Exoneration shakes certitude of tough prosecutor
GEORGETOWN — John Bradley is a man evolving.
A supremely confident and legendarily tough Texas prosecutor, Bradley says he is learning some of the most important — and humbling — lessons of his 24-year career. It’s a painful process, he says. It is also highly public.
“I have been through a series of events that deeply challenged me,” Bradley, the Williamson County district attorney, said during an extended interview with The Texas Tribune. “I recognized that I could be angry, resentful and react to people, or I could look for the overall purpose and lesson and apply it to not only my own professional life but teach it. And I chose the latter path.”
In the last two years, Bradley and his trademark sharp tongue have been at the center of two of the most controversial murder cases in Texas. In 2009, as chairman of the Texas Forensic Science Commission, he and the New York-based Innocence Project battled aggressively over re-examining the case of Cameron Todd Willingham, the Corsicana man executed in 2004 for igniting the 1991 arson blaze that killed his three daughters. For six years, Bradley also fought the Innocence Project’s efforts to exonerate Michael Morton, who was wrongly convicted of murdering his wife under Bradley’s then boss in Williamson County 25 years ago.
Bradley discovered that not only was he wrong all those years about Morton’s guilt, of which he had been so certain, but that there are serious questions about whether his predecessor may have committed the worst kind of prosecutorial misconduct: hiding evidence that ultimately allowed the real murderer to remain free to kill again.
Some of Bradley’s critics are skeptical of his self-professed transformation, and they say it can’t atone for the years that his stubbornness allowed Morton to remain wrongly imprisoned. But some are hopeful that his lesson will lead other prosecutors to acknowledge that science can reveal and help correct flaws in the state’s criminal justice system.
“He is, I think, a reasonably principled guy who is a complete product of a system that is finally giving way to a new day here in Texas and the rest of the country,” said Jeff Blackburn, general counsel for the Innocence Project of Texas.
Bradley grew up as a prosecutor in his hometown of Houston under Harris County District Attorney Johnny Holmes, working there from 1987-1989. With his handlebar mustache waxed into perfect curls above his lip, Holmes was the iconic Texas prosecutor. From 1992 until 2000, while Holmes was in office, Harris County sent 111 defendants to death row, according to a 2010 report by Drake University Law School professor David McCord.
“He was a true Texas lawman,” Bradley said, drinking coffee at a diner across from Georgetown’s historic courthouse. “It was an honor to learn while working in his office.”
The workload was crushing. He worked 70 hours each week in an office where defense lawyers were viewed as hostile enemies. “I always felt like I was swimming among sharks,” he said. “And you had to defend yourself, and you have to be the same predator back.”
Rob Kepple, the executive director of the Texas District and County Attorneys Association, worked with Bradley in Harris County. Under Holmes, he said, they were taught a prosecutor’s first job is to be tough.
“Your citizens expect you to fight crime,” Kepple said. “They expect you to stand up for them. Our job is to be tough, tough but fair.”
When Bradley and his wife Leslie decided to expand their family, he said, they moved to Williamson County, a place that was smaller, but had a reputation for being just as tough on crime.
Williamson County District Attorney Ken Anderson hired Bradley, and he set up office with a card table, a folding chair and an old Mac Classic computer in the courthouse hallway.
“It was a tremendous culture shock,” he said.
It wasn’t just the plain digs. Almost immediately, Bradley said, he realized he couldn’t treat defense lawyers like “sharks” in this small community. “Your professional relationship is an important part of being a lawyer, something I did not develop in Houston that I’m still working on,” he said.
They may have been nicer, but that didn’t mean prosecutors weren’t tough. Juries and judges in Williamson County meted out long sentences.
Through the years, Bradley developed a close relationship with his boss. They co-wrote two law books. Under Anderson, he began working with lawmakers at the Capitol, just a 30-minute drive south of Georgetown. When Gov. Rick Perry appointed Anderson as a state judge in 2002, he also appointed Bradley to take over as district attorney.
