When Innocent Prisoners Finally Go Free, Their Prosecutors Do, Too

On the trail for justice with Texas' exonerees.

It was DNA evidence that ultimately freed Morton. When a bloody bandana was tested after a long battle against it, the DNA matched not Morton's but that of Mark Allen Norwood, who had committed similar crimes. Morton was released in October. District Attorney John Bradley, who'd fought Morton's DNA testing for years, lost his recent bid for re-election largely because of his handling of this case.

"On a personal level, I wanted to know why they did this to me," Morton says.

His lawyers prepared a report requesting a Court of Inquiry, a special hearing to determine whether there's enough evidence of misconduct by Ken Anderson, the prosecutor in Morton's case, to pursue criminal charges. Contempt of court, tampering with evidence, tampering with government records: Morton's team says Anderson did it all. (Anderson's attorney, Eric Nichols, denies that the prosecutor committed a crime.) A judge approved the Court of Inquiry, scheduled to begin September 11.

Dallas District Attorney Craig Watkins (left) and Russell Wilson of the Conviction Integrity Unit have made their names pursuing innocence claims.
Mark Graham
Dallas District Attorney Craig Watkins (left) and Russell Wilson of the Conviction Integrity Unit have made their names pursuing innocence claims.
Michael Morton was wrongfully convicted of murdering his wife. He’s now trying to get the prosecutor on his case charged with a crime.
Drew Gaines
Michael Morton was wrongfully convicted of murdering his wife. He’s now trying to get the prosecutor on his case charged with a crime.

Details

It's unclear whether the statute of limitations has passed on the alleged crimes. Morton's lawyers claim the clock starts when the wrongdoing is discovered, not when it's committed. Regardless, they say, the Court of Inquiry is designed to determine whether there is probable cause that a crime has occurred, not whether too much time has passed to pursue charges. Anderson's lawyers expect that the statued of limitation will come into play as procedings progress.

In September, if the evidence supports an indictment but nothing comes of it because of statute of limitations or other variables, Henson, of Grits for Breakfast, says, "The message may simply be that we don't have any effective mechanisms to hold prosecutors accountable."

If nothing else, Morton's case has shone a light down a previously uncharted path. But procedurally, Morton's tactic is far from a silver bullet. It requires an especially agreeable judge and an abundance of legal resources.

Morton's lawyers have asked the judge to forward their findings to the State Bar, but it's also unclear whether the statute of limitations has expired for that. (The four-year window opens when the misconduct is committed — except in cases of fraud, in which case it opens when the misconduct is discovered.)

In other words: There's almost no way to pursue justice against even the worst-offending prosecutor.

"I don't know what legally you can do," says Dallas District Attorney Craig Watkins, who has made his name correcting the work of police and prosecutors. "You can't have him disbarred because there's a statute against that, you can't pursue a criminal case against him because there's a statute against that. I don't know what you can do."

Watkins says he would fire a prosecutor who knowingly withheld evidence and would consider filing criminal charges in extreme cases. When he took office, he fired several prosecutors who he felt were out of line with his philosophy, and others resigned. About 15 left in total, he says, including Miles' prosecutor, D'Amore.

He'd like more options to exist, he says. He's part of a Texas District and County Attorneys Association committee that's charged with issuing a report on misconduct later this summer. He'll advocate for "reforms," he says, but won't elaborate.

A similar conversation is expected to heat up in Austin next year. Senator Rodney Ellis of Houston, who has pursued legislation relating to innocent prisoners, says he'll pursue discovery reform — tightening the rules that govern what and how lawyers exchange information — as well as written guidelines for internal discipline in district attorneys' offices, among other reforms.

Morton, meanwhile, says he will use his case as a catalyst for more accountability.

"All that would really be required from a legal point of view is have prosecutors liable if they're caught suppressing exculpatory evidence or make it some procedural law that they would be liable for a small fine and be lost of their law license," he says, pointing to the way doctors and others lose their licenses for inflicting harm.

And already, he's pointing the way for Richard Miles, who's now plotting his next move after filing his grievance. Miles doesn't know much about a Court of Inquiry, but he's considering sitting in on it in September "just out of curiosity and knowledge," he says. "I want to take this step by step."

