Posts Tagged ‘Michael Morton’

The Deep Roots of Prosecutorial Misconduct

Alejandra de la Fuente — May 24, 2013 @ 2:17 PM — Comments (1)

Fifty years ago, in the landmark Brady v. Maryland case, the U.S. Supreme Court established a fundamental principle about the duty of prosecutors – to seek justice fairly, not merely win convictions by any means. This meant that due process required prosecutors to disclose any exculpatory evidence that was likely to affect a conviction or sentence. Known as the Brady Rule, the case was meant to lead to more transparency and equity in criminal proceedings; however, its power has been restricted by subsequent rulings of the court and severely weakened by a near complete lack of punishment for prosecutors who skirt around the rule.

It is impossible to know how often prosecutors violate Brady since this type of misconduct, by definition, involves concealment. But there is good reason to believe that violations are widespread. The National Registry of Exonerations has compiled detailed data for about 1,100 exonerations for the period 1989-2012. Of those cases, a whopping 42% were caused by what has been deemed “official misconduct.” Allowing for a 50-50 split between police and prosecutorial misconduct, the number still hovers around 21%, and when one considers that prosecutors are meant to seek justice rather than convictions, that is a rather alarming rate. The court has long agreed that individual prosecutors should be protected from civil liability so that they may freely pursue criminals; unfortunately, that allows for almost complete unaccountability for wrong-doings in judicial proceedings.

Recently the “Michael Morton Act” was passed in Texas, a law meant to decrease the amount of wrongful convictions within the state. The bill’s namesake spent 25 years in prison for the murder of his wife before DNA evidence finally exonerated him in 2011. The prosecutor in his case has been accused of deliberately withholding a substantial amount of evidence that would have led to an acquittal, including an account from the defendants three-year-old son who witnessed the murder and explained that “Daddy wasn’t home” at the time, neighbor testimonials who saw a man park a green van outside the house the morning of the murder, and a police officer in San Antonio who stated he could identify a woman who had used the victim’s stolen Visa card in a jewelry store – all of which were withheld from the defense.

The case of John Thompson represents another example of atrocious prosecutorial misconduct and the Supreme Court’s refusal to hold the prosecutor accountable. Mr. Thompson spent 14 years on death row before he was exonerated following the discovery that lawyers in the New Orleans district attorney’s office had kept more than a dozen pieces of evidence secret, even destroying some. Yet the Supreme Court overturned a $14 million jury award to Mr. Thompson, ruling that the prosecutor’s office had not shown a pattern of “deliberate indifference” to constitutional rights.

One root of the epidemic of misconduct may stem from prosecutors positions as pseudo-politicians. The position of “prosecutor” is imbedded with an incredible level of power, and as Lord Acton wrote 126 years ago, “Power tends to corrupt, and absolute power corrupts absolutely.” Not only do prosecutors have power, but they are essentially free from accountability. The outrageous breaches of due process discussed here are merely illustrative of a deep-rooted indifference towards the assurance of justice.

But what can be done? One example of a better approach that has been adopted in North Carolina and now Ohio is to adopt an open-files reform to make criminal cases more efficient and fair. The state statute require prosecutors in felony cases, before trial, to make available to the defense “the complete files of all law enforcement agencies, investigatory agencies and prosecutors’ offices involved in the investigation of the crimes committed or the prosecution of the defendant.” The Justice Department insists that is has solved the problem by tightening requirements for disclosure, but numerous misconduct scandals show that is not sufficient. The best way to fulfill the promise of Brady is with open-files reform, which addresses the need for full disclosure of evidence that could show a defendant’s innocence.

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Judge Ken Anderson Faces Criminal Charges

Alejandra de la Fuente — April 26, 2013 @ 1:37 PM — Comments (1)

In February, Michael Morton submitted a court of inquiry to the State of Texas regarding the conduct of the leading prosecutor in his case.  On Friday, April 19, 2013, a Texas judge decided that Ken Anderson, former district attorney and now judge, would face criminal charges for his improper behavior in 1987.

Barry Scheck, co-founder of The Innocence Project, stated in The Innocence Project press release,

“We believe this is a landmark case. I know that good prosecutors, and that’s most of them, agree that it’s important Judge Anderson be held accountable for the willful misconduct that caused Michael Morton to lose 25 years of his life.”

“It’s extremely rare for prosecutors to be punished for deliberately hiding exculpatory evidence, much less face criminal charges. But this outcome will hopefully usher in a new era of oversight to ensure that prosecutors live up to their ethical obligations.”

