Monday, December 26, 2011

Triumph or Tragedy? Drawing meaning from the Michael Morton exoneration

"If you want a happy ending, that depends, of course, on where you stop your story."
- Orson Welles

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:
Now that Morton's defense team has released their prosecutorial misconduct report (pdf), as a pure news story the Morton exoneration is over. As these articles demonstrate, though, what remains is to understand what his story means and how or whether lessons may be drawn from it that could prevent more, similar false convictions in the future. Those questions are all wide open, as are what consequences any of the state actors might face and what if any reforms might be implemented in the wake of exposing such gaping, systemic flaws.

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.


Mule Breath said...

Or perhaps if the Legislature passed a law mandating an open-file policy for prosecutors or punishing willful Brady violations with jail time, would that provide a satisfactory conclusion?

That will never happen. Brady is one of their own kin.

One must wonder how long it will take... what degree of heinous, callous disregard for human suffering it will take before the RED STATE voters open their eyes to the degree of evil inherent in the like of Brady.

Republican voters may be honest, caring individuals... but those for whom they vote give not a jolly goddamn about the people.

Gritsforbreakfast said...

There seems to be a bit of confusion, MB: John Bradley is the Williamson County DA. A "Brady violation" refers to prosecutors withholding exculpatory evidence, the name taken from a US Supreme Court case from the '60s.

It was Judge Anderson who allegedly committed the Brady violation, not John Bradley, though Bradley did later fight the release of exculpatory evidence under open records and opposed exculpatory DNA testing for years. But "Brady" relates to withholding evidence from the opposition, and that part appears to be on Judge Anderson. Sorry for any confusion.

As for your final paragraph, in this case we'll find out what Republican voters care about: They've got a chance to throw John Bradley out in April if they care to. From what I hear, some of Bradley's "kin" are turning out to not be there now that he needs them. We'll soon see.

rodsmith said...

personaly i think any group of people retarded enough to make this statmeent!

"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."

Are in fact and in LAW CRIMINALLY RETARDED and said statement is legal grounds to remove them from the gene pool anyway you can!

the TRUTH is the TRUTH! but of couse we know are courts all the way to the U.S Supreme Court have a BIG program with that!

after all just how many ways can you creatively interpet

"NO expost law can be passe"

Mule Breath said...

Oops (sorry, couldn't resist). Please pardon my senility. I think I know what I meant to say, and sure hope that meaning at least was clear even if I bobbled the names.

This is a case I've only become aware of in the past couple of years. Bradley is the one to whom I was referring. His obstruction screams of protecting the brand even at the cost of imprisoning the innocent. Anderson's violations are similar to those committed across the state by other prosecutors. Henry Wade comes to mind.

Loss of an election and disbarment for both Bradley and Anderson is likely the best for which we can hope, and it is the least that we should accept.

Again, please pardon my gaffe.

Arce said...

The law should require that a prosecutor who withheld exculpatory evidence or evidence that could reduce the impact of a witness' adverse testimony, must forfeit a years pay (from any retirement funds) for each such violation, which shall be paid to the defendant in such case.

Lee said...

So...What is the next step? Are anderson and Bradley going to be sanctioned, prosecuted or the matter just dropped?

Gritsforbreakfast said...

Lee, nobody knows yet, we'll have to wait and see. The state bar and Commission on Judicial
Conduct mostly work in secret, nobody can prosecute state crimes in Williamson County but Bradley (meaning it's unlikely even if some were committed), and the voters haven't had their say yet, either. The feds have yet to intervene so I don't see any otherretributivist vehicles immediately available.

Who knows what will happen? As Albert Einstein once remarked, the reason for time is so everything doesn't happen at once.

Anonymous said...

If the Feds don't take John Bradley and Ken Anderson out, the voters will.

rodsmith said...

what's going to happen to them?

LOL well since the U.S. SUPREME COURT keeps saying YOU CAN'T TOUCH em!

i'm gonna go with NOTHING!

Phillip Baker said...

Grits, all the options you noted are good as starting points. But for there to be real, lasting change from all this, the legislature MUST begin serious reform of our entire criminal justice system. But so many politicians have made "tough on crime" into such a sacred article of faith, that they have painted themselves into a corner. "Reform" sounds like being "soft on crime". Ordinary people should be outraged about all these exonerations. But alas, Texans these last couple of decades have gone off the rails. They've been so spoon fed fear stories about crime that they seem willing to accept the occasional Morton story if they can feel "safe". Compassion is derided as lefty fuzzy thinking. Plus the extreme partisan divide of the whole country has pushed compassion, justice, and simple fair play out of the national consciousness. Sad. But I, for one, plan to be at the capitol a lot come 2013. Time for reform has long passed. This sort of misconduct occurs all over Texas, week after week, in lesser stories that get no attention- thefts, burglaries, drug possession,etc. DA's must be forced into compliance with the law. You'd think that was a no brainer. But this IS Texas. How many more Mike Mortons are we willing to tolerate?

Anonymous said...

And these sorts of things happen in family law, not just in criminal cases. As a new judge, Anderson handled my child custody case. He would not let me tell my story to the jury, so I had nowhere to stand. He said the heinous truth would be "prejudicial." In reality, he didn't want to take a chance on the jury overturning his earlier decision in the temporary hearing. It cost me custody of my son. I have to wonder just how many people this man has harmed. I would love to see him held accountable, but I don't expect that will happen. Spending time in his court not only cost me my son, it cost me my faith in the system. So much for Truth, Justice, and the American Way.

Daniel Simon said...


I am begging you to look into and expose the fact that John Bradley refuses to prosecute even the most egregious cases of FELONY interference with Child Custody AND also interferes with police so much as telling the truth to the victims...that it IS a CRIME and NOT CIVIL!

You seem to be critical of Bradley and the "justice system" in general in many regards....but despite the information that is out there and that I have sent you, you fail to explore this truly explosive story.

Properly handled John Bradley would be run out of the County...not even able to conduct a private practice.

Hundreds of families are being destroyed by his "policy of non-enforcement" and the misery, pain and suffering virtually incalculable.

Can you please look into this or comment?


Daniel Simon

Grandmom said...

Too much focused on Bradley and Anderson. They are just 2 rotten apples in the barrel of criminal justice. The apples are rotten all the way down - thousands of them. Wrongful eyewitness ID, bad forensics, incompetent attorneys, coerced confessions, jail-house snitches as well as prosecutorial misconduct. Of all the 139 death row prisoners exonerated by DNA testing, 75% were convicted based on wrongful eyewitness ID, as well as other injustices. The Court of Criminal Appeals is a rubber stamp for convictions. All the cases on death row should be reviewed and retried before another execution happens. The guilty are granted a fair trial by the constitution as well as the innocent. The system does not investigate the crime and gather evidence, it invents evidence to make if fit the crime and the suspect. As a friend on death row said to me: "I get one bite of the apple (appeal) and it's rotten to the core".