New DNA test results in a 25-year-old murder case show that another man, not Michael Morton, likely killed Christine Morton, who was found dead in her Williamson County home on Aug. 13, 1986, Morton's attorneys say. The attorneys have also asked a court to recuse John Bradley, the Williamson County district attorney and former chairman of the Texas Forensic Science Commission, from the case, saying that for years he didn't release evidence he knew could prove Morton, 57, did not murder his wife.
“It’s clear from the new DNA testing and other suppressed, exculpatory documents that law enforcement never followed up on numerous leads pointing to a third-party intruder, which might have solved the crime," Barry Scheck, co-director of the New York-based Innocence Project, said in a statement. "But even more troubling, District Attorney Bradley knew about this evidence, yet kept these documents hidden in the state’s file while he fought tooth and nail to bar DNA testing.”
Reached via email today, Bradley said that the "rules of professional conduct restrict public comment on matters that are pending in court," but he added that his office would diligently pursue new evidence in the case. "We will not engage in personal attacks, false accusations or political retaliation," Bradley said.
Michael Morton was sentenced to life in prison in 1987 after prosecutors told jurors that he had bludgeoned to death his wife, Christine Morton, when she refused to have sex with him after they came home from celebrating his birthday. There were no witnesses, and Michael Morton had no history of violent crime.
But Morton has always maintained his innocence, suggesting that an intruder must have killed his wife, who was found dead in their bed, after he left the house for work that morning. For more than six years, Morton and his lawyers tried to obtain DNA and other evidence from Bradley's office to conduct testing that might indicate whether another person had committed the crime.
The Texas Third Court of Appeals granted the testing last year, and in June, lawyers received the results of DNA analysis on a bandana found at a construction site about 100 yards away from the Morton's home. The analysis showed that the victim's hair and blood were mingled with that of a male who was not Morton. When the other man's DNA was searched in a national DNA database of convicted offenders, it returned a match for a man who had been arrested in California.
Other evidence the Innocence Project obtained through a public information request showed that Christine Morton's mother told police that the couple's 3-year-old son told her he had seen someone he described as a "monster" with red gloves kill his mother — someone who wasn't his father. In addition, documents the lawyers received — over objections Bradley made to the Texas Attorney General's Office — from the original Williamson County investigation indicate that neighbors reported seeing a mysterious green van in the neighborhood and a man who got out and walked into a wooded area nearby. A note to an investigator indicated that someone in San Antonio had fraudulently used Christine Morton's credit card.
Morton's lawyers today asked a judge to appoint another prosecutor to investigate the suspect identified by the new DNA analysis.
In addition to their arguments that Bradley intentionally withheld exculpatory evidence, lawyers for the Innocence Project wrote that his repeated derogatory remarks about the organization prove that he cannot investigate the new evidence in an unbiased manner. During his term as chairman of the Forensic Science Commission, Bradley generated a firestorm of controversy over his handling of the investigation of arson science used to convict Cameron Todd Willingham, a case led by the Innocence Project. Hostilities between Bradley and the Innocence Project mounted, and in news reports, the district attorney called the group's legal efforts to posthumously exonerate Willingham, among other things, "a circus sideshow."
"That Mr. Bradley has made no secret of his disdain for Mr. Morton's counsel would arguably be enough to question whether he can fairly be tasked with leading the sensitive reinvestigation into Christine Morton's death," lawyers wrote in their motion to recuse.
"Unfortunately, we now know that the district attorney’s office knew all along that there was a good chance that the testing might point to another perpetrator in the case,” said John Raley, a Houston lawyer who has been pro bono co-counsel for Morton since 2003. “We’re hopeful the court will appoint a new prosecutor to investigate the matter because there is now a mountain of evidence pointing to Michael’s innocence, and the entire Morton family deserves to know the truth about what happened 25 years ago.”
Editor's note: This story has been corrected to reflect that the Texas Third Court of Appeals, not the Texas Court of Criminal Appeals, granted DNA testing in Morton's case last year.