Call me a bleeding heart liberal if you want (or a bleeding-heart ex-liberal, or whatever suits your fancy). But I am outraged whenever I hear of a miscarriage of justice, especially in a murder case. And although the issue of the death penalty sometimes comes into it—after all, if a person has already been put to death, the remedies for a false conviction leave a lot to be desired—it’s not really about the death penalty. One can favor the death penalty in certain cases and still be very disturbed by incidents in which the evidence was inadequate in the first place and/or the conviction was the result of prosecutorial misconduct.
Case in point: Michael Morton. Morton can’t cry “racism,” because he’s white and his supposed victim (his wife) was also white. But he was falsely imprisoned anyway for 25 years, and it’s only because some DNA was tested that pointed to the guilt of another man that Morton was finally released yesterday at the age of 57 after spending the majority of his adult years in prison. Fortunately for him and his family, both his parents were still alive to see him walk free (or nearly free; he has to remain in Texas until some legal details are cleared up).
So, what happened? It now appears that there was almost certainly prosecutorial misconduct in Morton’s case: suppression of exculpatory evidence. It seems to have been an instance of a terrible murder and a lack of alternative suspects, and so the full court press was on to convict Morton because he was all the authorities had. Morton is especially lucky that some DNA was finally found; without it it would have been almost impossible to prove what’s called “actual innocence,” as the Troy Davis case demonstrated. Morton is also very lucky that the DNA not only matched that of another man with a record, but that it was also linked to a nearby crime with the same m.o., which had been committed after Morton was already in prision. Otherwise Morton would probably still be in prison despite a nearly complete lack of evidence against him in the case.
Did I say “lack of evidence”? You bet:
Michael Morton has always maintained his innocence of the murder of his wife Christine, who was found dead in their home by a neighbor the morning of August 13, 1986. At trial, the prosecution argued that Michael beat his wife to death after she refused to have sex with him upon returning from his 32nd birthday celebration at a restaurant. There were no witnesses or physical evidence linking Michael to the crime. The prosecution relied largely on the fact that Michael left a note to Christine on the bathroom vanity expressing his disappointment with the fact that she fell asleep on him. (The note closed with the words “I love you.”) Michael’s co-workers testified that he arrived at work at about 6 a.m. that morning and didn’t notice anything unusual about his behavior.
In addition, the state of Texas fought and successfully blocked Morton’s request to test the bandana for six long years. The following ought to outrage you, also:
In response to a Public Information Act request, the Innocence Project obtained the transcripts of the state’s chief investigator’s interview with the Christine’s mother that was conducted less than two weeks after the murder. In the transcript, she describes a conversation with the couple’s three-year-old son Eric, who told her in chilling detail that he witnessed an unknown man murder his mother.
The court papers note that this newly discovered evidence was turned over by the state Attorney General’s office in 2008 over the objection of Bradley, who personally reviewed the material and asked that it not be turned over because of the ongoing litigation over DNA testing.
There’s more about the suppressed evidence here.
I don’t see this as a liberal vs. conservative issue, or even primarily as a death penalty issue—although I think that before the death penalty is applied there should be a much higher standard of evidence against the defendant that was present in the Morton case (or Troy Davis’s, for that matter). I would think that conservatives, especially those concerned with the preservation of liberty, would be dedicated to making the legal system as airtight as possible. Not only is it a question of justice, but every single wrongful conviction undermines the public’s faith in that justice system. Preventing these incidents in the first place would be a whole lot better.
Another factor that’s not usually considered in these cases is the reaction of jurors on learning that they voted to convict a person and were deceived by a prosecutor into doing so. One of Morton’s jurors, Lou Bryon, speaks out on that very subject:
“Until this morning when I saw the headline, I thought [Morton] was still guilty,” she said.
News reports of the discovery of DNA on a bandana matching that of a convicted felon in California, coupled with the Innocence Project’s claims of suppressed evidence shocked her to her core.
“It’s criminal that I didn’t know all of these things that were never introduced to us,” she said…
I’ve been crying all day. You know, 25 years is a long time,” Bryan said. “He probably just doesn’t know how to cope what’s going on right this second; I guess I feel the same way. I feel for him. I really do.”
The state has a duty not just to the defendant to get it right and to come as close as it can to meting out justice. It has a duty to the general public, the family of the victim, and even to the jurors, who bear the solemn responsibility and burden of either executing or putting another human being away for life.