Houston lawyer John Raley says he knew Michael Morton was innocent when he took his case pro bono in 2004. But he’s as “astounded” as anyone else at what’s happened since he won a long court battle that proved it.
In 2010, Raley secured an appellate victory regarding a DNA test, which in late 2011 exonerated Morton of charges he had killed his wife in 1986. The vindication came after Morton had spent nearly 25 years in prison.
Raley’s work alongside the New York-based Innocence Project helped uncover a story that triggered public debate, prompted court and disciplinary proceedings against a former prosecutor who’s now a district judge, and may have contributed to a longtime district attorney’s defeat at the polls.
“I think it’s the sort of case that can be a watershed for change,” says Raley, partner in Raley & Bowick in Houston.
Morton says he thinks his story could be a “catalyst” to finally bring significant changes to prevent wrongful convictions.
“One of the reasons that it’s important for us to try to make these positive changes in the legal system is: I am you. I was incredibly average. . . .The reason people latch on to me and my situation is, if they pay attention, they see themselves in me. They identify with me,” Morton says.
Representatives of prosecutors’ and criminal-defense lawyers’ groups say they think the public has reacted differently to Morton’s story than to other wrongful-conviction stories.
“Unlike most exonerees, Michael Morton was a middle-class white dude with no criminal history. So his message — that what happened to him could happen to anyone — resonates with a lot of people who may not have been as impacted by previous exonerations,” says Shannon Edmonds, staff attorney for governmental relations with the Texas District & County Attorneys Association.
Lydia Clay-Jackson, president of the Texas Criminal Defense Lawyers Association, says she thinks Morton’s case made the public understand that alleged Brady violations can happen to middle-class people, not just the poor. Brady v. Maryland is the 1963 U.S. Supreme Court case that requires prosecutors to turn over exculpatory evidence to criminal-defense lawyers.
“We find there is an overriding need for legislation to help strengthen and put teeth in and give judges more ability to sanction and correct Brady violations. . .,”says Clay-Jackson, of The Law Office of Lydia Clay-Jackson in Conroe.
277th District Judge Ken Anderson, who was the Williamson County DA who prosecuted Morton, faces a court of inquiry and an attorney disciplinary proceeding on allegations he failed to disclose favorable evidence tothe trial court and Morton’s then-defense lawyers.
Eric Nichols, a partner in Beck Redden in Austin who represents Anderson, writes in part in an email that Anderson supported Morton’s exoneration and has expressed regret, in light of the 2011 DNA test results, for the “incorrect conviction.”
“Any suggestion that Mr. Anderson in serving as the State’s attorney did anything to violate the rules of conduct applicable to lawyers and prosecutors is incorrect,” writes Nichols.
Working the Case
Raley was an unlikely champion for Morton. In his 27 years of practicing law, he’s mostly represented defendants in commercial litigation. But in 2004, the Innocence Project asked him to take Morton’s case, and he says he agreed because he was “intrigued” by the organization’s work and he does not want to limit his legal career.
He recalls the day he first visited Morton in prison and told his wife when he returned home, ” ‘Kelly, my god, he is innocent. We have to get him out.’ She looked me in the eye and said, ‘Then do it.’ “
Early in the case when Morton says “we were getting smacked down legally,” Morton told Raley and co-counsel Nina Morrison of the Innocence Project that he would understand if there wasn’t enough money to continue.
Morton says, “John broke in, and he told me in no uncertain terms that he would never give up fighting for me. As long as there was a breath in him, he would never quit.”
He adds, “Without John, I’m sure I’d still be in the penitentiary. I’m sure I’d still not know my son. We would not have reconciled. I would have never seen my granddaughter.”
Morrison didn’t return a telephone call seeking comment.
A Jan. 8, 2010, 3rd Court of Appeals opinion In Re Michael Wayne Morton explains the background of the case. In 1987, Morton was convicted of murdering his wife and sentenced to life in prison.
In 2005, he filed a motion in Williamson County’s 26th District Court for DNA testing on evidence, including a blood-stained bandana. The 3rd Court’s 2010 opinion says the 26th District Court granted testing on some evidence but not the bandana. Morton appealed. The 3rd Court affirmed the denial of some testing but reversed and remanded for testing on the bandana.
Williamson County DA John Bradley’s office opposed the testing of the bandana, arguing, among other things, “Petitioner has failed to demonstrate by a preponderance of the evidence that DNA testing of the bandana could produce exculpatory results,” according to an Oct. 20, 2005, State’s Response to Motion for Post-Conviction DNA Testing in State of Texas v. Michael Wayne Morton.
Raley says the DNA test results on the bandana showed a hair from Christine Morton, which linked the bandana to the crime scene, and the blood of a man who was not Michael Morton.
In June, Bradley lost the Republican primary to challenger Jana Duty, who had strongly criticized him for his longtime opposition to DNA testing in Morton’s case.
Bradley didn’t return a telephone call or email seeking comment. But in May, Bradley said it took time to sort out chain-of-custody and contamination issues before an appellate court approved DNA testing.
“I regret those delays, and I’ve offered my apologies to Mr. Morton. But we made the best decisions we could with the information we had at the time,” Bradley said, adding that after the testing proved Morton’s innocence, he supported the exoneration. [See "Three Top DAs Facing Primary Challenges," Texas Lawyer, May 14, 2012, page 1.]
In December 2011, 226th District Judge Sid Harle, sitting by assignment in the 26th District Court, granted the state’s motion to dismiss the indictment in Texas v. Morton, noting in his order that the case is “DISMISSED on the grounds of actual innocence.”
Anderson, the former Williamson County DA, faces a court of inquiry and a disciplinary action connected to his prosecution of Morton’s 1987 case.
Under Texas Code of Criminal Procedure Chapter 52, a district judge may request a court of inquiry when he “has probable cause to believe that an offense has been committed against the laws of this state.” The judge must file an affidavit explaining why he has probable cause.
After Raley filed a Report to the Court that called for a court of inquiry against Anderson, Harle, at the time presiding in the 26th District Court, requested the court of inquiry and asked for the appointment of a district judge to preside over it,according to the Feb. 10 Application and Affidavit of Hon. Sid Harle In The Matter of Honorable Ken Anderson.
Harle’s application and affidavit allege there’s probable cause to believe Anderson committed offenses against the state during Morton’s trial by failing to disclose “information highly favorable to the accused” and falsely representing that he had “no favorable evidence to disclose.”
Anderson also faces a disciplinary action that alleges he withheld evidence and violated the Texas Disciplinary Rules of Professional Conduct by engaging in conduct prejudicial to the administration of justice; concealing information the law requires him to reveal; making a false statement; and as a prosecutor, failing to disclose evidence favorable to a criminal defendant, according to the Oct. 4 original petition in Commission for Lawyer Discipline v. Anderson.
In a Nov. 5 original answer in Commission for Lawyer Discipline v. Anderson, Anderson denies the allegations and alleges the statute of limitations bars the claims.
“We respectfully disagree with the positions taken and the allegations made by the State Bar Disciplinary Counsel. Incorrect allegations that were first made by attorneys representing Mr. Morton have unraveled over time and will continue to do so. We will defend against these allegations in the public forum of a court of law,” Nichols writes in the email.
Anderson didn’t return two telephone calls seeking comment.
Morton says he supports efforts for the State Bar to hold prosecutors accountable and he’s working on bills in the 2013 Texas Legislature to make sure what happened to him does not happen to anyone else.
“Everybody wants accountability. Everyone wants the right people to go to prison and not the wrong people. So this is simple and transcends politics,” Morton says.