The court as well as District Judge Louis Sterns, who was presiding over the case, decided Anderson should face charges for withholding exculpatory evidence from the defense resulting in Morton’s wrongful conviction after determining the Anderson was aware of the Judge’s trial orders.

It is reassuring to know that prosecutors who engage in ethical and legal misconduct are being held accountable for their actions. The reformation of the criminal justice system is going to take time but steps in the right direction such as The Prosecutorial Oversight Campaign  are crucial in the change towards a better system. It is important every individual of the law continually upholds the law and those who do not are rightfully held accountable.

In the press release, Nina Morrison, a Senior Staff Attorney with the Innocence Project, stated,

“Hopefully this case will serve as a wake-up call to prosecutors across the nation that there are real consequences for ignoring the ethical rules that have been established to ensure that everyone gets a fair trial.”

Although criminal charges against prosecutors are rare, the success of Morton’s court of inquiry demonstrates the justice the system owes him for the miscarriage of justice that he received for 25 years.

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The Real Perpetrator Convicted – 27 Years Later

Alejandra de la Fuente — April 16, 2013 @ 10:30 AM — Comments (0)

Since his exoneration in 2011, Michael Morton has recently seen the inside of a courtroom in very different roles. First as an observer in the court of inquiry proceedings to hold the prosecutor responsible for his conviction, Ken Anderson, accountable for his wrongful incarceration. Then a second time as a family member of the victim as Mark Alan Norwood was tried for Christine Morton’s murder.

The DNA from the bloody bandana that exonerated Michael Mortion when cross-referenced in a national database matched Mark Alan Norwood, who was in the system for his long criminal history. Sometimes if DNA is run through the database, the matching result will point to another individual. Typically the person is either dead or has been convicted of another crime. Therefore the trail ends with the wrongfully convicted person being exonerated of the crime. In Morton’s case, Norwood was still in the general population and the prosecution had a strong enough case to bring him to trial.

Opening statements in the Norwood trail began on Tuesday, March 19, 2013. The trial was held in San Angelo after being moved from Williamson County, near Austin, because of publicity in the case. The Texas Attorney General’s Office handled the prosecution and were not seeking the death penalty.

On March 27th, the San Angelo jurors found Mark Alan Norwood guilty for the 1986 murder of Christine Morton. Greg Abbott is the Texas Attorney General whose office dealt directly with Norwood’s prosecution made a statement to Fox News, saying “no verdict can bring back Christine Morton’s life or recover the devastating years that her husband Michael Morton spent unjustly imprisoned for her murder.” Norwood was convicted and sentenced to life in prison with the chance of parole after 15 years.

Morton’s prosecution in 1987 fought long and hard to place Michael Morton behind bars for the murder of his wife; only for him to be exonerated nearly 25 years later. The entire time Morton was wrongfully imprisoned, Christine’s real killer was free to go about his daily life.

When a false confession is made, when evidence is hidden from the defense, when prosecutors seek a conviction rather than search for the truth, many innocent men and women are wrongfully convicted leaving the real perpetrators with life on the outside.

The Texas Tribune provides a timeline from Christine’s death up until Norwood’s conviction.

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Documenting Their Strife

Alejandra de la Fuente — March 20, 2013 @ 10:57 AM — Comments (0)

Movies documenting the lives of those exonerated from their wrongfully conviction have become powerful forces bringing to light some of the flaws in our criminal justice system. The Central Park Five and An Unreal Dream: The Michael Morton Story are compelling tales of those wrongfully incarcerated, exonerated and their lives thereafter. The documentaries are crucial to spreading their stories following their ordeal from the very beginning on the night of the crime to their new lives after exoneration.

Many would say that the idea that our criminal justice system could potentially convict the wrong man is not only devastating but also appalling. For these six men, this idea became a horrific reality.

The Central Park Five describes the case of the five individuals, Antron McCray, Kevin Richardson, Yusef Salaam, Raymond Santana and Korey Wise, who were charged and convicted of the brutal beating and rape of a Central Park jogger. Some will argue that these young boys were guilty of  the crime even before they saw the inside of a courtroom. Now facing allegations of prosecutorial misconduct, the case unravels the false confessions, addresses mob mentality and delves into the racism of New York City during the time of the Central Park Jogger. Deron Dalton of The Huffington Post claims,

“The documentary, originally released on Friday, Nov. 23, 2012, gives these five innocent black and Latino men, the voices they were wrongly denied since falsely confessing to the horrific rape of the Central Park Jogger, Trisha Meili the night of April 19, 1989.”

