Wednesday, August 31, 2011

Did exculpatory evidence withheld in Morton case amount to 'fraud' by Willamson County prosecutors?

The lede to the latest Austin Statesman story on the Michael Morton case in Williamson County is both brutal and startling:
A mystery file, unsealed after 24 years in storage at an Austin courthouse, indicates that prosecutors or investigators perpetrated a fraud to secure the murder conviction and life sentence for Michael Morton in 1987, the Innocence Project of New York alleged in a court filing Tuesday.

The file, sealed under a 1987 court order amid Morton's appeals, was ordered open last week as part of the Innocence Project's claim that recent DNA tests prove Morton did not kill is wife, Christine.

The file was supposed to contain all materials produced by Williamson County sheriff's Sgt. Don Wood, now retired, as the lead investigator into Christine Morton's murder, the Innocence Project said.

Instead, the file contained only Wood's five-page report detailing the investigation's first day and a one-page consent form, signed by Michael Morton, allowing his house and pickup to be searched.

The skimpy file raised the "specter of official misconduct," the Innocence Project alleged in court papers, because it did not include recently revealed evidence that could have raised questions about Morton's guilt, including the transcript of a taped conversation between Wood and Christine Morton's mother 11 days after the murder. According to the typed transcript, the Mortons' 3-year-old son indicated that he had witnessed the killing and said his father, Michael Morton, was not home at the time.

"If trial prosecutors had the transcript in their 1987 file and willfully concealed it from this court and/or the Court of Appeals, then they have committed fraud on the court of the highest order — and in the process, condemned an innocent man to prison for a quarter-century," the Innocence Project motion reads.
At some point, given the results of recent DNA testing in the case, you have to wonder why Williamson County DA John Bradley would continue to defend such prosecutorial antics, since they all happened on a predecessor's watch. The Williamson County Democratic Party thinks the reason is that "the prosecutor in this case was now-Williamson County District Court Judge Ken Anderson," the blog Eye on Williamson County points out. That could indeed explain it. The blog Wilco Watchdog has been all over the story, for those interested in more details.


Prison Doc said...

Since IANAL (I've been wanting to use that acronym since I saw it here yesterday), I am wondering, Grits, what is new on the legislative front that would MANDATE extensive DNA testing of everything, and full disclosure to all parties, whether exculpatory or not? It seems that our modern day criminal codes should require it.

Maybe it's just because of my scientific background, but it seems that if DNA evidence is available it should carry far more weight than any nonobjective evidence.

Prosecutors' seemingly universsal desire to withhold or deny the testing of DNA evidence--on both current and "old" cases--certainly puts the state in a bad light and should allow one to assume that dishonesty is the only reason for their not being forthcoming.

Gritsforbreakfast said...

They did pass a bill this year, SB 1616 by West, requiring rulemaking at DPS on what must be kept for how long, etc..

They also passed legislation (SB 122 by Ellis) limiting objections prosecutors can make to DNA testing in future Chapter 64 motions.

And of course, part of the problem is just really big existing backlogs combined with ever-increasing demands for services (e.g., property crimes). Meanwhile, some screwed up labs like Houston take three steps back for every one forward, exacerbating things considerably.

Anonymous said...

At the risk of sounding like a broken record:

I wonder how many of these cases the courts can turn a blind eye to before scaling back absolute prosecutorial immunity. At what point do these blatant constitutional violations of due process rise to the point that the court sees the need to do something about the problem? And, why won't the state bar do anything about these prosecutors?

rodsmith said...

it will never happen. BECASUE the state bar is MADE UP of prosecutors!

Anonymous said...

My thoughts on Williamson County is there are plenty of other cases like this because of the corruption in all areas of the Wilco "law enforcement" money maker they have going on there. All powerfull and all corrupt is the only way to describe what's going on in that courthouse.

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