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John Bradley's Loss as Williamson County D.A. Was a Win for Craig Watkins and Innocence

John Bradley, Williamson County District Attorney
John Bradley, Williamson County District Attorney

If Dallas District Attorney Craig Watkins has a direct foil in the state of Texas, it's soon-to-be-former Williamson County District Attorney John Bradley.

Watkins, actively pursuing innocence claims and making Dallas the leading county for exonerations in Texas, is an outlier, albeit one who is gaining supporters around the country for his tough-but-nice-guy legal philosophies. Meanwhile, Bradley upholds a reputation for being relentlessly tough on crime -- and innocence.

But in yesterday's primaries, Bradley, a 10-year incumbent, lost to Jana Duty, the County Attorney, by 10 percentage points, after Duty harped on the fact that Bradley worked hard to prevent DNA testing for Michael Morton, who was found innocent of killing his wife and was released after 25 years in prison.

Lawyers defending Morton allege that he would not have been wrongfully convicted if prosecutor, Ken Anderson, had not deliberately withheld evidence that pointed to his innocence. Anderson faces a Court of Inquiry in September and has denied any wrongdoing, and Bradley has been portrayed as acting in support of his predecessor by fighting DNA testing on the bloody bandana, eventually the key to Morton's freedom.

Bradley has told the Texas Tribune he was "deeply challenged" by what he had been through in the Morton case. It seemed the experience caused him to warm up to the idea of justice for the innocence in time for the election -- but it wasn't enough to tip the scales.

In an interview before Tuesday's election, Gary Udashen, president of the Innocence Project of Texas, made it clear that voters in Williamson County were casting ballots that would have statewide implications for the innocence movement.

"If John Bradley loses his election in Williamson county, then that's a loud message to prosecutors all over the state is that there actually are consequences to engaging in prosecutorial misconduct," Udashen said. He pointed to the fact that many innocence cases, both those that include DNA evidence (like Morton's) and those that do not, include instances where prosecutors either deliberately or mistakenly withhold evidence in support of a person's innocence.

In an NPR interview in January of 2011, the differing philosophies of Bradley and Watkins were on blast as the two top prosecutors bickered on-air, Bradley criticizing Watkins for basking in the spotlight and Watkins harping on the idea of seeking justice, not just convictions.

"I hope you remember that you have other elected prosecutors in Texas who have been doing many of these same things," Bradley said, pointing out that just because an office doesn't have a special division dedicated to freeing innocent prisoners doesn't mean they don't have traditional channels for doing so.

"You enjoy the national media, you enjoy the attention that you get. We have a lot of prosecutors who don't seek that. They seek justice by reviewing these cases carefully and making sure that a guilty violent person is not released," Bradley said.

Watkins response is more true today than ever: "Well obviously that didn't work."


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