Morton Murder Case Suggests Williamson County Corruption as Fixture Over Fluke

Newly-released information further suggests a Williamson County man’s wrongful incarceration for nearly 25 years based on a seemingly contrived murder conviction. It also exposes conduct which bolsters County Attorney Jana Duty’s recent efforts to hold accountable for questionable actions County Judge Dan Gattis, county commissioners along with other county officials and their agents.

In a post entitled Tough On Crime or Win At All Cost? The Past Often Dictates The Future, The Wilco Watchdog provides detail and context on a new document that “begs for a fresh and complete investigation of the Williamson County commissioners court and its attempt to protect a lawyer who was involved in that murder case — ” The article also notes that the new document’s “greatest importance” may come in connection with “the motives, actions and practices of Williamson County’s present district attorney, John ‘Marty’ Bradley.”

The murder case referenced involves the 1986 homicide of Christine Morton and subsequent conviction of her husband Michael in 1987. Having maintained his innocence, Morton worked with the Innocence Project over the last six years to access 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 with a report issued in June that identified Christine Morton’s blood and hair on the bandanna along with DNA belonging to a man other than Michael. Upon putting the male DNA through the national DNA database, the Innocence Project says its match points to an unnamed California felon as the killer.

Also troubling is resistance to the Innocence Project’s use of a Public Information Act request to obtain 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.

Per an Innocence Project release, a recent court filing indicates this evidence was released by the state Attorney General’s office in 2008 over the objection of Bradley, who personally reviewed the material and asked that it not be turned over because of the ongoing DNA testing litigation. The motion also cites newly disclosed information including reports of a green van and suspicious occupant on the street behind the Morton’s address as well as investigators apparent failure to pursue leads related to the use and recovery of Christine Morton’s missing credit card from a San Antonio store.

The Innocence Project has a public history with Bradley via both parties involvement with the Cameron Todd Willingham case. While serving as commissioner for the state Forensic Science Commission, Bradley had oversight for an Innocence Project-requested investigation into whether the state was negligent in its prosecution and execution of Willingham. The Commission ultimately ruled the arson science used to convict Willingham of arson murder was outdated and without scientific basis. Some observers viewed Bradley’s leadership as obstructionist citing his “guilty monster” characterization of Willingham in advance of the Commission hearing from its own experts as an example.

As the Innocence Project will seek to have Bradley recused from the Morton case in an upcoming hearing, the pattern of potential obstruction becomes more suspect in a document recently uncovered by The Wilco Watchdog. In March 1987, just weeks after Morton’s conviction, his defense team filed a motion for a new trial. The motion contained this statement:

During the conversation with the jury after the trial of this case was concluded on Tuesday, February 17, 1987, Mr. Mike Davis, one of the prosecutors, told the jury 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 [the defense] would have been able “to raise more doubt than we did.” It is believed that from other remarks made in the jury room, that the reports contain leads concerning other unusual happenings or strange persons in the neighborhood which, if disclosed to the defense, would have been relevant to the jury on the issue of whether or not the Defendant committed this crime.

The Wilco Watchdog additionally explains:

At the time, Davis’ off-the-cuff remarks to the jury only revealed a very small portion of all the things that were in Sgt. Wood’s inch-thick report (though the file’s full contents would have been known to Davis) which had been suppressed at trial by prosecutors Davis and Anderson, and which current-DA Bradley has been seeking to suppress by objecting to the defense’s open records requests and fighting the legal efforts by the defense to obtain the records. Finally, in 2010, the Texas Third Court of Appeals cleared the way for the defense (and the public) to get the evidence by ruling against Bradley.