Mark Brunner, who is now a criminal defense lawyer in Georgetown, spent two years working in Bradley’s office. He described him as a “hands-on” prosecutor who didn’t allow his assistants much discretion in decision-making about their cases. And he said Bradley did not encourage prosecutors to be friendly with defense lawyers.
“They’re expected to be tough always and hard always,” Brunner said, “and if you deviate off that you better have a damn good reason.”
When Bradley arrived in Williamson County in 1989, Michael Morton had already been in prison for two years. Anderson prosecuted Morton for the 1986 murder of Morton’s wife, Christine. He told jurors that Morton brutally beat his wife to death after she refused him sex on the night of his 32nd birthday. The jury sentenced him to life in prison.
Like many convicted criminals, Morton maintained his innocence, arguing that an intruder must have killed his wife after he left for work in the morning. In 2005, Morton began asking the state to test DNA evidence on a number of items, including a bloody blue bandana found near their home the day after the murder.
Bradley tenaciously fought the requests. In the press, he berated the idea that DNA would lead to some “mystery killer.” And he said Morton’s lawyers were “grasping at straws.”
“Once a prosecutor has a case in which he or someone else has achieved a conviction where a body of people have been convinced beyond reasonable doubt someone is guilty and then sentenced them, the presumption becomes that that is a justified verdict that the prosecutor must defend,” Bradley said, explaining his opposition to Morton’s requests.
Morton’s lawyers also asked Bradley, through public information requests, for investigative materials in the case. From the time of his conviction, Morton’s lawyers suspected that prosecutors had withheld key evidence that could have caused jurors to doubt his guilt. Bradley fought that request, too, arguing it would interfere with the DNA litigation.
Eventually, Bradley lost that fight and turned over the files. Reports from the Sheriff’s Department showed that in 1987 investigators had several clues that pointed to someone other than Morton as the killer. There was a transcript in which Morton’s mother-in-law told a sheriff’s deputy that the couple’s 3-year-old son saw a “monster” with a big mustache attack his mother — and the monster wasn’t his father. There were reports that Morton’s credit card had been used and a check had been cashed with her forged signature days after her death. Morton’s lawyers, though, had seen none of that information during his trial.
While Houston lawyer John Raley of the law firm Raley Bowick, and the Innocence Project fought with the prosecutor in court to get the scientific testing done that they believed could exonerate Morton, a separate and unrelated conflict was unfolding.
The governor appointed Bradley to lead the Texas Forensic Science Commission just as it embarked on a highly controversial investigation of the Willingham case. The Innocence Project had filed a complaint alleging negligence and misconduct in the arson investigation. It also wanted the commission to require the State Fire Marshal’s Office to review other arson cases to determine whether mistakes were made that resulted in wrongful convictions. The commission was set to hear a report from nationally recognized fire scientist Craig Beyler that raised questions about whether Texas had executed an innocent man.
Bradley abruptly canceled the meeting, and the pace of the Willingham investigation slowed dramatically. The Innocence Project alleged that Bradley was protecting the governor from potential political fallout during his gubernatorial re-election season. Bradley countered that Barry Scheck, the Innocence Project’s co-founder, and others, were using the commission to attack their real target — the death penalty. Conducting such an investigation, Bradley argued, was outside the commission’s authority.
There were finger-wagging shouting matches. Bradley called Willingham a “guilty monster.” Protesters lined up at commission meetings and carried signs with messages like “John Bradley is a tool … of Rick Perry.”
“It was hostile,” Bradley said last week.
Eventually, lawmakers intervened, and the Texas Senate declined to confirm Bradley’s appointment to remain on the commission. After Bradley left the board, the Texas attorney general produced an opinion agreeing with him that the panel did not have authority to investigate the Willingham case or others that took place before the commission’s 2005 creation.
“I think ultimately I was proved correct,” he said. Still, the commission finished a report on the Willingham case that includes Bradley’s work and has paved the way for an unprecedented review of older arson cases.
