Tag Archives: county

DNA evidence topic of Texas House committee hearing

AUSTIN — Michael Morton was freed after nearly 25 years in prison after being wrongly convicted of murdering his wife Christine. His saving grace was DNA evidence that took six years to finally be processed, eventually proving his innocence.

The quiet meeting room lawmakers settled into Tuesday morning was in stark contrast to the scene in that Williamson County courtroom in October.

On Tuesday, members of the Texas House Criminal Jurisprudence Committee met to discuss how Texas can better take advantage of DNA evidence.

“Clearly the Morton case hangs over us and provides some significant fuel,” said committee chairman Pete Gallego.

Rebecca Bernhardt, policy director for the Texas Defender Service, was the first to offer testimony. Bernhardt congratulated Texas for making strides in utilizing DNA evidence, but cautioned that analysts working with law enforcement agencies may be unintentionally biased.

“We think of DNA evidence as absolutely right or wrong, that we’re going to get black or white answers, and in some cases the evidence actually is gray,” said Bernhardt, who recommended Texas look into using independent testing centers.

Russell Wilson with the Dallas County District Attorney’s Office testified that criminals should be limited to how many times they can ask for DNA evidence to be examined after their conviction, saying the current law leaves room for abuse.

“Let’s evaluate it, and once that evaluation is done, that’s it,” said Wilson.

One of the major themes regarded expanding storage of DNA evidence. Though many witnesses agreed that storing evidence was a priority, opinions were split on what kind of evidence to store and how long it should be kept.

“Without the storage, without the ability to find that sample, recover it and retest it, then potentially there will be innocent people sitting in jail,” said University of North Texas professor of forensic genetics Arthur Eisenberg.

State Representative Jose Aliseda blamed the media for “pushing an anti-death penalty agenda” in covering the Morton exoneration and others.

Gallego gave each witness a charge to report back to the committee and promised to continue hearings until a plan is developed.

“We shouldn’t be governed by a desire to win, either side, to either win an acquittal or win a conviction,” said Gallego. “The truth is that it’s a search for justice.”

Burn Ban Busts Aggie Bonfire Again

Chalk up another casualty of the Texas drought: Texas AM University’s annual student bonfire was called off because of a burn ban in Robertson County. It’s the second year in a row that Aggie students havehad to cancel the towering 45 foot inferno.

“We’ve been under severe drought conditions now for a year,” Michelle Haver, a court coordinator for the Robertson county judge, told StateImpact Texas a joint reporting project of KUT and NPR.

As the bonfire’s website explains, the stack site will be open to visitors, but “under no circumstances” will they start a fire.

A collapse of the bonfire killed twelve students in 1999, and a memorial was built in their honor.

Across the state, the Texas Forest Service says about 170 of the state’s 254 counties have burn bans in effect. You can see them all on this map.  

Central Texas counties with burn bans include Bastrop, Williamson and Caldwell. Hays, Burnet and Guadalupe Counties do not have burn bans in effect.

The U.S. Drought Monitor’s map signals a slight reduction in the drought’s footprint on Texas, but 89 percent of the state is still very dry. Sixty-five percent of the state is experiencing the most intense drought category: D4 drought or exceptional drought.

Meanwhile, hundreds of Longhorns last night tried to hex the AM football team ahead of their Thanksgiving Day game. It’s an annual tradition dating back 60 years, but it may come to an end next year when AM joins another athletic conference.

“It will be the last rally for AM that we know,” Texas Exes student relations coordinator Taylor Nyberg told The Daily Texan.

County’s House districts all over map with ruling

Since his decision last April to run for Texas House District 3
in Montgomery County, Cecil Bell has put 11,000 miles on a new
pickup traveling the county to meet potential constituents.

Now that a federal court in San Antonio has redrawn the
districts the Texas Legislature redrew in April, Bell – a Magnolia
resident who sits on the Magnolia Independent School District Board
of Trustees – will be traveling even more of the county to shake
hands.

Not only has the district changed its shape and grown in size,
it’s now known by a new name – Texas House District 136.

