obtain two conflicting confessions and who themselves were later convicted of bank robbery. Self died in prison in 2000. His attorneys say he was never told of Bell's letters.
Self's case reminds me of Timothy Cole, who also died in prison before prosecutors revealed someone else had confessed to the crime for which he was convicted. But corrupt cops obtaining a confession via Russian roulette adds an even darker twist to Self's story.

At least one other case to which Bell confessed also resulted in conviction of others:
Harry Andrew Lanham and an accomplice, Tony Knoppa, were convicted in 1971 in the shooting death of Linda Sutherlin, a 21-year-old Houston woman found dead in Brazoria County. Lanham was awaiting trial for a teen's murder in Montgomery County and was considered a suspect in other cases when he was killed by police in a 1972 escape in Harris County.
No word in the story of what happened to Mr. Knoppa. Cold cases investigators in Galveston had pegged Bell as the likely perpetrator of two other murders in their county, but couldn't nail down enough evidence to bring him to trial.

These cases have a ways to go before courts grant anyone relief based on actual innocence claims, and for those convicted of the crimes Bell claims credit for, two are already dead. But in both these instances, it seems increasingly likely that the wrong people were prosecuted for offenses actually committed by others. As is so often the case, when an innocent person is prosecuted it's a double tragedy: Not only is an injustice done to them, but the guilty person remains free to commit more crimes in the future.

MORE: At the Texas Tribune, Brandi Grissom has identified the 1988 slaying which apparently matched DNA from the Morton case.


rodsmith said...

lucky cops! and DA's because if this was me....i'd be using my expensive u.s military given skills to get out of what is a blatently ILLEGAL DETENTION anyway i had to NO MATTER who i HAD TO KILL to do it! Just so i could get my hands on them!

i'm sure the keystone cops would eventualy get me! But these crooks would GO FIRST!

Anonymous said...

Check out www.wilcowatchdog.org

Eddy said...

These false convictions that are decades old raise concerns in my mind. For instance, while John Bradley wasn't the district attorney at the time of Mr. Morton's conviction, he was "groomed" by now judge/former district attorney Ken Anderson to take over. (Anderson used the term groomed in an interview several years ago with the Austin Chronicle.) Bradley fought tooth and nail to hang on to the bandana claiming there was no connection to Mrs. Morton's murder or the murderer. In fact, in past interviews regarding the dna evidence, Bradley has been somewhat misleading about dna testing. The obvious reason was to protect his old bossman.

I believe there are less obvious reasons with one being that Bradley has carried on with what his old bossman taught him. Bradley also knew of other exculpatory evidence that was withheld in the Morton case.

I believe there are other false convictions, some there is no dna. I also believe there are several innocent people from Williamson County who were coerced into plea agreements by incompentent lawyers, or lawyers who were afraid to go against the grain and push for exculpatory evidence.

Phillip Baker said...

I've stated many times here my disdain for John Bradley, who I believe has committed numerous acts that, were he not a DA, would have gotten him charged with criminal behavior. And now comes this. This makes it personal. If Bradley had not fought DNA testing for 6 yrs, then maybe Austin PD could have made this connection to my wife's murder in '88 a lot earlier. There have been hints there is a 3rd case linked. How many more are there? Bradley should be investigated to see if there are others wrongfully convicted because of his misbehavior.