Category: prosecutorial misconduct

DNA leads police to new suspect in Morton case

Mark Alan Norwood, 57, was held Wednesday at the Williamson County Jail on a capital murder charge after his arrest at his Bastrop home.
Mark Alan Norwood

Five weeks ago, Michael Morton was released to the free world after DNA evidence made it clear that he hadn’t killed his wife, Christine, twenty-five years ago.  Now Williamson County police have arrested Mark Alan Norwood, a man linked to the killing by the same DNA evidence that cleared Morton.

Tests in 1986 could only confirm the presence of human blood on the bandanna. But forensic testing in June identified the blood and an attached hair as Christine Morton’s.

The lab also found cells that were soon matched to Norwood because his DNA profile was listed in a national felony database after his 2008 arrest in California for possessing narcotics, resisting arrest and possessing a dangerous weapon.

As Melanie Wilmoth noted in a recent post, this is a classic case of prosecutorial tunnel vision.  Convinced they had the right man, the district attorney withheld important evidence from defense counsel

Mark Osler’s excellent op-ed on the Hank Skinner case could easily be applied to the injustice perpetrated against Michael Morton.  Prosecutors live in an echo chamber.  Surrounded by people who share their zeal for justice and sealed off from meaningful contact with the defendant, district attorneys and AUSAs have their view of the world reinforced at every turn.  The thought that they may have everything wrong never occurs to them.  

It doesn’t help that the powers of the prosecutor have been growing steadily over the past thirty years while judicial discretion and the influence of jurors has receded.  DAs are widely seen as representatives of the people, and so they are.  But when the people are blinded by fear and ignorance, prosecutor must keep their wits about them.  Do these men and women who wield such incredible power understand the dynamics of tunnel vision well enough to safeguard themselves against it?  I have my doubts.

Man arrested in 1986 Morton slaying has long criminal history

By Chuck Lindell and Patrick George


GEORGETOWN — A former carpet layer now working as a dishwasher in Bastrop was arrested Wednesday in the brutal 1986 beating death of Christine Morton, a Williamson County mother whose husband was wrongly convicted of her murder.

Mark Alan Norwood, 57, was arrested without incident at his Bastrop duplex, Williamson County Sheriff James Wilson said. Charged with capital murder, Norwood was being held at the Williamson County Jail on $750,000 bail. (more…)

The passion of the prosecutor

The Texas Court of Criminal Appeals has issued a stay of execution in the Hank Skinner case so relevant DNA evidence can be tested.  The prosecutors in this case remain adamant that Skinner should die with the evidence untested.  Mark Osler (a Friends of Justice board member who teaches law at the University of Saint Thomas in Minnesota) says that what looks like baffling intransigence from the outside springs from the best of motives.  But then, so did the crucifixion of Jesus Christ. Osler’s insights originally appeared on the CNN site. AGB

Texas prosecutors won’t stop rush to execution

By Mark Osler, Special to CNN

Editor’s note: Mark Osler, a professor of law at the University of St. Thomas Law School in Minnesota, is a former federal prosecutor and the author of “Jesus on Death Row,” a book about capital punishment.

 As the nation and the world’s attention turned to the impending execution of Hank Skinner in Texas before a late stay by a Texas court, one question seemed paramount: “Why the rush?” The answer to that question is buried deep inside the psychology of prosecutors and the culture of Texas.

Skinner was scheduled for execution on Wednesday for the 1993 killing of his girlfriend, Twila Busby, and her two sons, until the Texas Court of Criminal Appeals (the top criminal court in that state) issued a stay late on Monday. (more…)

Michael Morton and the case for Texas criminal justice reforms

Michael Morton

By Melanie Wilmoth

Michael Morton spent 25 years behind bars for the murder of his wife, Christine, before he was released based on DNA evidence that pointed to another suspect.

In Morton’s case, there was a wealth of evidence suggesting Morton was not the murderer, but prosecutors never pursued another suspect. Prosecutors were convinced, despite no clear evidence, that Morton was guilty.

It is a classic case of prosecutorial tunnel vision.

As Texas Sen. Rodney Ellis so aptly points out, “The role of the prosecutor is to discover the truth, but oftentimes there’s more interest in getting a conviction.”

Morton’s case is one of hundreds that highlights flaws within the Texas criminal justice system. However, the question remains: Will Texas actually see this case as a sign that serious criminal justice reforms are necessary to prevent prosecutorial misconduct and the continuance of wrongful convictions?

(Check out a related post over at Grits for Breakfast.)

Morton Case Sparks Calls for Texas Evidence Law Reform

by Brandi Grissom

Not long after his mother was murdered, 3-and-a-half-year-old Eric Morton began to tell his grandmother what he had seen that terrible day.

“Mommy’s crying. She’s — Stop it. Go away,” his grandmother said he told her. She asked why his mother was crying.

“’Cause the monster’s there,” Eric said.

Gingerly, she pressed for more details.

“He hit Mommy. He broke the bed,” her grandson said.

“Is Mommy still crying?”

“No, Mommy stopped.” (more…)

Texas Outrage: Not only has Anthony Graves been denied compensation, his paycheck is being garnished for child support

Anthony Graves

Anthony Graves spent 18 years on Texas’ death row, the victim of a classic case of investigative and prosecutorial tunnel vision.  You would think that would qualify Mr. Graves for the $80,000 a year the wrongfully convicted are due under the Tim Cole Act.  But no.  According to a Houston Chronicle Editorial, Anthony Graves was denied $1,440,000.00 the State of Texas owed him and then, as if to pour salt in the wound, garnished his wages for the child support he didn’t pay because he had been wrongfully accused and convicted.

