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John Raley: The TT Interview

Michael Morton's lawyer on the fight to obtain DNA testing that ultimately proved Morton's innocence in the death of his wife.

Attorney John Raley in his Houston office, Jan. 6, 2012

John Raley knew that Michael Morton was innocent from the time they met. The Houston civil trial lawyer, who had never taken a criminal case before, spent nearly seven years fighting to see Morton exonerated of his wife's murder and released from prison.

In October, Morton was freed, and his conviction and life sentence have since been overturned. Raley sat down with the Tribune in his office at Raley & Bowick in Houston last week to talk about the long, frustrating fight to obtain DNA testing that ultimately proved Morton's innocence, the lessons he has learned from the tragic case and Morton's life after prison.

Morton was convicted in 1987 in his wife's brutal beating death. He always maintained his innocence, but then-Williamson County District Attorney Ken Anderson convinced the jury that Morton smashed in his wife's head with hunks of wood in a sex-crazed rage after she denied his advances the night of his birthday.

Morton insisted that an intruder must have killed her after he left for work early in the morning. Anderson, however, told the jury that the state of his wife's stomach contents proved that she died before he left for work. He was sentenced to life in prison.

In 2005, lawyers from the New York-based Innocence Project asked Raley to take on the case pro bono, because in his civil practice he had experience with cases involving medical science. When he examined Morton's case, Raley said, he was struck by how little evidence there was connecting Morton to the murder, and he submitted a request to the court for DNA testing that wasn't available at the time of the trial.

But Williamson County District Attorney John Bradley, who had taken over from Anderson, objected to the testing. It took a court ruling in 2010 to force DNA analysis on a blue bandana that was found about 100 yards away from the crime scene. The results showed that Christine Morton's blood was mixed with the hair of a man who was not Michael Morton.

The DNA matched that of a man with a long criminal history. The same DNA was also connected to another Austin murder that had long gone cold. Law enforcement officials identified his DNA on a pubic hair found at the scene of Debra Masters Baker's 1988 murder. Like Christine Morton, she had beaten to death in her bed. The man whose DNA was identified, Mark Norwood, was arrested in November and charged with Christine Morton's murder. He is also considered a suspect in Baker's death.

As the sides squabbled over the DNA testing, Morton's lawyers also discovered that there was other evidence back in 1986 when the murder happened that indicated someone else killed Christine Morton. There was a transcript of a conversation between the lead investigator and Christine Morton's mother in which she told the sergeant that the couple's 3-year-old son, Eric, described the murderer to her: a "monster" with a big moustache who was not his father. There were reports from neighbors of a suspicious man who seemed to be casing the Mortons' home. And there were reports that the victim's credit card had been used and a check with her forged signature had been cashed after her death.

Morton's lawyers allege that then-prosecutor Ken Anderson knew about that evidence and that he deliberately withheld it from the trial judge and from Morton's lawyers. They've asked Bexar County State District Judge Sid Harle to convene a court of inquiry to determine whether Anderson should face criminal charges for prosecutorial misconduct.

Anderson has strenuously denied any wrongdoing in the case, and in a court filing this week he called the allegations against him "unjustified and insupportable." Even if the claims were valid, he argued, the statute of limitations has expired. 

Bradley has said that he now regrets fighting against the DNA testing in Morton's case. He said he fought the testing based on his predecessor's counsel, and that this experience has changed his outlook on inmates' claims of innocence. 

Raley said he hopes that the lessons learned from this tragedy will prevent others in the future. 

"It should grasp all of us to make us realize that this could happen to us," he said. "Michael Morton is just a normal guy." 

The following is an edited video and transcript of the interview.

TT: For you, what is the most tragic moment of Michael Morton’s story?

Raley: They took Eric out of his arms and cuffed him and led him away. And he remembers Eric screaming, “Daddy! Daddy!” as he’s taken away from his son. He lost his wife, his love of his life, his college sweetheart. They were going to have this wonderful life together with their son, and it all ended when “the monster” came in the house.

TT: What is your theory of how Christine Morton was murdered?

Raley: We believe that the murderer killed Christine and wiped her blood from his face and hands and stuck the bandana in his back pocket and ran, and — miracle of miracles — the bandana fell out as he was running and became found as part of the crime scene evidence and should have been tested as soon as DNA testing was available. And we argued that it could have Christine’s blood as well as the DNA of a person who was not Michael. And that person’s DNA might lead to a hit on databanks of a known offender. And we argued that in 2005, and in the summer of 2011 it was confirmed that those words were absolutely true.

TT: How did the fight with Williamson County District Attorney John Bradley over DNA testing begin?