The Central Park Five trailer:

The murder of Christine Morton in 1987 was a high profile murder case in the State of Texas. Michael Morton was convicted and served 25 years in prison before post-conviction DNA testing proved his innocence exonerating him in 2011. Al Reinart  provides his reasoning behind making the movie, in Texas Monthly, stating,

“Michael went to prison for 25 years for something he didn’t do, and he not only survived that experience, but he emerged from it a very humble, gracious man. I found that very compelling. I could not imagine myself being able to do that. It was apparent from the very beginning that Michael’s story is just an amazing human story, but it became more and more fascinating as the project went on. The goal really was just to not screw up telling it.”

An Unreal Dream: The Michael Morton Story trailer:

These documentaries dig deep into each case, exposing the problems of the criminal justice system that severely affected the lives of these six men. Michael Morton has chosen to hold his prosecutor – now Judge – Ken Anderson accountable for the misconduct in his trial while the Central Park Five continually fight for their right to compensation for the wrongful incarceration. An Unreal Dream: The Michael Morton Story premiered at the South by Southwest Festival on Monday, March 11, 2013 and The Central Park Five will air on PBS Tuesday, April 16, 2013.

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Anderson’s Accountability

Alejandra de la Fuente — February 21, 2013 @ 4:33 PM — Comments (3)

In August 2011 post-conviction DNA testing proved Michael Morton an innocent man. After spending nearly 25 years behind bars for the wrongful conviction of the murder of his wife Christine, Morton was finally able to regain the life that he had left behind. Morton has since filed a court of inquiry against Ken Anderson, the district attorney whose prosecution led to Morton’s wrongful conviction. Ken Anderson now serves as a judge for the State of Texas and denies that any misconduct occurred during Morton’s trial in 1987.

The Huffington Post defined a court of inquiry as ” a rarely used proceeding held when officials or public servants are accused of wrongdoing.” In a system where the officials are highly protected, a court of inquiry call into question the actions of those in the prosecution.

Christine Morton was beaten to death with a wooden object in the morning in August 1986. The lead investigator of the crime collected evidence that included: a police report of neighbors claiming that a man owning a green van frequented the area around the Morton home around the time of the murder, a report of the couple’s young son, Eric, who was a witness to the horrific murder of his mother claiming that a “monster”, not his father, had killed his mother while his father was gone, unidentified fingerprints as well as an unidentified foot print in the backyard. There was a substantial amount of evidence indicating that Morton had not committed the murder. However, the defense was not made aware of any of this evidence; and hence the jury did not hear any of it. The jury convicted Morton on circumstantial evidence. He was sentenced to a life in prison.

The Texas Tribune states, “Anderson insisted that there was no judge’s order requiring him to turn over that evidence. He also argued that although he was not required under law or by a judge’s order to give Morton’s lawyers the transcript or the green van report that he must have told them about it. He said he had no “independent recollection” of doing so, but faulted Morton’s lawyers for not following up on the information.”

Throughout the court of inquiry hearings, Anderson continually denied concealing exculpatory evidence and simply claims the justice system “screwed up.” If Morton was held accountable for a crime he did not commit, Anderson needs to face the same accountability. Anderson wrongfully stole 25 years from a man in which a multitude of evidence proved he was innocent. Rather than admit the system was prosecuting the wrong individual, Anderson chose to suppress the evidence and continue with legal proceedings.

Discussing Anderson and the case, Morton stated,  “I think we saw someone who is still struggling with denial and anger,” he said, “and possibly a man who has spent at least three decades in a position of power and for the first time has had to answer for his actions, and he’s very uncomfortable with that.”

As the proceeding came to a close Friday, February 8, the Judge presiding over the case is waiting on both the defense and the prosecution to file additional papers. His decision should be made within the next couple of months.

For now the public is left to question, was Morton’s conviction a result of prosecutorial misconduct or is Anderson just as innocent as he claims?

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Weekly Update: Compensation and Misconduct in the Lone Star State

Alejandra de la Fuente — May 21, 2012 @ 8:59 AM — Comments (1)

Austin County Attorney Brags About Professional Misconduct

A county attorney in Austin, Texas name of Jana Duty has lied about her involvement with the case of exoneree Michal Morton, who was convicted of murdering his wife Christine over 25 years ago. Duty is currently running for election as Austin’s district attorney, and these allegations of her professional misconduct have come out as a result of her campaign.

