Regular readers will recall that Grits recently named the Michael Morton exoneration out of Williamson County the biggest Texas criminal justice story of 2011. Morton spent a quarter-century in prison for allegedly murdering his wife before he was exonerated by DNA and a team of won't-quit attorneys who fought Williamson County DA John Bradley over testing the evidence for six long years (prevailing only after the Legislature changed the law to remove Bradley's grounds for objection). It turned out prosecutors 25 years ago had failed to release exculpatory evidence to the defense, and the man who apparently did so, then-elected DA Ken Anderson, is today a sitting Williamson County District Judge. You really can't make this stuff up!
As the year's biggest criminal justice story, several publications recently issued end-of-the-year retrospectives on the event:
- Texas Tribune: "Murder cases put 'junk science' in the spotlight"
- Austin Chronicle: "Williamson County Injustice"
- Houston Chronicle: "Special holiday for lawyer John Raley, innocent client"
Interestingly each of the writers in the stories bulleted above seeks to draw different conclusions regarding how we should understand this horrifying episode.
For Grissom at the Tribune, the lesson is that "Despite scientific advancements like DNA testing, the use of unreliable scientific techniques in the criminal justice system persists." She quotes a lawyer from the Texas Defender service who observes, "“What passes for science in courtrooms is not always, in fact, science.” That might sound like a radical statement if the National Academy of Sciences hadn't recently found the same thing. Moreover, the Court of Criminal Appeals ruled this summer that legal and scientific truth were different things and expert testimony could be legally true but scientifically false.
Jordan Smith at the Austin Chronicle is more focused on whether "whether current D.A. John Bradley has also acted, if not improperly, at least imprudently, in his handling of the Morton case since he succeeded Anderson in 2001. Bradley fought mightily against testing of the bandana, telling at least one local reporter that to allow the DNA testing in what he apparently considered an open-and-shut case against Morton would be 'silly'; Morton was merely 'grasping at straws,' he has also said."
At the Houston Chronicle, Patti Hart focuses on the seemingly insurmountable barriers overcome by Morton's obsessively persistent defense team, without whom Morton would have spent the rest of his life in prison, as well as the larger question of how to make prosecutors fulfill their duty to turn over potentially exculpatory evidence in criminal trials, making Judge Anderson her poster child: "Under well-established law, prosecutors must share exculpatory evidence. By withholding crucial facts, Anderson could face contempt charges or even disbarment," wrote Hart. She decries prosecutors use of tactical maneuverings to avoid so-called "Brady" disclosures (after the US Supreme Court's decision in Brady v. Maryland mandating the state disclose such evidence).
Which is the right conclusion to draw? All of the above, and more. Morton's attorneys have requested a "court of inquiry" to investigate prosecutorial misconduct charges (after Grits reads their 144-page report (pdf), along with Judge Doug Arnold's deposition (pdf), I'm sure there will be more to say about that subject). In the meantime, what are the lessons for prosecutors, judges, and even defense counsel, all of whom failed miserably at their jobs 25 years ago?
Texans will be hotly debating those questions for many years, well past the legislative session in 2013, just as the Tulia exonerations still raise hackles in certain quarters. Indeed, like the Tulia case, I suspect Mr. Morton's story may become the subject of books, documentaries or even a Hollywood fillm (the Halle Berry Tulia flick was delayed because of her pregnancy but reportedly is now tentatively scheduled for a 2014 release; the story of a similar Texas drug sting inspired a Disney-backed Hollywood film, "American Violet."). If we don't see similar cultural artifacts spin off of Mr. Morton's story, I'd be surprised; his has been a truly epic saga - an almost unparalleled story of tragedy and triumph.
We shouldn't let Morton's triumph, though, deflect attention from the tragedy, however (rightly) exultant Morton and his legal team are at his release. This was a tragedy so grim it would baffle Kafka and make Shakespeare wince: Morton's wife, Christine, was brutally murdered. He professed his innocence but was falsely accused and wrongfully convicted, the victim of apparently overt prosecutorial misconduct and misrepresentations of forensic science. Then prosecutors fought for years to keep from revealing exculpatory evidence and to prevent DNA testing that ultimately led to discovery of the alleged real killer - a man whose DNA had also been discovered at a similar murder scene near the Mortons home four years after Christine's death. The alleged real killer had been living in neighboring Bastrop County for most of the intervening quarter century.
It all sounds like a Hollywood movie plot, complete with a "happy ending." But for Morton and his family, the victory, however satisfying, must be bittersweet. Nobody can give them that quarter century back. No amount of money can repay stolen time. And who knows what other crimes were committed by the real killer while Morton was locked up? We already know of one other alleged murder by the same suspect; were there more?
Indeed, isn't it a matter of interpretation whether this episode constitutes a triumph or tragedy? As Orson Welles said in the epigraph to this post, it all depends on where you end the story, or in this case, when opinion leaders and the media decide it has ended. If his conviction in 1986 had never been overturned, Morton's would remain a secret tragedy, like hundreds or probably thousands of others in TDCJ. But with Morton's triumphant release does that mean "the system worked"? Is that the end of the story? If Anderson were punished professionally, even disbarred, as Patti Hart suggests, would that retributivist homage constitute a happy ending? Would it make things "right"? How about John Bradley losing re-election, would that democratic rebuke be enough? Or perhaps if the Legislature passed a law named after Morton mandating an open-file policy for prosecutors or punishing willful Brady violations with jail time, would such preventives provide a satisfactory conclusion?
For the story writers, perhaps. But it won't bring back Morton's late wife, nor will state compensation nor half-hearted press conference apologies ever make up for what was stolen from him. For Michael Morton, who yesterday spent his first Christmas with his family since the last visit of Halley's comet, the story will continue as he struggles to rebuild a shattered life and to keep this horrible nightmare from defining and defeating him. Indeed, for Mr. Morton, not only is this not the end, the most important part of the story is just beginning. Grits wishes him all the luck in the world in the new year as he seeks to begin writing his own happy ending. I hope he finds it.