Tag Archive | Equal Justice Initiative

Texas opens court of inquiry into claims of prosecutor misconduct

 

Texas opens court of inquiry into claims of prosecutor misconductMichael Morton, left, was exonerated in the beating death of his wife after 25 years. Monday he attended a Texas court of inquiry focused on the prosecutor in his case. (Ricardo B. Brazziell / Statesman.com / February 4, 2013)
By Molly Hennessy-Fiske

February 4, 2013, 6:58 p.m.

GEORGETOWN, Texas — In emotional testimony Monday, a Texas man told a judge how it felt spending 25 years in prison for a murder he did not commit.

“Brutal,” Michael Morton said. “But after a couple decades, I got used to it.”

Morton, 58, who grew up in Los Angeles, was convicted in the 1986 beating death of his wife, Christine, at their home. He was exonerated and released almost a year and a half ago after DNA tests confirmed his innocence. Another man has since been charged in connection with the killing.

Now the man who prosecuted Morton, Williamson County District Judge Ken Anderson, faces an unprecedented “court of inquiry” about 30 miles north of Austin in which a judge will decide whether the then-district attorney lied and concealed evidence that could have cleared Morton.

It is the first time the state has convened such a hearing for prosecutorial misconduct. Although part of Texas law since 1965, the court of inquiry has typically been used to consider allegations against elected officials. Some hope this week’s hearing will lead to a greater examination of alleged misconduct by prosecutors not just in Texas, but nationwide.

“This is going to be a significant case for prosecutorial misconduct. It could lead to judges giving more specific orders about turning over evidence,” said Barry Scheck, co-founder of the New York-based Innocence Project, who attended Monday’s hearing.

Texas District Judge Louis Sturns, who is presiding over the court of inquiry, must determine whether state laws were broken in Anderson’s prosecution of Morton. If so, the judge must issue an arrest warrant, potentially leading to a criminal trial.

Morton’s attorneys — including several from the Innocence Project — appealed for the court of inquiry after uncovering evidence they believe should have been disclosed under the landmark 1963U.S. Supreme Court decision Brady vs. Maryland, which requires prosecutors to share evidence favorable to the accused with defense lawyers.

Rusty Hardin, the special prosecutor appointed for the court of inquiry, asked Morton on Monday how he felt when he learned that information that could have cleared him was not shared with his attorneys during his 1987 trial.

That evidence, Hardin said, included an interview the lead investigator conducted with Morton’s mother-in-law in which she recounted how his 3-year-old son, Eric, at home at the time of the murder, claimed his father wasn’t there but that he saw a “monster … hurt Mommy.”

“I was stunned,” Morton said. “All those years … the primary thing that kept hitting me was why? What purpose, what motivation?”

On the stand Monday, Morton occasionally choked up, but remained mostly composed, at times smiling.

He sat facing Anderson, who appeared impassive. Anderson has apologized, but also denied wrongdoing in the case.

Last fall, the State Bar of Texas filed a lawsuit accusing Anderson of professional misconduct in Morton’s prosecution. A date has yet to be set for that civil trial.

Anderson’s attorney, Eric Nichols, a former prosecutor with the Texas Attorney General’s Office, focused his questions Monday on what the trial judge, who has since died, ordered Anderson to turn over.

He argued that Morton’s lawyers ruled out relying on his son as a witness before his trial and emphasized that Innocence Project lawyers, not Morton, have been pursuing charges against Anderson. Nichols noted that two Innocence Project claims about concealed evidence that could have cleared Morton were recently found to be false.

“You are not interested in seeing someone prosecuted on insufficient evidence?” Nichols said.

“Correct,” Morton said.

Hardin argued that even if the evidence couldn’t have cleared Morton, it should still have been turned over before trial.

Morton said he’s not out for revenge, just accountability.

“I don’t want anything ill for Judge Anderson,” Morton said, tearing up, “But there are consequences for our actions. There needs to be accountability, because without that, everything else falls apart.”

Some said they hope the inquiry leads to increased oversight of prosecutors.

“There is no doubt that the eyes of Texas are going to be on this proceeding,” said Kathryn Kase, executive director of Texas Defender Service, a nonprofit that trains and assists lawyers who represent death row inmates. “Bad forensic science is not the only reason people get wrongfully imprisoned, and we have to be dedicated to trying to stop that.”

Texas State Sen. Rodney Ellis, a Houston Democrat, has proposed legislation to create an “innocence commission” in Texas like some other states to systematically investigate wrongful convictions. Ellis attended Monday’s hearing and said it showed the need for such a commission to find solutions to prevent future mistakes, especially for poor defendants who cannot afford the “firepower” of the high-caliber lawyers that filled the courtroom Monday.

“It’s really hard to get to the real problem of what went wrong” with prosecutorial misconduct, Ellis said. “You ought to have a system, a way in which hard questions are asked.”

molly.hennessy-fiske@latimes.com

Alabama Dept of Corrections plan addresses Tutwiler abuses

State Prisons Commissioner Kim Thomas on Friday released an action plan for Julia Tutwiler Prison for Women to take “aggressive steps” to address allegations of rape at the facility.

The release of the plan follows a three-day visit by the National Institute of Corrections in September to review the Wetumpka facility.

Thomas said he invited the NIC to tour the facility after the nonprofit group Equal Justice Initiative released a report that found widespread rapes of inmates by Tutwiler employees.

The four-person NIC team produced a 38-page report on the prison, and Thomas conceded Friday that the agency found an “oppressive, intimidating atmosphere” at the facility.

The NIC team met with staff members after its visit, and Thomas said changes began almost immediately.

“The very next day we began to implement changes while we awaited the final report,” Thomas said.

EJI Executive Director Bryan Stevenson said it was a good sign that Thomas invited the NIC on his own accord but added that a long-term solution is going to be needed to fix the state’s prisons.

“I think this report really wakes people up,” Stevenson said.

He added the report points to issues that are systemwide, including a lack of funding and prison overcrowding.

Stevenson and Thomas both said Tutwiler is at least 90 percent over capacity. Thomas said it also is only 60 percent staffed.

Thomas would not go into details Friday about how many ADOC employees had been fired or prosecuted in connection with sexual assaults at Tutwiler. He said there had been one pregnancy as the result of a rape of an inmate by a correctional employee.

Among the problems found in the report were a lack of security cameras and a lack of female employees.

In his action plan, Thomas vows to pursue at least $3.2 million to provide cameras and monitoring equipment at Tutwiler.

The plan calls for the recruitment and hiring of female correctional officers to work at Tutwiler and directing any new trainees with ADOC from the Montgomery area to be assigned to either Tutwiler or the Montgomery Women’s Facility.

Other directives in the action plan include more training in the Prison Rape Elimination Act and changes to improve conditions in general at the prison.

Corrections plan addresses Tutwiler abuses

Equal Justice Initiative Investigation Into Sexual Violence at Tutwiler Prison for Women