Read more about the complaints lodged against Ms. Duty by John Bradley, a man who is running for the same district attorney spot, here.

Texas Supreme Court Orders State to pay $2 Million to Exoneree

Texas exoneree Billy Frederick Allen spent 26 years behind bars for two Dallas murders he did not commit. Yesterday it was announced that he will finally receive compensation for the time he spent wrongfully incarcerated.

Allen was convicted in 1983 and was released in 2009; his release, unlike many other exonerations, came about as a result of problems with witness testimony and Allen’s legal representation that surfaced decades after the original trial. Allen’s success in suing the State for compensation may be the start towards setting a precedent for compensation in other wrongful convictions cases.

Read more about Allen’s case and his compensation trial here.

DNA Evidence Links Another Man to Murder of a Young Girl

Illinois man Andre Davis was only 19 when he was arrested for the murder of 3-year-old Brianna Stickle. While he has not yet been completely exonerated, DNA tests have linked another man to the case, and Davis will either be retried or have the charges against him dropped within the next several weeks. At present Davis’s conviction has been overturned.

Read more about Davis’s case and his future here.

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Texas: The State of Juxtaposition

Alejandra de la Fuente — October 24, 2011 @ 2:31 PM — Comments (1)

What’s up with the State of Texas?

During a September 2011, Republican presidential debate featuring Texas governor Rick Perry (and other candidates vying for the party’s 2012 nomination), the audience cheered loudly (and perhaps even high-fived their seatmates during a few off-camera shots) in response to Perry’s position on capital punishment. Even though the governor’s stance is pretty much a “known,” it was quite astounding to hear such vociferous affirmations coming from the assembled crowd.  A casual observer just tuning in to the televised debate might have viewed the yelps, yahoos, and foot-stomping madness as the governor’s response to an inquiry regarding, say, his preference for apple pie as opposed to pineapple upside down cake.

But the crowd’s jubilance wasn’t in response to the governor’s culinary preferences.

The crowd’s unabashed, thumbs-up deportment was the verbal, behavioral, and unvarnished reaction to a much larger truth: their belief in the righteousness of the governor of the state of Texas.  Take it straight from the crowd: Apple pie and pineapple upside down cake can’t compare to the gratifying exhilaration of lethal injections. While the former might have the capability of satisfying one’s temporary need for a pleasurable sweet-fix, the latter has the unequivocal effect of putting its subject to sleep. Forever. End of Story.

Fast forward to the case of Michael Morton.

On October 3, 2011, Michael Morton walked out of a Williamson County (Texas) courtroom a free man after having spent the past 25 years behind bars for killing his wife. DNA evidence pointed to another man as the responsible party, but not before Morton had been severely victimized by the state’s judicial system. Abhorrent, unconscionable behavior by the State, including the dismissal of a judge’s order for a review of the case, greatly contributed to Morton’s quarter century incarceration. “Stunning” is the word a Senior Staff Attorney used to describe prosecutors’ conduct in the  case.

Recent developments in Morton’s case, however, indicate that the State is reviewing legal documents related to his conviction and has launched an investigation into actions engaged by trial lawyers in the case. And while it might be a bit too premature to pop the champagne cork and ready the long-stems in celebration of a positive outcome, it is a  post-commencement to a case which ended horribly. 

Whatever the outcome in the investigation, 25 years of Michael Morton’s life are gone. Like the wind. Never to return. Or be returned.

Now, too, comes the case of Anthony Melendez, the only living defendant in the 1982 case of three teenagers slain in Lake Waco, Texas. At the time of Melendez’s conviction, there was no DNA testing available. But now, in an effort to exonerate Melendez through DNA evidence, Attorney Walter M. Reaves has filed a motion asking for the testing, which involves DNA evidence present on shoelaces used to tie up one of the victims.

While Melendez has always maintained his innocence, he confessed to his involvement in the crime on the advice of his defense team who convinced him that if a jury found him guilty he would, in all likelihood, be sentenced to death. When you’re young, scared, and presented with few options in such a case–and are listening to authority figures who presumably have your best interests at heart– a life sentence might not sound like such a bad idea, given the alternative.

But Melendez’s case is in the Lone Star State, where guilt and innocence are oftentimes secondary to truth and justice.