According to the Chronicle editorial, Texas Attorney General, Greg Abbott, feels Anthony Graves’ story is “truly troubling and deeply compelling” but felt he had no choice but to deduct the child support money.

Scott Henson has a good post on this truly disgusting development at Grits for Breakfast.

Head in the sand over prosecutorial misconduct

Law Professor Erwin Chemerinsky is dismayed by Supreme Court rulings that protect unscrupulous prosecutors from the consequences of their actions.  The Friends of Justice share this concern.  The pious doctrine that American citizens stand before the law as equals is a worthy aspirational goal, but it bears little relation to actual practice.  The title of this post is taken from the title of professor Chemerinsky’s article in the National Law Journal.

In the real world, American citizens are scattered along a continuum stretching from low-status black males (who can be prosecuted and convicted on the basis of uncorroborated snitch testimony) all the way to prosecutors and judges whose professional behavior, no matter how flagrantly illegal, cannot be prosecuted at all.  We cannot admit that some can be convicted without real evidence (ala Tulia) while others smoking-gun isn’t enough to put people like Terry McEarchern (Tulia, TX), Brett Grayson (AUSA, Western Louisiana) and Harry Connick Sr. (New Orleans) out of business.  (more…)

Should an innocent man suffer to protect the integrity of the legal system?

John Kinsel is going on his twelfth year at Angola prison. Locked up on the charge of aggravated rape, his sentence is for life without parole.
John Kinsel

By Alan Bean

The judicial system doesn’t like recantations.  When a witness recants you know they are capable of lying.  But when did they lie; at trial or after trial? 

Motivation is always difficult to determine.  Is the witness changing her story because of a guilty conscience, or is she merely succumbing to social pressure?

And then there’s the big issue: judicial credibility.  The criminal justice system is only as credible as the state witnesses who take the stand.  Prosecutors can’t acknowledge that a star witness lied under oath without calling the accuracy and finality of the judicial process into question.  Lying witnesses don’t invalidate the system, of course; but they do undermine confidence in legal outcomes.  

As Caiaphas told the Sanhedrin in John’s Gospel: “It is expedient for us, that one man should die for the people, and that the whole nation perish not.”

The tragic story of John Kinsel illustrates how easily finality can trump fairness when the integrity of the legal system is on the line.  The witness who accused Kinsel of rape and molestation in 1996 now insists she invented her testimony.  A judge granted a new trial only to be overruled by the conservative Fifth Circuit Court of Appeals.  (more…)

Innocent man: Why has the system left my prosecutor free to re-offend?

By Alan Bean

Sometimes innocent people go to prison even though everyone in the legal system behaves with integrity.  But what happens when a wrongful conviction results from a prosecutor sitting on a pile of exculpatory evidence?  Shouldn’t the man we pay to represent the state be held accountable? 

I wish this was a hypothetical question; it isn’t.  In this gripping op-ed for the New York Times, John Thompson tells us how it feels to come within a whisker of the electric chair.  He also explains the prosecutorial misconduct that placed him in that situation and wonders aloud why the Supreme Court of the United States thinks its okay for prosecutors to withhold evidence.

The Prosecution Rests, but I Can’t

John Thompson

I SPENT 18 years in prison for robbery and murder, 14 of them on death row. I’ve been free since 2003, exonerated after evidence covered up by prosecutors surfaced just weeks before my execution date. Those prosecutors were never punished. Last month, the Supreme Court decided 5-4 to overturn a case I’d won against them and the district attorney who oversaw my case, ruling that they were not liable for the failure to turn over that evidence — which included proof that blood at the robbery scene wasn’t mine. (more…)

Right-winger + hard time = compassion

prisonBy Alan Bean

Why are so many right-wingers suddenly arguing the case for criminal justice reform?  In this fascinating piece in Salon, Justin Elliot of Salon directs this question to Doug Berman, author of the influential Sentencing Law and Policy blog

Here are the highlights:

1. Prison is far more brutal than most people believe it to be

2. Most of the conservatives currently leading the smart on crime crusade have been locked up: Duke Cunningham, Charles Colson, Pat Nolan, Conrad Black

3. The religious concept of redemption generally plays a large role in these conversions.

4. Historically, mass incarceration required the enthusiastic cooperation of the political left

5. When you do hard time you realize that harsh penalties are typically applied to crimes disproportionately committed by minorities

6. Busting budgets and historically low crime rates make this a good time for reform, but . . .

7. The political forces that drove mass incarceration are always lurking. (more…)

Rick Perry’s Atheist Pope

Eighteen months ago, Texas Governor Rick Perry appointed Williamson County DA John Bradley to head up the Texas Forensic Science Commission.  It was like turning over the Vatican to Richard Dawkins.  Bradley, like most Texas prosecutors, thinks forensic scientists have one role: helping the state convict bad guys; Perry’s atheist pope likes forensic testimony crafted to the needs of the prosecution.

Governor Perry put Bradley in charge of the TFSC to keep the Cameron Todd Willingham debacle out of the headlines during his primary fight with Kay Bailey Hutchinson.  Perry also tried to stack the commission with people who share Bradley’s worldview, but things haven’t worked out to the governor’s liking.  As Rick Casey demonstrates in this informative column in the Houston Chronicle, Bradley is unlikely to receive Senate confirmation. (more…)