“I don’t know why the court was compelled to change it,” Bell
said. “It just puts me to work in a broader area.”

The redrawing of the district also will have an impact on the
campaign of Bob Bagley, a Montgomery County Hospital District board
member who recently announced he would run against Bell in the
March Republican primary.

With the new map in place, “I would have to move out of the
district to run,” Bagley said. “I will probably drop out of the
race and stay on the hospital district board.”

If the final map is drawn before candidate filings end in
December, “There’s still a possibility but we just have to wait and
see,” Bagley said.

The federal court on Thursday issued temporary political maps
for the 2012 election in Texas that some say will give Democrats a
greater chance of winning seats in the Legislature. The maps,
redrawn for both the Texas House and Senate, have to be given final
court approval and will remain in place until there is a resolution
to two lawsuits filed over the Legislature’s proposals.

The court also is expected to release a proposal for new
congressional districts.

Texas Attorney General Greg Abbott on Friday filed objections to
each of the federal court’s interim plans for the Texas House and
Senate.

When District 3 was originally drawn for Montgomery County by
the Legislature, it covered all of Waller County and Southwest
Montgomery County, narrowed down as it went through Conroe and them
opened up again to encompass a sizeable portion of East Montgomery
County.

Now, District 136 will still encompass all of Waller County and
Southwest Montgomery County, but it will continue heading north to
cover virtually all of West Montgomery County and part of Northeast
Montgomery County.

With that change, many residents of Lake Conroe – including
heavily Republican Bentwater, Walden and April Sound – and
Montgomery will lose their representation by Rep. Brandon
Creighton, R-Conroe, who holds District 16.

“I’m shocked and devastated,” Creighton said Monday. I lost the
western shoreline of Lake Conroe and the northern communities. To
lose April Sound, Bentwater and Walden …I’m devastated.”

The new map disrupts planning for the city of Conroe, which has
been fulfilling a plan to annex Lake Conroe over several years,
Creighton said.

“To divide Conroe and Lake Conroe is amazing and arbitrary,” he
said. “The San Antonio court made quick changes so the election
cycle could proceed. We’ll have to expect these changes for this
cycle.”

Democrats and minorities have complained that the maps drawn by
the Republican-controlled Legislature from electing their choice of
candidate. The legal fight centers around a requirement in the 1965
federal Voting Rights Act that certain states with a history of
discrimination, including Texas, be granted “preclearance” before
changes in voting practices can be enacted.

But until Thursday’s redrawing of the maps, there had been no
indication that the San Antonio judges would touch Montgomery
County or several other heavily Republican counties.

The court also redrew maps for Williamson, Collin and Fort Bend
Counties, which are politically similar to Montgomery County.

“Montgomery County’s the most flagrant,” Creighton said. “If
we’re clear on minority voting, there’s no legal justification for
this.”

“A court’s job is to apply the law, not to make policy,” Abbott
wrote in his objection to court’s interim House map. “A federal
court lacks the constitutional authority to interfere with the
expressed will of the state Legislature unless it is compelled to
remedy a specific identifiable violation of law.”

The three-judge panel, however, was split Thursday in a 2-1
vote, which Creighton said is an “opening” for the Surpreme
Court.

With Conroe’s plans for water and transportation, among other
issues, “To be severed away from the lake makes no sense,”
Creighton said.

The new map essentially looks the same for Rep. Rob Eissler,
R-The Woodlands, but adds a couple of precincts in Porter and New
Caney, said Dr. Walter Wilkerson, chair of the Montgomery County
Republican Party.

Creighton’s district is “a little less Republican” but District
136 is “more Republican the way it’s drawn now” because of its
incorporation of the Lake Conroe communities, Wilkerson said.

He feels both districts would elect Republicans.

“When you consider all the lake areas,” he said “I don’t see how
in the world any Democrat could win (District 136.)

“There’s no Democrat that’s going to beat Brandon.”

But, like Abbott and Creighton, Wilkerson is unhappy with the
federal court’s decision.

