"Justice and Prosecutorial Misconduct," is the New York Times editorial from the December 29th issue.
Prosecutors have enormous power in determining who is subjected to criminal punishment because they have broad discretion in deciding criminal charges. The Brady rule, established by the Supreme Court in 1963, is supposed to be an important check on that power. It requires prosecutors to disclose evidence favorable to the defendant. But their failure to comply is rarely discovered, and, even then, prosecutors are almost never punished.
The Supreme Court, in an outrageous decision earlier this year, further weakened the ability of wronged defendants to make prosecutors’ offices liable by giving them nearly absolute immunity against civil suits. Justice Clarence Thomas justified the ruling, noting that an “attorney who violates his or her ethical obligations is subject to professional discipline, including sanctions, suspension, and disbarment.” But bar associations hardly ever punish this behavior; judges seldom discipline prosecutors for such violations; and criminal sanctions are rarely imposed against prosecutors.
This is why the Morton inquiry is crucial. The Innocence Project report found that Mr. Anderson willfully failed to disclose police notes that another man committed the murder, concealed from the trial judge that he did not provide the full police report and advised his successor as prosecutor “to oppose all of Mr. Morton’s postconviction motions for DNA testing.” If a court confirms these findings, it must hold Mr. Anderson accountable — or it will send a message to prosecutors in Texas and elsewhere that the criminal justice system is incapable of deterring or punishing this conduct.
There are, however, a small but growing number of prosecutors’ offices around the country that have systems to prevent the gross miscarriage of justice that Mr. Morton suffered. Like the New York County District Attorney’s Office, they allow open records so defendants can have a copy of almost anything in the case file, and they support having courts audit their compliance with Brady.
"Let Anderson's record be heard by a court," is the Austin American-Statesman editorial of December 27.
Michael Morton ends 2011 an innocent man. Meanwhile, District Judge Ken Anderson ends the year under a cloud of suspicion about his conduct prosecuting Morton for the murder of his wife almost 25 years ago.
Last week, District Judge Sid Harle formally dismissed the murder charge against Morton. Morton, wrongly imprisoned in 1987 and not released until October, was always actually innocent of beating to death his wife, Christine, in their Williamson County home in 1986. Now the state concurs; Morton is innocent.
With Morton's innocence legally declared, Harle now should convene a special court of inquiry to investigate allegations by Morton's lawyers that Anderson, who was Williamson County's district attorney when he prosecuted Morton, concealed evidence that might have exonerated Morton of the charge that he killed his wife.
Anderson denies the allegations. In our view, let a court of inquiry consider Anderson's denials.
"Inquiry warranted in Morton case," is the Dallas Morning News editorial of December 23.
One thing is now cleared up for good in the Michael Morton murder case in Williamson County. He was proclaimed officially, unequivocally innocent this week.
One thing is far from being cleared up — whether the man who put him in prison for nearly 25 years, Ken Anderson, is a scheming, unethical district attorney. If there’s an explanation for why the defense never saw critical exculpatory evidence investigators collected before trial, for why the evidence stayed hidden for nearly all of the quarter-century that Morton was imprisoned, the state of Texas hasn’t gotten a straight answer. And it needs to.
Anderson, now a judge, should be held to account, just as Morton once had to defend himself against a far thinner dossier of evidence.
A request for a special court of inquiry in the Anderson matter is now before a state district judge, in a damning, 144-page report filed Monday by Morton’s attorneys. That special proceeding should be held to get direct answers from Anderson and weigh whether he should face charges.
"Stop the prosecutorial misconduct," is the title of an OpEd by Houston criminal defense attorney Robert Fickman in the Houston Chronicle of December 31.
It is past time for us to draw another line in the sand. Too many innocent men and women have had their liberty stolen by some puffed-up bureaucrat with a law degree. It's time to fight back and demand accountability.
What has become of the men who prosecuted Graves and Morton? What is their punishment for apparently fabricating and withholding evidence?
Have they been sent to jail, disbarred or hounded from our midst? No. Nothing has happened to them.
There is no punishment for them. Their lives go on unfettered. There is no accounting for their apparent raw inhumanity. None.