The McLennan County (Waco) District Attorney’s Office is fighting tooth and nail in an oppositional effort regarding any such exertions related to post-conviction DNA. The jury has spoken, the DA’s Office has asserted, and any such testing, if permitted, will “override” the jury’s decision.

“Override the jury’s decision”?

Let me be clear on this: The District Attorney’s Office would rather maintain a guilty verdict–in light of compelling evidence which can prove a man’s innocence–in an effort to “maintain” a jury’s decision, no matter if the jury’s decision was reached in error? What this suggests to me is that the DA’s Office is more concerned with winning (and obviously at all costs) than it is with obtaining the truth and moving that truth forward. Justice, it seems to me the DA’s Office is saying, has no (or very little) place in this effort of review. And while the State Attorney’s Office might be in the “routine” business of prosecuting cases against individuals it deems guilty of having committed various crimes in Texas, I suggest that it is also a state where truth and justice might not be the most significant item on a random docket.

From a potential presidential nominee who favors state-sanctioned revenge killings, to acts of prosecutorial misconduct, to maintaining questionable jury decisions, Texas offers the nation’s citizens a grand perspective of its judicial viewpoints and operations that leave much to be desired. 

While the Lone Star State is certainly not a state alone in its stance on capital punishment, victims’ claims of innocence, and judicial reviews of former cases, I see it as a State of Juxtaposition, where apple pie and pineapple upside down cake are as welcomed as lethal injections, judicial misconduct, and questionable decisions from those whose jobs are to seek the truth.

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A Different Celebration for Michael Morton

Alejandra de la Fuente — October 05, 2011 @ 9:44 AM — Comments (1)

August 13, 1986, and October 4, 2011, are two dates that, most likely, will be forever etched into Michael Morton’s memory. The former is the date on which Morton’s wife was found dead in the couple’s Texas home, and the latter is when he exited a Williamson County (Texas) courtroom—a free man—after spending nearly a quarter century behind bars for the crime of killing her. John Bradley, Williamson County District Attorney, along with Morton’s legal team, assisted in Morton’s release.

His 1987 conviction was overturned because of new DNA evidence pointing to another man following a series of investigations linking the crime to another case in Travis (Texas) County. A man not yet publicly identified is currently under investigation for both crimes. Barry Scheck, Co-Director of the Benjamin N. Cardozo School of Law-affiliated Innocence Project, maintained, following Morton’s release from prison, that Morton was “the victim of serious prosecutorial [mis]conduct that caused him [Morton] to lose 25 years of his life and completely ripped apart his family.” Additionally, according to Scheck, “Another murder might have been prevented if law enforcement continued its investigation rather than building a false case against Mr. Morton. The criminal case against Morton, Scheck further declared, is a “tragic miscarriage of justice” wherein the actions of the police and prosecutors must be investigated and those responsible held accountable for their actions.

For 25  years, Michael Morton maintained his innocence in the murder of Christine Morton. Evidence uncovered through a Public Records Act request (withheld from Morton’s defense team which could have excluded Morton as the person who committed the crime), included, among other evidence, the transcript of a taped interview by Sgt. Don Wood, chief investigator in the case; internal typewritten correspondences and follow-up messages to Sgt. Wood; evidence suggesting, as Morton had proclaimed for years, that the crime was committed by an intruder; and the attempted use of a credit card belonging to Christine Morton following her murder. According to Nina Morrison, a Senior Staff Attorney with the Innocence Project, “the prosecution’s complete disregard for the truth in this case is stunning.”

Morrison implies that secrecy and lies are the ugly underbelly of the case which, she alleges, contributed to Michael Morton’s 25 year life behind bars. In an attempt to avoid what really transpired on August 13, 1986, the state of Texas, she argues, “went to great lengths to keep evidence pointing to Mr. Morton’s innocence from his lawyers, blatantly ignoring orders from the judge who conducted a review of the evidence.” Even though investigators found no physical evidence linking Morton to the crime, prosecutors were adamant in their claim that Morton beat his wife to death following her refusal to have sex with him after the couple arrived home following Morton’s 32nd birthday celebration at a restaurant.

While there is now a different reason for Michael Morton and his supporters to celebrate, 25 years is a long time to wait to don the party hats, slice the cake, and feel the chill of ice cream on a cool fall day. I suspect, however, that this celebration with family and friends might be extraordinary for reasons perhaps only Michael Morton can describe.

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