Raley: I remember, prior to filing the motion, calling Mr. Bradley — based on the advice of my father, who’s a retired prosecutor — just to see if he would agree to the motion. He said it would “muddy the waters.” I’ve never forgotten that, and I didn’t really understand what he meant. And I said, “Mr. Bradley, truth clarifies.”

TT: Why do you think the state resisted DNA testing on the bandana?

Raley: It’s never really been explained to me why the state would fight so hard against a simple test that wouldn’t cost the state any money at all that can only reveal the truth.

I remember Mr. Bradley asking me in one of our early conversations, “What would you do if the test results came out against your client?” And I said, “I would call him up and say, ‘Michael, I’ve got some really bad news for you. The test results say this, and that is really harmful to any further efforts to exonerate you of this murder.’ Now, Mr. Bradley, let’s turn it. What if the test result exonerated him? Because, I can handle the truth.”

TT: What happened after the appeals court finally ordered the DNA testing?

Raley: June of 2011, the results started coming in. The first results were that it was Christine’s blood, Christine’s hair and the DNA of a man — not a woman — a man who was not Michael Morton. Michael was excluded.

TT: Did the district attorney’s resistance continue? 

Raley: Mr. Bradley throughout this was continuing to fight. Sept. 26, 2011, that is the date that we were told by Judge Harle in open court that he had received a call from Travis County law enforcement, and it was about the link to Debra Jan Baker. And I remember coming back in and saying, “Wow.” I didn’t know what else to say but wow. I said, “This is powerful evidence that Michael Morton’s third-party intruder theory is absolutely true. And in light of this, we anticipate the state will want to discuss immediate terms of his release now, today.”

But they weren’t, even then. They continued to be resistant until early October. And I remember Barry Scheck saying, “I’ve got a feeling that Bradley’s going to turn,” but none of us really believed it.

TT: Did either of you ever consider giving up?

Raley: A really important conversation for me was a little over two years ago when Michael said that he understood that he would be paroled if he only showed remorse for his crime. And I said, “What are you going to do?” I didn’t feel like I could advise him on that because, I mean, you know [it had been] 23 years now. I don’t think anybody would have blamed him if he said, “I’m really sorry, let me go.”
But Michael is a man of great integrity, and he would not lie to get out of prison.
And he said, “All I have left is my actual innocence, and if I have to be in prison the rest of my life, I’m not giving that up.” And when he said that I just felt this rush of emotion. And I said, “Michael, I promise you, I will never quit.”

TT: Following Morton’s release you investigated former prosecutor Ken Anderson. Why?

Raley: I think it’s important to understand that Michael Morton, in order to get this investigation done, would have been willing to stay in prison another five months after having being in for 25 years. It was that important to him to find out what happened and try to prevent it from happening to someone else.

TT: What was Morton’s response to your discovery of the allegedly suppressed evidence?

Raley: Michael is a very thoughtful, contemplative, reflective guy. He has a way of pausing to let things kind of be absorbed. I remember when I called to tell him about the DNA hit. There was silence on other end of the line. I said, “Michael, are you there?” I was afraid he might have fainted or something. He said, “I’m here. I’m just letting this soak in.” Twenty-five years he’d been waiting.

TT: What lessons can be learned from Morton’s case? 

Raley: I think it’s important for our state and for our country. It should grasp all of us to make us realize that this could happen to us. Michael Morton is just a normal guy. He had no criminal record, no history of violence. Manager of the Safeway. Left the house at 5:30 in the morning to make sure the produce was laid out neatly in the rows. Kissed his wife goodbye. Twenty-five years.

We should all try to do what we can to keep this from happening to others. And an analysis of these issues is part of it. Yes, files should always be open to the defense, so that there’s no evidence concealed from them. DNA testing on things that would have been tested if the crime happened today should be agreed to.

TT: What are Morton’s plans for the future?

Raley: Right now, he’s just enjoying life, and he’s seeing things with all the wonder that we haven’t had in a long time really. He told me later that his first night out when we went to a restaurant, it was the first time he’d held a metal fork and a knife. And he wasn’t quite sure he remembered how to do it. Little things like that. He’s just healing.

TT: Describe the day Michael Morton was released from prison?

Raley: I remember we got to the door of the courthouse and I stopped him and I put my hand on his shoulder. And I said, “Michael, when we step outside, breathe freedom.”

I’d been waiting for seven years to say that. He’d been waiting 25.

So we stepped out and he went (inhales deeply), and he smiled. And he breathed freedom in. And the sun came out and hit his face. It was so beautiful.

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