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Concealing of evidence highlighted in Texas wrongful conviction

Activists say the case of Michael Morton, exonerated of murder after 25 years in prison, underscores a problem of prosecutors withholding material that could help defendants.

December 18, 2011|By Molly Hennessy-Fiske and David G. Savage, Los Angeles Times
  • After 25 years in prison, Michael Morton is freed by a Texas court after DNA evidence exonerated him of his wife's murder. His defenders say he might never have been convicted if prosecutors had not withheld key evidence.
After 25 years in prison, Michael Morton is freed by a Texas court after DNA… (Jay Janner, Austin American-Statesman )

Reporting from Houston and Washington — The case of a grocery store clerk wrongly convicted of murdering his wife has rocked the legal system across Texas, and not just because an innocent man served 25 years of a life sentence.

Supporters of Michael Morton, who was set free in October, say he might never been convicted if a prominent prosecutor had shared significant evidence with the defense at the time of the trial.

"Mr. Morton was the victim of serious prosecutorial misconduct that … completely ripped apart his family," said Barry Scheck, co-director of the Innocence Project in New York, which represented Morton in his appeal.

On Monday, Morton and his lawyers plan to ask District Judge Sid Harle to take action against the lead prosecutor in the case, Ken Anderson, now a county judge.

The case highlights what critics say has become a recurring problem in Texas and across the nation: prosecutors concealing evidence that could undercut their cases.

The Supreme Court, in the landmark Brady vs. Maryland ruling in 1963, said prosecutors have a duty to share evidence that indicates a defendant is not guilty. But critics say more checks are needed to ensure prosecutors hand over such evidence.

"We have similar problems with discovery everywhere," Scheck said, speaking of the process in which the defense and the prosecution disclose their evidence to each other. "True discovery reform is really needed. We have to have real transparency."

Morton, 57, was ultimately freed thanks to DNA evidence that was not available when his wife was beaten to death. But his defense team argues that early signs indicated another man was the killer.

Christine Morton's body was found the morning of Aug. 13, 1986, in her home in the Austin suburb of Georgetown. She had been attacked as her 3-year-old son watched. Her bloodied body was covered with a comforter, suitcase and laundry hamper.

Morton's purse was missing, and a sliding glass door had been left open, suggesting an intruder had assaulted her.

But investigators found a note taped to Morton's bathroom mirror written by her husband before he left for work, saying he was "hurt" that she had refused to have sex with him on his birthday the night before. He immediately became their chief suspect.

At pretrial conferences and hearings in 1987, Morton's lawyer requested all of the lead investigator's reports and notes. There wasn't much.

Yet, after Morton was convicted, one of the prosecutors was heard telling the jury that the lead investigator's reports were several inches thick, and that if the defense had seen them, it would have been able to raise more doubt about the prosecution's case. Morton's lawyer witnessed the exchange and cited it in his motion for a new trial.

The judge denied the motion but ordered all of the material that had been turned over sealed in a slim envelope for review.

Decades passed. Eventually, through public records requests, Morton's defenders found investigators' reports that raised questions about the prosecution's case. One report said Christine Morton's missing Visa card had been used in San Antonio days after the murder by a woman local police said had a criminal record, and a check made out to Christine Morton was cashed nine days after her death, her signature forged.

A report by a sheriff's investigator said that before the murder, one of the Mortons' neighbors had seen a man repeatedly park a green van on the street behind the Mortons' house, get out and walk around. The note, dated the day after the murder, said another neighbor might know where the man lived.

Christine Morton's mother had reported to investigators that the couple's son, Eric, had witnessed the killing and provided a detailed account of how a man he called "the monster" beat his mother to death while his father was gone. Prosecutors received a transcript of her account, records showed.

"Any trial judge who would have seen this would have turned it over to the defense," Scheck said.

But when Morton's legal team persuaded another judge to open the sealed envelope in August, none of that material was inside. All it contained was a consent form Morton signed allowing for the search of his home and pickup truck and a five-page report from the lead investigator.

After Morton was released from prison Oct. 4, the state bar began examining alleged misconduct by prosecutors.

Williamson County Dist. Atty. John Bradley defended his handling of the case. "The envelope — nobody even knew about it or thought about it until the Innocence Project asked that it be unsealed," Bradley said in an interview. "We all expected it to have more documents in it."

In October, a judge compelled former Williamson County Sgt. Don Wood, the lead investigator in the case, to testify under oath behind closed doors.

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