This needs to change. When a prosecutor willfully withholds exculpatory evidence in a murder case, he must be held to answer. When a prosecutor willfully fabricates evidence in a murder case, he must be held to account. Prosecutors who willfully falsify evidence to rob innocent men of their liberty must be held to answer under the law.
The next time the state Legislature meets we must demand accountability. The Legislature must enact stiff laws to punish those prosecutors who willfully break the law to rob men of their liberty. Nothing less is acceptable.
"Special holiday for lawyer John Raley, innocent client," is Patricia Kilday Hart's December 26th Houston Chronicle column.
Christmas, that celebration of miracles, new life and truth, can find expression in unlikely settings.
This year, for Houston attorney John Raley and his family, it arrived six days early in a nondescript Georgetown courtroom, when a state district judge stepped down from his imposing dais to declare the innocence of Michael Morton, a man who spent 25 years in prison wrongly accused of the murder of his wife, Christine.
Raley's involvement in the case began when a mutual acquaintance in Houston's legal community suggested to Innocence Project attorney Nina Morrison that she solicit his help as a volunteer.
Morrison now laughs when she recalls the naiveté that Raley, a civil litigator with expertise in medical malpractice, brought to the criminal court arena: "He said, 'Of course the prosecutors will want to do DNA testing. Who wouldn't want to do DNA testing?' "
Morrison, jaded from years of fighting injustices that occur all too often in the criminal court system, knew better. Prosecutors do not like to admit mistakes.
Brandi Grissom wrote, "Murder Cases Put 'Junk Science' in the Spotlight," for the December 26 Texas edition of the New York Times. It's also available at the Texas Tribune. Here's an extended excerpt from this must-read:
Undigested bits of mushrooms and tomatoes from Christine Morton’s last meal — a celebratory birthday dinner she had with her husband — were still in her stomach when the medical examiner performed his autopsy in 1986.
Those remnants, the prosecutor told the jury during Michael Morton’s trial, “scientifically proved” that Mr. Morton had beaten his wife to death.
Twenty-five years later, DNA science revealed that someone else had actually killed Mrs. Morton and that her husband’s murder conviction and more than two decades in prison were a tragic mistake. His exoneration based on DNA evidence is the 45th in Texas.
Before he dismissed the wrongful murder charges against Mr. Morton last week, Judge Sid Harle recounted the faults the case exposed in the Texas justice system. Among them: the use of so-called junk science in the courtroom.
“The courts and the sitting judges need to be ever mindful about their role as gatekeeper in regard to the admission of science,” Mr. Harle said. “Your case illustrates the best and the worst of what can happen.”
Despite scientific advancements like DNA testing, the use of unreliable scientific techniques in the criminal justice system persists. While some judges say they work to ensure only reliable scientific evidence is presented to juries, criminal justice advocates say that more must be done to root out an array of pseudoscientific practices that can have life-or-death consequences.
“What passes for science in courtrooms is not always, in fact, science,” said Kathryn Kase, interim executive director of the Texas Defender Service, which represents death row inmates.
In recent weeks, the Texas Court of Criminal Appeals has agreed to review cases that indicate it may also see a need to address the types of evidence that meet scientific standards.
In November, the state’s highest criminal court agreed to review the case of Megan Winfrey, who is serving a life sentence for murder. She was convicted largely on the testimony of a sheriff’s deputy who said his bloodhounds “alerted” to her scent on the murder victim’s clothing. The court has previously ruled that dog-scent evidence, used to convict Ms. Winfrey’s father for the same murder, was insufficient without corroborating evidence. The court acquitted her father on appeal.
This month, the court also agreed to review the cases of two men awaiting execution. Both men, convicted of murder, were sentenced to death after a psychologist who was an expert witness in several death penalty cases told jurors that they were mentally competent to face execution.
Earlier coverage of Michael Morton's exoneration begins at the link.
The responsibility of the state to provide exculpatory evidence to the defense was articulated in the 1963 Supreme Court ruling in Brady v. Maryland; more via Oyez. Related posts are in the prosecutorial misconduct index.
There is also more in the junk science index.