A state judge Tuesday declined to remove firebrand Williamson County District Attorney John Bradley from investigating the case of Michael Morton, whose 1987 murder conviction has been called into question after new DNA evidence suggests someone else killed his wife.
District court judge Billy Ray Stubblefield, who has been on the bench since 1993, said he was not prepared to take “the extraordinary act” of recusing Bradley. He said he had a “high degree of confidence” in the two assistant district attorneys in Bradley’s office handling the appeal and that he would “take this case as seriously as any case that has come before me in 19 years on this court.” Morton's lawyers, who include attorneys with the Innocence Project, a New York-based nonprofit, had demanded that Bradley be removed from the case.
Morton's wife, Christine, was killed in their home in 1986. At trial, prosecutors argued that the then 32 year-old Morton beat his wife to death when she said she was too tired to have sex with him after they came home from celebrating his birthday. Morton was sentenced to life in prison but has always maintained his innocence, saying an intruder committed the crime after he left for work early the next morning.
Earlier this month, after the Texas Department of Public Safety ran new DNA results through the national convicted-offender DNA database, prosecutors and defense attorneys were informed that the results matched a man whose blood had been collected at some point by law enforcement authorities in California. Last week, California authorities confirmed the match.
During today's hearing, John Raley, the Houston lawyer who has represented Morton since 2003, asked the court to appoint a special prosecutor to review Morton's appeal. He said Bradley, the former chairman of the Texas Forensic Science Commission, deliberately suppressed evidence that cast doubt on his client's guilt and has publicly expressed scorn for his co-counsel, the Innocence Project. He also questioned why, after learning of the new DNA results, Bradley’s office had taken a week to obtain the name of the new suspect.
“There's a man in prison, there's a suspect on the loose, this is serious,” he said.
Assistant District Attorney Kristen Jernigan said that upon discovering the new DNA evidence, her office immediately began an investigation, and she disputed any allegations that Bradley withheld or delayed handing over evidence. Jernigan said that she, not Bradley, was in charge of the investigation.
As for the hostile relationship between Bradley and the Innocence Project, the organization that dogged Bradley in his former role as the chairman of the Forensic Science Commission, she said that while “it's well known that Mr. Bradley and [Innocence Project Director] Mr. Scheck aren’t friends,” it was not enough to require his recusal from the case. Bradley himself did not attend the hearing.
At the center of Morton's appeal are the June DNA results obtained from a bloody bandana that had been found at a construction site near the couple’s home shortly after the murder. For six years, Bradley fought advanced DNA testing of the bandana and other evidence, saying Morton's attorneys were searching for a “mystery man” and “grasping at straws.” The 3rd Court of Appeals ultimately ruled in Morton's favor and ordered the testing last year. The results revealed that commingled with Christine Morton’s hair, sweat and blood on the bandana was the DNA of a man who was not Michael Morton.
Raley said his own “informal” investigations of the new suspect, who is still at large, revealed he had a history of drug abuse and assault.
In addition to the DNA evidence, Raley said Bradley fought to keep under wraps a sheriff's department interview with Morton's mother-in-law conducted days after the 1986 murder in which she said the couple's young son had witnessed the crime. She said her grandson, 3 years old at the time, told her that a man who was "not Daddy" killed his mother. Raley also questioned whether the trial judge at the time had ever seen the document.
His arguments failed to move Stubblefield, who came to a quick decision. The judge told the parties they would convene in two weeks to review the progress of the investigation, and ordered them to refrain from making any comments to the media until then.
“Ultimately it is this court who will make the decision on findings of fact and conclusions of law,” he said. “I will be looking for the truth. That is what this courtroom is for.”