Williamson County’s Morton Murder Case Pits the Jailed Against the Jaded

While legal theory claims justice as a goal, other outcomes seemed more at work Monday when the defense team for Michael Morton, a Williamson County man whose claims of a wrongful murder conviction nearly 25 years ago grow increasingly credible, once again squared off against the Williamson County district attorney’s office. And despite new, apparently game-changing evidence revealed to both sides by Bexar County District Judge Sid Harle and described by Morton’s defense as “powerful” and information that “would take away any concerns whatsoever,” process and protocol continued as the prosecution’s apparent focus.

One doesn’t have to be a trained legal mind to review the facts, circumstances and actions related to the 1986 murder of Christine Morton and 1987 conviction of her husband, Michael, and find it a troubling situation. And as a citizen and taxpayer, sitting in a Williamson County courtroom watching Monday’s hearing did nothing to further instill confidence that righting what appears to be an egregious wrong was at the top of everyone’s agenda.

For nearly 10 years, Michael Morton’s Innocence Project defense team has fought to gain access to evidence believed suppressed at trial and to obtain DNA from a bandanna found near the crime scene. The efforts paid off as DNA testing found Christine Morton’s blood and hair on the bandanna intermingled with DNA belonging to a man other than Michael. The DNA has now been matched to a man reportedly with a state and federal felony record for offenses in three states that include burglary of a residence, “extensive” drug use and assault with intent to kill. The individual is not believed to currently be incarcerated.

During this same time and over objections from Williamson County District Attorney John Bradley, the Texas Attorney General’s office ordered release of evidence that included an interview transcript with Christine Morton’s mother less than two weeks after the murder in which she describes a conversation with the Morton’s three-year-old son who told of witnessing an unknown man murder his mother. Reports of a green van and suspicious occupant on the street behind the Morton’s address as well as information suggesting investigators’ apparent failure to pursue leads related to the use and recovery of Christine Morton’s missing credit card from a San Antonio store two days after the murder were also discovered.

Though the newly released evidence is currently sealed, it was provided to Harle by the Travis County district attorney’s office and relates to a case pending in that county. Morton’s lawyers seem to strongly believe it supports their client’s innocence and asked the Williamson County district attorney’s office to join them in preparing a “bare bones” court filing to facilitate Morton’s immediate release from prison while subsequent investigations continue. The district attorney’s office declined and instead called for additional testing of the bandanna.

Morton’s defense team is understandably working to protect their client. The district attorney’s office also appears operating in a protective mode, and while theoretically charged with protecting interests of the general public (i.e., taxpayers!), one has to wonder if concerns for two generations of case prosecutors aren’t more the issue.

The original Morton case prosecutor was then-District Attorney, now-District Judge Ken Anderson. His second chair was Mike Davis, a Round Rock attorney who maintains close ties to Williamson County government. Current District Attorney John Bradley has opposed, some would say obstructed, efforts to investigate Michael Morton’s potentially wrongful prosecution.

Doug Arnold, now a County Court at Law judge, is reported to have assisted Bradley in arguing against the DNA testing. Sgt. Don Wood was the Williamson County Sheriff’s Office lead investigator and though he is retired, that office is also likely to face new scrutiny.

At court hearings or in media reports or anywhere else – nowhere does the district attorney’s office seem to express concern that an innocent man could have been wrongfully convicted or that a killer might have escaped detection. A calculated suppression of truth may have wrongfully imprisoned Michael Morton nearly 25 years ago and a new wave of suppression perpetrated in the last decade may have helped keep him there. And in doing so, a killer may not have only gone free, but been free to kill again.

During Monday’s hearing, Morton defense attorney John Raley called on the court to act in “…the interest of justice and the pursuit of the truth.” Whether that happens remains to be seen.

In the meantime, Williamson County taxpayers continue funding bad behavior over good public policy. The Morton case could easily become one more such example. It won’t be cheap nor should it!

Williamson County’s “good ol’ boy” culture of corruption reputation is on quite an upswing. And at a point – it says as much about the county’s residents as it does about a disreputable government and officials. With the 2012 election approaching, voters can demand change. But will they? That, too, remains to be seen.

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