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7 comments
Debbie Zimm
Debbie Zimm

Once again we have the cases revisited. Kerry Max Cook needs to be exonerated. The story of MM is tragic, and I'm glad he is charging for reform. You can not give prosecuteors total immunity and listen to them say, "Trust me". Isolated instances don't cut it!! Imagine for a moment: You are cuffed in prison whites before the court... "I am the State of Texas and I've indicted you." "I am a prosecutor, my office will lie, cheat and fabricate evidence to convict you, guilty or not. We have a murder and our office needs a conviction. My political career is at stake and far more important than your life, liberty or pursuit of happiness. (smile) I am willing to withhold evidence and support police perjury. I am a prosecutor, untouchable, invinceable!! The State of Texas won't touch me!!" "Bow down heathen, plead guilty or accept the unchallenged power of the State!!" "You have a pathetic defense attorney. We have not given him all the evidence and we will press on to crush him and you." "The press will not report your case or do anything until you have spent minimum 25 years in prison, not enough drama!!" "How do you plea - heathen?" Well that's nice, but people are fighting back now. Tomorrow Rockwall County's 389th District court will hold the 10th due diligence hearing on this fugitive. After evading the law for 6 years and going public with documented police perjury and withheld evidence by the District Attorney... The original District Attorney (Billl Conradt) comitted suicide, but the current regime continues to fly the flag of corruption in the face of hard evidence: https://docs.google.com/document/d/1nyzlyOROVYLQSaCXMlbQixwSK_rcP9uhXMJ4tg7LV9c/edit?pli=1 The Rockwall County Disrtict Attorney's Office has pages of documented corruption, including Sumrow's conviction of theft by a public servant and the national coverage of Conradt's suicide while being served an arrest warant: Louis William "Bill" Conradt, Jr. (January 30, 1950 – November 5, 2006) was a district attorney in Texas. He became inextricably linked to Dateline NBC's To Catch a Predator, a TV series which conducted sting operations against suspected sexual predators. Local law enforcement conducted a sting operation that identified Conradt as a suspect and Dateline cameras recorded the events that followed. Conradt fatally shot himself upon encountering SWAT team members that were serving an arrest warrant at his home. So this fellow Conradt was the District Attorney in David Swingle's suppression hearing - transcript as referenced in the above letter. Do you think this guy grew a halo at work? Get real, the police searched the car illegally, falsified the police report, stood up in court, lied about almost everything and Mr. Conradt Jr. withheld the evidence and went on to commit suicide. The Rockwall DA's office supports this and plows on with the 10th due diligence hearing on this matter tomorrow. Yes, this all happened, documented yet the cover up and corruption continues.

Skepticalgirl
Skepticalgirl

Craig Watkins is one of the few prosecutors in world, not just the United States. in making sure a case has integrity than in maintaining his conviction rate. His attitude is revolutionary in the field of criminal justice, and, were more prosecutors like him, trials would be less costly and we wouldn't see sad stories like this. Apparently, the Morning News (or, as a former DMN reporter and close friend says, the "Lying" Morning News) would rather have someone like Henry Wade than Watkins. It's a shame, because he is a treasure for this county and a good example for young lawyers to follow.

Halldecker
Halldecker

Ask Reed to recall the sign in the prosecutor's offices in the 70's and 80's, he likely had one: IT'S EASY TO CONVICT THE GUILTY. IT'S THE INNOCENT WHO MAKE US WORK HARD. If he can't, ask some of the Judges who practiced back then. I had lunch with one today, he remembers it when he was a prosecutor. He also remembered nearly every prosecutor's office had it. That was the culture under the "legendary Mr. Henry Wade." All these cases are from super-tough-on-crime-Repub DA's. Win-loss percentage was all that mattered.

Debbie Zimm
Debbie Zimm

The press is simply regurgitating these high profile cases while lots of misconduct is happening right now. If it is happening in this many high profile cases, extrapolate that to all cases and the numbers are truly epidemic. It happens every day in lots of courts. Until the press reports it and the people become aware, nothing will change. The State Bar did nothing with John Bradly, but the INFORMED people swiftly voted him out of office.

wrongfully accused
wrongfully accused

Keep thinking only gang bangers who "had it coming" get wrongfully prosecuted. It could happen to you even if you are a college graduate who has held 2 licenses with the state and a clean record for 28 years.

alison hicks
alison hicks

Sad how the entire System takes there Power and Control to take innocent lives away from Freedom!

Andy Myers
Andy Myers

Not in Texas! Surely you jest! This state is a mockery of criminal justice but no one cares as long as these morons talk "tough on crime."

 
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