Williamson County DA faces tough race
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John Bradley, Rick Perry’s choice to block the Forensic Science Commission’s investigation into the flawed arson science that led to the conviction and subsequent execution of Cameron Todd Willingham, is in a tough Republican Primary reelection battle with county attorney Jana Duty. Bradley has also been in the news recently over the nationally publicized Michael Morton case, in which Bradley refused to grant Morton’s lawyers’ request for DNA testing on a crucial piece of evidence. Only after a ruling from an appellate court did the testing go forward. Morton spent 25 years in prison before he was exonerated by DNA testing that Bradley had resisted for six years. As most readers know, the Morton case was featured last night on 60 Minutes. A letter posted in the Round Rock Leader by criminal defense attorney Mark Brunner gave his insights into Williamson County justice, John Bradley-style. This is an excerpt:
In Williamson County, it is common practice that felony plea bargains are given to defense counsel and their clients on a “one-day-only” basis — meaning, taking it today, or the deal gets worse. And that “today” is often the first day the attorney and client have ever been in court. Many, many times a request for additional evidence (oftentimes something as simple as a lab report or a DWI videotape of a client being stopped by the police) will be denied by Mr. Bradley’s prosecutors with the veiled warning that if a deal is not speedily taken, the stakes for the client could get much worse. While I routinely advise my clients to ignore such attempts at bully brinksmanship and wait patiently until I can secure all the evidence, it puts my clients in an awful bind. They are made to choose between a plea bargain right now, when I have not had a chance to fully evaluate their case, or suffer a worse bargain later, after I have had the chance to do my ethical best to collect all the evidence in the state’s hands.
In the last reporting period, at the end of December, Duty had raised $83,211.09 to Bradley’s $38,604.06. Shortly thereafter, the Statesman reported that Duty had raised an additional $30,000 and Bradley $20,000. From Duty’s Web page:
The job of the District Attorney is to seek justice. The people of Williamson County deserve a D.A. who understands this and who puts the public interest above their political career and that of their friends. Unfortunately there is a cloud hanging over the District Attorney’s office. John Bradley represents all that is wrong with our political system today. Instead of seeking justice, Bradley aggressively fought against DNA testing for a man who was wrongfully imprisoned for over two decades for murder. The whole time the real killer remained on the loose.
Grits for Breakfast has covered the race extensively, including this report on an issue that Bradley could use against Duty:
Duty’s vulnerability in this race is that she was reprimanded by the State Bar of Texas. She’s been in a big feud with the good-ol’ boy crowd at the county commissioners court, which hired an outside attorney over her objections – ironically the attorney who was the second chair prosecutor at Michael Morton’s original trial. The State Bar of Texas upheld a complaint against Duty for revealing information she learned in executive session of the commissioners court.
Bradley gave a long interview to the Jarrell Star Ledger about the Morton case. The interview began with this question, “Would you like to comment on the Michael Morton case?” Bradley replied:
“The media has not reported all the details connected to our decision on DNA testing. AThe results from those tests seemed to confirm Morton’s guilt. Then, we looked at whether to test a bandanathat had been found 100 yards away from the crime scene by a family member. There were two major problems: (1) the chain of custody on how it was collected was unclear because it was not collected by the police, and (2) the bandana had possibly been contaminated with blood from the crime scene when a family member brought it from the home. Based on these problems, Judge Billy Ray Stubblefield denied the request for DNA testing. “Later a court of appeals reversed that ruling and we tested for DNA. I deeply regret the delays that occurred from that process, but we all made reasonable arguments based on the best information we had at the time. It wasn’t an arbitrary decision. It was based on the best information we had at the time. I now know different things, some of which I can’t share with you until after this other trial is over, and it certainly changed my opinion about the case. The county attorney (Ms. Duty) seems to suggest that somehow I am a bad person because a decision in the Morton case turned out to be incorrect. I would ask the public to look at that from a broader point of view. First, they ought to know that the county attorney officially defended our decision in the Morton case. The county attorney defended myself and the sheriff when the Innocence project asked a federal judge to intervene and require DNA testing. She expressly argued that the district attorney and the sheriff made reasonable arguments and had been fair and appropriate in how they investigated this case. The federal judge agreed and ended up dismissing the case. So it seems that the county attorney is hypocritical by changing her positions now that she needs a political advantage in running for D.A. I don’t think voters will appreciate and support that kind of political opportunism. I believe they will recognize that a mistake was made, acknowledged, and corrected. The question is whether we learn from our mistakes.”
The thing Mr. Bradley leaves out of his explanation is that he fought the Innocence Project’s efforts to establish Mr. Morton’s innocence every step of the way. That should haunt him to the end of time, though it did not dissuade him from running for reelection. As you might expect, this has been a nasty race. The Wilco Watchdog, a blogger, and a very good one, wrote about a campaign event in which Duty was booed by a woman in the audience when she attempted to speak about the Morton case. The Williamson County Sun, widely read in the county, identified the woman who booed as Linda Berglund, but it did not identify Berglund as the sister of Round Rock attorney Mike Davis. But Wilco Watchdog knew who she was.
Perhaps the public has the right to know that Linda Berglund is the sister of Round Rock attorney Mike Davis, second chair in the Michael Morton case and the attorney whom District Attorney John Bradley refused to investigate for possibly illegally billing the county while Davis represented Don Higginbotham, a former judge who was accused of sexually harassing his employees. Perhaps it really doesn’t matter. But given the set of circumstances, in the interest of full disclosure, we felt that since the Sun did not inform the readers who Ms. Berglund is, we thought we’d let them decide the motives behind the “boos” and comments to the Sun.
Looking at endorsements in the case, Bradley is doing very well, as you might expect. Virtually the entire political establishment is in his corner–County Judge Dan Gattis Sr., his son (the former state rep), former Round Rock mayor Nyle Maxwell, 150 former grand jurors, a number of Republican precinct chairs, and so on. Duty has won the endorsements of the Cedar Park Police Association, the statewide Texas Fraternal Order of Police, and the two district attorneys who preceded Bradley. It is significant that Duty has raised twice as much as Bradley; however, in a local race where everybody knows the players and their histories, money may not be the decisive factor. Duty’s supporters, or, if you prefer, Bradley’s opponents, have placed bandanas on his signs, emblematic of the article of clothing on which the exculpatory DNA evidence was found. The political implications of the story are clear. First, the clearing of Morton may give renewed life to an investigation of the Willingham case by the Forensic Science Commission. However, Attorney General Greg Abbott has given Perry cover by ruling that the commission cannot investigate any matters that arose before its creation. The attorney general cannot issue an opinion unless one is requested. Guess who requested it? John Bradley. I think this is a lousy ruling. Injustice is injustice. Bad science is bad science. You can’t understand the present until you understand the past. The commission should be allowed to go on with its investigation into faulty arson science. As for Bradley, the Senate refused to confirm him as chairman after he called Willingham a “guilty monster.”