Michael Morton faced a throng of reporters last Tuesday just after a Texas judge freed him following 25 years in prison for a murder he did not commit. Now gray-haired and 57, Morton looked on the bright side. “I thank God that this was not a capital case,” he said.
In the final years of a legal battle spanning more than two decades, attorneys at the New York-based Innocence Project fought for DNA testing that ultimately exonerated Morton in the murder of his wife and pried loose exculpatory information from Texas government files that officials had withheld from Morton’s attorneys since before his 1987 trial.
These efforts probably would have sprung Morton from prison years ago were it not for the role of Williamson County District Attorney John Bradley, a well-connected ally of Texas Governor Rick Perry, who fought tenaciously for six years to keep Morton behind bars. Twice a Perry appointee to influential legal posts, Bradley has generated controversy in his handling of two high-profile cases: Morton’s incarceration and the forensic review of evidence against Cameron Todd Willingham, a man who was executed in 2004 despite a cloud of uncertainty around the expert testimony that led to his conviction.
In early 2005, Morton’s attorneys sought DNA testing on a blood-stained bandana found outside the Morton home on the day after the brutal murder, which took place on Aug. 13, 1986. Court records show that Bradley, who was appointed by Perry in 2001 and was not Morton’s original prosecutor, sought to prevent that testing from ever taking place and tried to limit its effect on the case.
At first, Bradley argued that testing the bandana would open the floodgates to an indeterminable amount of new evidence. “One has to wonder whether petitioner would file another motion at some future date seeking additional testing of even more items,” he wrote in October of 2005. In a 2009 filing, Bradley argued that the bandana was irrelevant because it was found “a football field’s length” from the Morton’s house, and that if any DNA testing did take place “it should not incorporate the possibility of a match of any DNA profile recovered from the bandana to a known offender.
District attorneys vary widely in their willingness to consider new evidence, but Bradley’s efforts make him an outlier. The Innocence Project says it has to fight a prosecutor’s objections to DNA testing in less than half of its cases, and most resistance dries up quickly. Death penalty opponents are particularly critical of prosecutors who resist DNA testing. Steve Hall, director of the StandDown Texas project, called Bradley’s behavior in the Morton case “abhorrent.”
Morton’s attorneys ultimately prevailed on the DNA issue in May 2010. A 2011 lab report showed that blood on the bandana matched Christine Morton’s DNA, and that DNA from a hair on the bandana matched that of a convicted felon in California, as well as DNA recovered at the site of a similar, unsolved murder of another Texas woman.
DNA wasn’t the only potentially exculpatory evidence that Bradley tried to wall off. Morton’s lawyers had long wondered about the original prosecutors’ decision not to seek testimony from the chief investigator in the case, Sgt. Don Wood of the Williamson County Sherriff’s office. But when they filed a Public Information Act request in 2008 to view Wood’s files, Bradley tried to block the release. TIME reviewed a flurry of correspondence about the records request between the Innocence Project, the sheriff’s office, and the Texas attorney general’s office. A 2008 letter from the AG to the sheriff’s office notes that, “The Williamson County District Attorney’s Office is a party to the litigation and has requested that the information be withheld.”
Again, when Morton’s attorneys ultimately prevailed, they found compelling evidence that their client was innocent: a transcript of a phone call in which Morton’s mother-in-law told Wood that Morton’s three-year-old son had witnessed a different man commit the murder, and a hand-written message to Wood dated August 15, 1986, showing that Christine’s credit card had been recovered at a jewelry store in San Antonio two days after the murder. With the new evidence he sought to block made public, Bradley capitulated and freed Morton last week.
At the same time that Bradley was showing his penchant for stonewalling evidence in the Morton case, Perry appointed him to another sensitive position. By 2009, several studies had been conducted suggesting that the 1991 house fire that killed Cameron Todd Willingham’s three daughters was not arson and that the experts who sealed Willingham’s conviction with testimony to the contrary had based their investigation on outdated techniques.
The Texas Forensic Science Commission, a state organization tasked with ensuring that forensic investigations adhere to the highest scientific standards, began reviewing the evidence. But in late September 2009, Perry fired three commission members, including its chairman, just days before they were scheduled to hear testimony from an outside arson expert who had determined that the evidence against Willingham was based on shoddy science. Perry chose Bradley to take over the commission, and he quickly cancelled the testimony, effectively burying the investigation.
The same year that he was appointed to the forensic commission, Bradley received the Prosecutor of the Year award from the Texas District and County Attorney’s Association. He did not return a call seeking an interview for this story.