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Jana Duty: The Texas Tribune Interview

The Williamson County attorney on how the Michael Morton case inspired her to run against Williamson County District Attorney John Bradley, and her concerns that his office could still allow the same mistakes.

Jana Duty, TT interview December 2011.

Jana Duty is taking on a giant figure in Texas politics: Williamson County District Attorney John Bradley.

The Williamson County attorney since 2005, Duty sat down with the Tribune in her Georgetown home on Tuesday, just before publicly announcing she would run against Bradley in the Republican primary. She talked about how the Michael Morton case inspired her to seek higher office and her concerns that, despite Bradley professing that the now-famous innocence case has changed his outlook, policies in the office could still allow for wrongful convictions.

Morton was convicted in 1987 of murdering his wife, but DNA tests this year showed that another man was likely responsible for the killing. After nearly 25 years in prison, Morton was freed in October. His lawyers are now investigating whether Bradley's predecessor, now-Williamson County District Judge Ken Anderson, deliberately withheld evidence that could have prevented Morton's wrongful conviction.

Bradley has said that his office is much different from Anderson's and that he has an open-file policy that would prevent a similar situation from unfolding today. Although for six years he opposed the DNA testing that ultimately exonerated Morton, Bradley said the case has given him new perspective on defense attorneys and his duty to keep an open mind when it comes to claims of innocence.

Duty said she's not buying Bradley's reformation story and that as district attorney she would make seeking justice the priority over securing convictions. "He hasn't changed the policies and procedures in his office that resulted in that case going wrong," she said. "So, you know, actions speak louder than words."

Bradley rejected Duty's criticisms and said she lacks the necessary experience to do his job. "She has never even tried a case, handled an appeal or decided whether to seek the death penalty," Bradley said in an emailed response. "I have served as district attorney for 10 years, running an independent, modern office that applies the best practices available in our profession. Williamson County has a well-deserved reputation as a place where the law is enforced equally and appropriately."

Bradley referred to a reprimand against Duty from the State Bar of Texas — related to documents she released that were distributed in a confidential executive session — and said, "That suggests she isn't capable of performing her current job, much less new, more complex responsibilities."

Whoever wins the Republican primary will have a Democratic opponent in the general election — Georgetown attorney Ken Crain. 

An edited and condensed video and transcript of the interview are below.

TT: Tell us about your background.

Duty: I decided that there really needed to be some changes in the county attorney's office. I was really disappointed with the way the office was running. What I was told repeatedly was, "We don't run against incumbents in this county." And I just thought that was kind of crazy, because coming from San Antonio when I moved to Williamson county I felt like I had stepped back in time about 50 years with the attitudes here. And nobody else would do it, so true to my nature I said well if nobody else will do it I will.

TT: What have you accomplished as county attorney?

Duty: I believe I've completely turned that office around. We've doubled the number of protective orders we get for victims of family violence. We've collected over $7 million in hot check restitution and fees for the merchants of Williamson County. I ran on a platform of kind of keeping the good old boys in check, and I think I've done a good job at that at some personal cost.

TT: What sparked your interest in running for district attorney?

Duty: When I worked for the county attorney back in 1999 and 2000, I was very baffled by how archaic our system is here in Williamson County. The goal seemed to be more about your reputation and your statistics than seeking justice. Over the last four years, I have seen just a continuation of the policies and procedures in the district attorneys office that are disappointing and I believe that don't adhere to what prosecutors are supposed to be doing and that is seeking justice. So I've had just numerous people approaching me, asking me again if I would be interested in running for this position. And I really wasn't interested until the Michael Morton case broke. 

I was so ashamed that I was from Williamson County because of the shame that case brought on this county. So I started listening to the Morton hearings and going down and listening to how that case was handled. And again, [I was] baffled by how that could have happened.

What has led me now to say this is why I'm doing this, and this is why I need to seek this office is because the policies and procedures that were in place back under Ken Anderson 20 years ago are still the policies and procedures that are in place today under John Bradley.

It's time we come to the 21st century with how we run the DA's office.

TT: Do you believe that John Bradley has truly changed his prosecutorial philosophy?

Duty: I hear John saying that he's had an epiphany and that he realizes what went wrong, but yet he hasn't changed the policies and procedures in his office that resulted in that case going wrong. So, you know, actions speak louder than words.

TT: Would Williamson County still be tough on crime?

Duty: The fact that John Bradley comes forward and touts his reputation for being tough on crime is somewhat of a farce, because there are certain levels of cases in the DA's office and how they are treated. For example, there are cases that are considered by prosecutors as "laydown" cases. Those are cases that have a ton of evidence and a first-year law student could try it and get a conviction. Those cases, obviously, are the cases that get paraded. They are offered the maximum sentence, and if they don't take the maximum, they are taken to trial and juries and judges give them the maximum.

At this point, they are pleading down roughly a fourth of the felony cases to misdemeanors. And then you have the other tier of cases, and that is of you are a public official, you are basically immune from prosecution. So I think that we need to start truly being tough on crime and prosecuting more aggressively the circumstantial cases and the cases where public officials are getting out of line.

TT: What is your message to Williamson County voters?

Duty: The message I will have is a district attorney's job is to seek justice, and that's what I will do. A district attorney's job is to treat everybody fairly. No one should be immune from prosecution.

It's going to be a competitive race, because he has name recognition. He's well known and in some circles well respected.

I recently did a poll, a survey, to see how the people out in the general public feel about the job that he's doing. Do they echo the concerns that are being echoed in the courthouse? And what I found is that they do. They are concerned. I think a lot of people want to see change, and I don't believe they see John Bradley the way he sees himself.

So that was encouraging to me that with the proper message, getting the truth out about the way that office really runs, that he can be beat.

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Courts Criminal justice 2012 elections Michael Morton