Tag Archive | Texas

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

Unbelievable – Texas Leads U.S. in Executions, Payments to Exonerated Inmates

By Tim Stelloh – Jan 31, 2013 4:00 PM CT

In 2006, after serving 19 years and 11 months in a Texas prison for a rape he didn’t commit, Billy Smith was exonerated of all charges and set free. He was 54. Despite clearing his name, he’s never been able to find a job.

“Who wants to hire someone who’s 61 years old and who’s an ex-convict?” Smith said. “Even though I’m exonerated, people don’t consider that, because I was in prison for 20 years.”

Texas is well known for its prodigious use of the death penalty: On Halloween, it carried out its 250th execution under Republican Governor Rick Perry’s 12-year tenure. It’s also the most generous state in the nation when it comes to showing remorse for locking up the wrong man, Bloomberg Businessweek reports in its Feb. 4 issue. Under a law Perry signed in 2009, Texas will pay Smith about $80,000 a year for the rest of his life. He’s also eligible for the same health-care insurance as employees of the Texas Department of Criminal Justice. Money can’t replace his lost years, Smith says, but he’s now married and owns a home. The activists who persuaded Perry to support the cash settlements are lobbying Texas lawmakers to expand the law to include health coverage for ex-prisoners’ families.

Twenty-seven states and Washington, D.C., provide some form of compensation to the wrongfully convicted. Vermont gives them a one-time payment of between $30,000 and $60,000 for each year they were locked up. Wisconsin pays $25,000 total, regardless of how long a person was incarcerated. So far Texas has paid 88 former prisoners, including two released from death row, a total of nearly $60 million, according to R.J. DeSilva, spokesman for the Texas Comptroller of Public Accounts. A dozen former inmates were added to the rolls in 2012.

Wrongly Convicted

Perry endorsed the reparations under pressure from falsely convicted men and their families. In 1986, Timothy Cole, an Army veteran, was found guilty of raping a classmate at Texas Tech University. He died of a heart attack in prison in 1999. On Mother’s Day nine years later, Cole’s mother, Ruby Cole Session, received a letter from the real rapist, who confessed. As Cole Session and her family lobbied the governor to clear Timothy Cole’s name, several other men who’d been wrongfully convicted in Dallas, including Smith, were suing the city for tens of millions of dollars.

Freedom Money

They agreed to drop their lawsuits if the legislature increased the small payments that Texas then provided. At one meeting, Cole Session grabbed the governor’s hand and said, “I need this bill passed for these gentlemen,” recalls her son, Cory Session, who was there. Session says Perry told his mother, “If it gets to my desk, I’ll sign it.” (A Perry spokesman could not confirm the anecdote.) Perry called the Tim Cole Act a “significant step for justice,” and the men withdrew their lawsuits.

The law provides exonerees with a lump sum based on how many years they spent behind bars, plus the $80,000 annuity. The state also agreed to pay for 120 hours of college credit and $10,000 for job training. Cory Session, who’s now policy director of the Innocence Project of Texas, which helps identify and free falsely convicted prisoners, says even the application process was made simple: Freed prisoners submit a few documents, and about six to eight weeks later the first check arrives. “In most states,” he says, “you need a lawyer.”

Prison State

The Innocence Project, which is funded by private donations and is currently reviewing 14 more claims of false conviction, has become a savvy lobbying force in Austin, in part because Texas courts have locked up so many innocent people and their stories are hard for politicians to ignore. (Texas ranks No. 3 nationally in wrongful convictions over the last 24 years, behind Illinois and New York, according to a 2012 study by the University of Michigan and Northwestern University law schools.)

On Jan. 10, Session led a group of exonerated men to the Capitol in Austin, where they were greeted warmly. Afterward, they pressed a list of new demands in meetings with lawmakers. The legislature is now considering at least six of their proposals, including a change to the state’s habeas corpus rules that would allow challenges to convictions based on shoddy science; a requirement that police record all interrogations of people charged with serious felonies; and funding to help the state’s four public law schools investigate claims of false convictions.

The key to winning over legislators, Session says, is letting the innocent men who lost years in prison do the talking. “I was able to get all the attention just on them.”

To contact the editor responsible for this story: Josh Tyrangiel at jtyrangiel@bloomberg.net

Texas Leads U.S. in Executions, Payments to Exonerated Inmates