Michael Morton’s name isn’t on the ballot, and he isn’t endorsing anyone in what has become a nasty campaign to become the next district attorney in tough-on-crime Williamson County.
But his wrongful conviction is the central issue in the GOP primary fight between incumbent District Attorney John Bradley — who spent five years opposing DNA testing that ultimately exonerated Morton — and County Attorney Jana Duty.
While Morton may be staying out of the fray, many close to his case have decided to get involved, hoping, they say, to change the way justice is meted out in Williamson County by urging voters to hold Bradley accountable.
“Truth and justice are more important than winning an election,” wrote John Raley, Morton’s Houston-based defense attorney, in an editorial letter published in several local news outlets.
Duty has centered her campaign on the Morton case, painting her opponent as an impediment to justice who was covering for his former boss in a desperate attempt to cling to power.
Bradley, not one to back away from a challenge, has defended his decisions, and he points out that Duty was no hero in the Morton case, either. He contends that Duty is manipulating the truth for political gain.
Morton spent nearly 25 years in prison before he was exonerated last year of the 1986 murder of his wife, Christine Morton. DNA on a bandana found near the murder scene showed he was innocent and connected another man to the brutal crime. The exoneration came after an appeals court forced prosecutors to allow the DNA testing. DNA on the bandana was also matched to biological material found at the scene of the 1988 murder of Debra Masters Baker in Austin. And last year, Mark Alan Norwood, the man whose DNA was connected to both crimes, was arrested and charged with Christine Morton’s death. Norwood's lawyer, Russell Hunt Jr., has said that his client is innocent of both killings and plans to fight the murder charge.
Had Bradley relented sooner, Morton’s lawyers charge, Morton could have been freed and the suspect in the murders could have been arrested earlier.
Along with billboard-size signs shouting at voters to “Re-elect John Bradley” and to choose “Republican Jana Duty for District Attorney,” another sign popping up on roadsides in Williamson County reminds passers-by of the Morton case. With red bandanas tied at the corners, the signs with big blue letters read, “Remember Michael Morton Vote No to John Bradley.”
Morton said he is not getting involved in local politics in a county where he doesn’t live. The issues in his case, he said, transcend ideology and political party.
“I will endorse no candidate, because the sad facts are a matter of public record and everyone knows what was done,” he said.
Morton’s lawyer, Raley, who battled with Bradley for years to obtain the DNA testing, was more explicit in his editorial letter.
“Although Mr. Bradley did not try the case that wrongfully sent Michael to prison and let the murderer go free, he is largely responsible, in my opinion, for adding the last six years and eight months to Michael’s tragic story,” Raley wrote.
Caitlin Baker, the daughter of Debra Masters Baker, has been perhaps the most outspoken Bradley opponent among those close to the Morton case. The mystery of her mother’s 1988 murder might have been solved sooner, she said, had he allowed the DNA testing Morton requested in 2005.
Caitlin Baker endorsed Duty and is putting up “Remember Michael Morton” signs throughout the county. Her aunt Lisa Conn, Debra Masters Baker’s sister, is helping, too. Both wear red bandanas around their wrists that have become a symbol of opposition to Bradley.
“I wanted to do something to help,” Caitlin Baker said. “I think there are a lot of cases that need to be looked at besides this one, and [Duty] says she’ll do it.”
Mark Landrum, the jury foreman in Morton’s 1987 case, is also backing Duty. In a recorded message to Williamson County voters, Landrum says that when questions first arose about DNA in the Morton case, he asked Bradley whether he might have helped convict an innocent man. Bradley told him Morton was “desperate and grasping at straws.”
“For years, John Bradley said, ‘No’ to justice for Michael Morton,” Landrum says in the message. “I hope you’ll join me and say ‘No’ to John Bradley once and for all.”
Duty and her staff were fixtures at the Morton court hearings last year, and on Dec. 19, when he was officially exonerated, she approached him in the courtroom to seek his support in her campaign. He told her that he would think about it, but Duty said she hasn’t received a response.
“The Michael Morton case is a high-profile example of how wrong the judicial system can go,” she said. She promises to make the office more transparent if she wins.
But Duty did play a part in Morton’s story. As county attorney, she defended Bradley and the county sheriff when Morton sued them in federal court to try to get access to the DNA testing.
She contends that she was simply arguing — successfully — over questions of jurisdiction in the case, whether it should be heard in state court or federal court.
“Mr. Bradley is 100 percent to blame for refusing to test that crucial evidence,” she said.
Duty has also been reprimanded by the State Bar of Texas and sanctioned by a judge for what Bradley said was unethical conduct. Duty said the disciplinary actions were retaliation for her efforts to sue a county commissioner over allegations of misuse of state funds.
Bradley expected a political assault in the wake of the Morton case and has said that he regrets that he resisted the DNA testing. Under his leadership, he said, policies have changed to allow defense lawyers open access to prosecutors’ files. The kind of evidence suppression that happened in the Morton case, he said, wouldn’t happen in his office.
He describes his opponent as an inexperienced, manipulative opportunist who is trying to gain politically from Morton’s tragic experience.
“She had to find an issue on which she could do negative campaigning and divert attention from her own inadequacies,” Bradley said.
The longtime prosecutor is no stranger to political brawls. Gov. Rick Perry appointed him to lead the Texas Forensic Science Commission when it reviewed the controversial case of Cameron Todd Willingham. The New York-based Innocence Project argues that Willingham was innocent when he was executed in 2004.
The fight at the science commission over whether Texas executed an innocent man on Perry’s watch came as the governor was in a heated primary re-election battle with U.S. Sen. Kay Bailey Hutchison. Despite allegations that he was serving as political cover for the governor, Bradley defended Willingham’s conviction.
Now, as Bradley faces his own re-election battle, Perry has come to his defense.
“I’m throwing my support behind John for a number of reasons,” Perry said during a recent event in Williamson County. “It’s his integrity … and it’s his support of crime victims, individuals who’ve truly been wronged.”
Bradley has sent his own editorial letter to local newspapers, defending his tenure and his role in the Morton case and slamming Duty for politicizing the case.
“But the truth is that we made the best decisions we could with the information that was available to us at the time,” he continued.
The race is the toughest competition Bradley has faced since he took office, but the district attorney known for his self-confidence and pugnacity, said Duty’s backing from those involved in the Morton case doesn’t worry him.
“I’m quite comfortable in the job I have done,” Bradley said. “I certainly am not a perfect person; I’ve never claimed to be.”
Early voting for the May 29 primary has already begun. The GOP nominee will face Democrat Ken Crain, a Georgetown lawyer.
Texas Tribune donors or members may be quoted or mentioned in our stories, or may be the subject of them. For a complete list of contributors, click here.