While the Willingham controversy continued in 2010, the Morton case was beginning to unravel. An appeals court ordered the prosecutor’s office to allow DNA testing on the bandana found near the murder scene. In June, the test results revealed that Christine Morton’s blood was mixed with the hair of a man who was not her husband. In August, a national DNA database search matched that DNA to a felon with a record in California.
But it wasn’t just the DNA.
The court in August also ordered the unsealing of a file that was supposed to contain all of the reports from the initial investigation of Morton’s murder. During a dispute in 1987 over evidence, the judge had ordered Anderson, the prosecutor, to provide him all of the investigator’s reports so that he could determine whether there was any information that could help Morton prove his innocence.
When that file was opened two decades later, Bradley and Morton’s lawyers found a paltry six pages of police reports.
Both Bradley and Morton’s lawyers knew that there were many more pages. Despite his order, the judge was not given the transcript that included the Mortons’ son’s description of the murder or the financial transactions that occurred after Morton’s death.
For the defense attorneys, it seemed to confirm their suspicions: The prosecutor’s office had withheld critical information so they could secure a conviction. For Bradley, the development was a shocking revelation that raised serious questions about his former boss and friend.
“I fully expected that that sealed file would contradict some pretty strong accusations,” Bradley said. “It didn’t.”
Then came another, perhaps even bigger bombshell.
In September, Travis County investigators linked the DNA from the Morton bandana to DNA found on a hair at the scene of the 1988 murder of Debra Masters Baker. The man whose DNA was on those items during the 1980s lived only blocks away from Baker and about 12 miles away from the Morton’s home.
“It’s the kind of thing that happens only in Hollywood movies,” Bradley said. “I am still awed by the combination of circumstances that came together at the right time.”
Within days of the DNA match, he came to an unusual agreement with Morton’s lawyers, including Barry Scheck — the attorney he’d engaged in hostilities with during the Willingham inquiry — to release Morton from prison and to allow an investigation of potential wrongdoing by Anderson.
“Who would’ve thought that one of the strangest conclusions in all of this, is I consider Barry Scheck a good friend,” Bradley said.
Because of the continuing investigation, Bradley won’t say whether he believes Anderson knowingly hid exculpatory evidence. But, for now, he said, their personal relationship is gone. “It saddens me, but that’s the facts,” he said.
In his first public comments about the case this week, Anderson acknowledged the outcome in the Morton prosecution was wrong and said he is anguished over the results, both Morton’s wrongful imprisonment and Baker’s death at the hands of the murderer he didn’t catch. He denied any wrongdoing. “In my heart, I know there was no misconduct whatsoever,” Anderson said.
Bradley said he regrets that his opposition to DNA testing over the last six years meant more time behind bars for an innocent man. He also regrets sending letters to the Texas Board of Pardons and Paroles urging them to keep Morton locked away.
Had he known then what he knows now about the Innocence Project and Scheck, he said he might have handled the Willingham case differently, too.
This experience has taught him to be more open-minded, to try to see cases from both sides, he said. Bradley emphasized that his office is more open than his predecessor’s was. And in the future, when defense lawyers bring him cases to review, Bradley said, he will have a new perspective.
“If I had to come up with a slogan,” Bradley said, “I don’t know that I would use it, but essentially the slogan would be ‘We are more than tough on crime.’”
Some of his critics, though, see Bradley’s contrition as too little, too late. And they note that he is facing re-election next year. They want more than words.
“The jury is still out on whether those words will manifest themselves into real actions to help fix what is clearly a broken justice system,” said state Sen. Rodney Ellis, D-Houston, chairman of the Innocence Project.
Scott Henson, who writes the well-regarded criminal justice blog Grits for Breakfast, said Bradley could demonstrate his changed perspective by joining with innocence advocates to promote reforms to the Texas justice system. “He’s got a long record,” Henson said. “And it will take more than a few words of humility to get everyone to believe that he’s had some road to Damascus moment.”
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