Public trust betrayed. Governmental credibility destroyed. Taxpayer accountability? Still to be determined. Fourteen months after his release from prison and subsequent exoneration in the murder of his wife Christine, Michael Morton’s case and related legal actions continue generating attention as was seen Monday morning in a Williamson County courtroom when lawyers for Mark Norwood, the alleged killer awaiting prosecution for both the 1986 murder of Christine Morton and the 1988 murder of Debra Baker, asked for a delay in the Morton murder trial due to a DNA evidence issue. District Judge Burt Carnes deferred making a ruling until Friday allowing Norwood’s defense team this week to determine if an appropriate expert can be identified and provide analysis in the timeframe needed for the Jan. 7 trial start date.
Using shared concerns by the prosecution and defense regarding ongoing case publicity, Lisa Tanner, the Texas assistant attorney general leading the Norwood prosecution, cited postponement of the pending court of inquiry proceedings against Williamson County District Judge Ken Anderson as a point of consideration against a trial delay.
Anderson was the prosecutor who oversaw the case leading to Michael Morton’s 1987 murder conviction. The court of inquiry will determine if his handling of the case merits criminal charges. Morton’s lawyers contend Anderson suppressed key pieces of evidence that suggested their client’s innocence and, if not withheld, could have prompted a “not guilty” verdict. Instead, Morton spent nearly 25 years in prison while Norwood went free. And, as per a recent Travis County Grand Jury indictment, this freedom is believed to have allowed his opportunity to also presumably murder Debra Baker. Anderson’s court of inquiry, previously scheduled for Dec. 10, is now set for Feb. 4.
The Morton case is additionally receiving attention via a Texas Monthly two-part article concluding in the December issue. The Innocent Man, Part One opens with this haunting quote written by Morton to state district judge William Lott, the judge who presided over both Morton’s criminal trial and his son’s custody issues:
I must reiterate my innocence. I did NOT kill my wife. You cannot imagine what it is like to lose your wife the way I did, then to be falsely accused and convicted of this terrible crime. First, my wife and now possibly, my son! Sooner or later, the truth will come out. The killer will be caught and this nightmare will be over. I pray that the sheriff’s office keeps an open mind. It is no sin to admit a mistake. No one is perfect in the performance of their job. I don’t know what else to say except I swear to God that I did NOT kill my wife. Please don’t take my son from me too.
In Part Two, realities of Williamson County’s “tough on crime” reputation is questioned in terms of both Anderson and soon-to-be-former District Attorney John Bradley using my August 2011 Will Morton case show Williamson County ‘tough on crime’ or ‘light on justice’? column:
By then the tide of public opinion had turned against Anderson and Bradley. As the face of the Williamson County DA’s office, Bradley—who had devoted untold time and taxpayer money to opposing Michael’s requests for DNA testing—was excoriated in the local press. “Adjust the facts as needed, feign respectability, stick to the talking points, and, above all else, protect your friends and associates,” wrote local legal blogger Lou Ann Anderson, suggesting that Williamson County was less tough on crime than “light on justice.” Though Bradley had long been considered bulletproof politically in Williamson County, he soon found himself in a hard-fought race against a primary challenger. Despite support from Governor Perry, who sent letters to the county’s registered Republicans exhorting them to vote for Bradley, the DA was defeated by a stunning ten-point margin. The race had become a referendum on his handling of the Morton case; in the months leading up to primary day, his critics had tied bandanas to his political signs.
Norwood’s trial for the Morton murder has been moved away from Williamson County to Tom Green County. As Houston attorney Rusty Hardin has been appointed special prosecutor in Anderson’s court of inquiry, the public hearing over which Tarrant County Judge Louis Sturns will preside, Williamson County’s influence over outcomes of Morton-related cases is dwindling.
Tanner said a delay could push Norwood’s Morton murder trial to August 2013. She indicated both sides preferred to have the trial completed prior to the court of inquiry proceeding. To date, the court of inquiry has been delayed twice. The trial occurring sooner rather than later, she said, is “in the best interest of the state as well as the defense.”
Despite county-propagated rhetoric to the contrary, adjust the facts, feign respectability, stick to the talking points, and, above all else, protect your friends and associates – a “good ol’ boy” culture of corruption – has become Williamson County’s most common perception. And with that, Friday’s potential ruling by Carnes, currently the county’s longest-serving district judge, may provide perhaps one more opportunity to illustrate its realities as a truly tough on crime or merely light on justice venue.