This alleged suppression of evidence becomes more poignant as The Watchdog further places the involved parties in a current context:

The prosecution team for the (Morton) trial was then District Attorney Ken Anderson (first chair) and ADA Mike Davis (second chair). Anderson is now a sitting district judge in Williamson County, and Davis has a private law practice based in Round Rock, located in Williamson County some seven miles south of Georgetown, the county seat. Davis, who does a fair amount of legal work for the county as contract (outside) counsel, became embroiled in the controversial and legal explosion in 2010 involving billing and payment for outside counsel services which were provided to Don Higginbotham, a county court-at-law judge, who was facing sexual harassment complaints involving extremely unsavory remarks about employees which were made public. The Davis-Higginbotham issue led to County Attorney Jana Duty filing a lawsuit in the attempt to remove County Judge Dan Gattis from office for his role in the matter involving apparently-improper payments to Davis.

In response to allegations of improper payments by Gattis, DA Bradley claimed to have investigated both Gattis and Davis regarding the billing and hiring controversy subsequently clearing both men.

The Wilco Watchdog describes Bradley’s actions:

Bradley claimed that three law enforcement agencies (in addition to his own) were involved in the Gattis-Davis investigation and gave a clean slate to everybody. Those three agencies are the Texas Rangers, the Travis County Integrity Unit (which has jurisdiction in Williamson County), and the Prosecution Assistance Division of the Texas Attorney General’s office.

However, Ken Martin, writer, editor and manager of The Austin Bulldog, saw some inconsistencies and smelled a rat. He decided to check out Bradley’s claim about these other investigations, and what he found was not good news for Bradley.

As reported by Martin in the November 30, 2010 article published in the Bulldog, Texas Ranger Matt Lindeman, who is stationed in Georgetown, said he talked with both Duty and Bradley, but the Rangers didn’t conduct an investigation. Greg Cox, who heads the Travis County Public Integrity Unit, said that after the unit decided it did not have the resources to assign a special prosecutor as requested by Duty, he was called by Bradley and suggested that the case should be presented to the Prosecution Assistance Division of the Texas Attorney General’s office. But when Ken Martin contacted that office, he couldn’t get confirmation that an investigation had taken place.

Jana Duty did go on to file a lawsuit seeking to remove County Judge Dan Gattis from office for acts of alleged misconduct – acts in which Mike Davis was a key participant. Bell County District Judge Rick Morris declined reviewing the case merits and instead dismissed the lawsuit based on a state legal technicality called the “forgiveness doctrine” which precludes officials from being removed from office for acts committed in prior election terms. The acts of which
Gattis was accused occurred prior to his November 2010 re-election thus making him eligible for this provision.

Shortly after Duty’s lawsuit dismissal, the Williamson County Commissioners filed a series of grievances against her with the State Bar of Texas. Though dismissal of the Gattis’ office removal lawsuit halted that review of the misconduct allegations, some of the same issues could be revisited in upcoming Bar proceedings – a Duty-requested public trial viewed favorably by many taxpayers and advocates of transparent, open government. Eighteen out of the original 24 complaints have already been dismissed, but six are moving forward to the next procedural stage in which county commissioners court members will be required to answer questions, requests for relevant documents substantiating the allegations and oral depositions in which participants testify under oath.

So where does that leave things? Perhaps The Wilco Watchdog sums it up best with remarks about Williamson County officials’ apparent coterie of protection:

This coterie of protection which put Michael Morton in prison for almost 25 years and separated him from his son for some 25 years still appears to be alive and well in Williamson County. For a period of time that is now approaching two years, County Attorney Jana Duty has been fighting this coterie of self-interested power with a very short stick. But she keeps on fighting, and she hasn’t given up. It’s not her problem alone. A sometimes-biased justice system and problematical public policy issues have been in evidence in Williamson County for a long time. The Michael Morton case might be the biggest example of injustice and malfeasance, but it has a lot of company.

The March 2012 primary will provide an important step in which Williamson County voters can support those protecting taxpayer interests and dismiss others whose self-interest serves only themselves and their associates at the expense of unsuspecting – or with Michael Morton, likely innocent – citizens.

As few elected officials take on the task of righting such wrongs, it’s up to voters. We get the government we deserve.

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