“I’m fed up with these courts. This is a bunch of baloney,” he
said. “Now we’re waiting on the district court in Washington.

“Even if they change it just a little bit, everyone has to
refile and run again.”

Systems don’t fail; people do – Austin American


Even as he offered an apology for a wrongful conviction that robbed an innocent man of 25 years of his life, State District Judge Ken Anderson sidestepped accepting responsibility for his role in it.

Despite evidence that pointed to someone other than Michael Morton in the murder of his wife, Christine, in 1986, Williamson County investigators and prosecutors focused on the husband. Michael Morton was convicted in 1987 and released from prison last month after DNA evidence implicated another suspect in the case.

Anderson, now a state district judge in Georgetown, was district attorney in Williamson County in 1986 and directed the Morton case. Though an apology from an officer of the court for a wrongful conviction is highly unusual, Anderson’s apology won’t give Morton 25 years of his life back. Nor will the apology repair the damage the conviction did to Morton’s family. Nor can the apology assuage the grief of the daughter who believes her mother was murdered because Christine Morton’s killer remained at large and free to kill again. Williamson County prosecutors ignored leads that might have led to the actual killer in their zeal to convict Michael Morton.

“As woefully inadequate as I realize it is, I want to formally apologize for the system’s failure to Mr. Morton and every other person who was affected by the verdict,” Anderson said at a news conference last week. It was rhetorical sleight of hand that ignores an obvious and compelling truth: The system doesn’t run itself. People run the system, and in this case, the people who run the system failed miserably.

As district attorney, Anderson swore to uphold justice. A record of winning convictions may make for good politics, but not all courtroom victories represent justice. Williamson County residents relish their reputation for being tough on crime. A narrowly focused pursuit of convictions, however, erodes faith in a system that functions well only if the public trusts it to be fair.

In Texas, at least 40 people have been exonerated by DNA evidence, according to the Innocence Project, which also handled Morton’s case.

Making the system fair is a responsibility entrusted to prosecutors, defense, investigators and judges who are that system.

Blaming the system is a convenient rhetorical device for a public official in a tough spot, but it renders Anderson’s apology hollow. If he is truly sorry, then Anderson should turn remorse into action by actively working to reform the system in a way that prevents future miscarriages of justice. Start with eliminating barriers that prevent post-conviction DNA testing and creating tougher sanctions against prosecutors who hide key evidence.

The Morton case is a high-profile embarrassment to Texas justice. Williamson County District Attorney John Bradley resisted instead of assisted efforts to test a bandana found near the Morton home for DNA. Morton’s lawyers ultimately prevailed and the DNA evidence cleared Morton.

Authorities now suspect Mark Norwood in the killing of both Christine Morton and Debra Baker, who was murdered in Travis County in 1988. DNA links him to both crimes. Norwood, who is in custody in Williamson County, has been charged in Christine Morton’s case.

Anderson said at his news conference that DNA evidence wasn’t available in 1987. While true, it ignores the fact that the Morton’s 3-year-old son told investigators his father wasn’t home when Christine Morton was killed. Chalk that up to the impressions of a traumatized 3-year-old if you will, but there was also evidence that Christine Morton’s credit card was used in San Antonio days after her death.

The State Bar of Texas has mounted an inquiry into Anderson’s conduct and the judge has given a deposition to Morton’s appellate lawyers. A transcript is expected to be released soon, maybe even this week. All that inquiry and investigation is warranted because the consequences of the Morton case were far-reaching, as Anderson himself acknowledged in his statement.

Christine Morton lost her life. Michael Morton lost 25 years. Their son lost both of his parents.

Caitlin Baker lost her mother, Debra. And the system Anderson talks about lost credibility.

Credibility is the foundation of the criminal justice system. The people who are the system have the responsibility to maintain that system’s integrity like it was their own because it is. A lifeless system doesn’t make choices and exercise judgment. Anderson remains a crucial element of our justice system. He continues to make choices and exercise discretion that has far-reaching consequences.

The system didn’t fail in the Morton case. The people who are the system failed.