Friday, February 17, 2012
DNA Tests & Lessons Learned | Casey's Last Word
As regular viewers know, we’ve been following the case of Michael Morton.
He’s the Georgetown man who spent 25 years in prison for killing his wife before DNA tests on a bloody bandana found near his house indicated he was innocent.
The test also identified the likely killer, who has now also been indicted in a subsequent murder of an Austin woman.
Last week San Antonio District Judge Sid Harle, who had been put in charge of the case by state Supreme Court Chief Justice Wallace Jefferson, formally requested a court of inquiry to investigate allegations of misconduct and possibly criminal behavior by Ken Anderson, the Williamson County district attorney who prosecuted Morton.
Anderson is now a district judge.
Wallace wasted no time in appointing District Judge Louis Sturns of Fort Worth to conduct the proceeding to investigate evidence that Anderson deliberately withheld crucial information that would have cast serious doubt on Morton’s guilt.
What originally grabbed me about this story was the fact that Anderson’s successor, Williamson County District Attorney John Bradley had successfully fought the testing of the bandana for five years.
He told me the citizens of Texas needed finality in such cases.
The irony was that Bradley was then Chairman of the Texas Forensic Science Commission, a body whose job it is to improve the use of forensic science in Texas.
Since then, Bradley lost his fight to keep the bandana from being tested, and he also lost his seat on the Forensic Science Commission after the State Senate declined to confirm his appointment by Governor Perry.
Bradley now agrees that it was good that the bandana was tested, that certitude trumps finality when it comes to issues of guilt or innocence.
But there is another lesson that may be learned from the Morton case, and it too has to do with forensic science.
According to his trial testimony, the medical examiner who conducted Mrs. Morton’s autopsy originally wrote that the state of digestion of her stomach contents indicated she may have died as late as 6 a.m.
This would have jibed with Morton’s testimony that he left his house at 5:30 a.m. for work and that the murderer must have entered the house afterwards.
But by the time of trial the medical examiner, Dr. Roberto Bayardo, changed his testimony to death at no later than 1:15 a.m., making Morton’s alibi irrelevant – a point that was driven home by prosecutor Anderson in his closing argument.
It isn’t clear why Bayardo changed his findings, and the court of inquiry should look into it.
But it’s been a long-standing problem in Texas and elsewhere that medical examiners and crime labs tend to see police and prosecutors as their clients.
It’s understandable since the forensic technicians tend to see their jobs as being to help solve crimes, putting them, in effect, on the law-enforcement team.
This is especially true of crime labs that are part of police agencies, such as the DPS crime lab, and the Houston Police Crime Lab.
But in fact, their job isn’t to solve crimes.
It’s to produce the best scientific evidence -- whether that evidence helps the prosecution or the defense.
There are moves toward making crime labs independent, especially in Houston, home of the state’s most notorious crime lab scandals, where Mayor Annise Parker this week laid out a plan to remove the crime lab from the police department.
Such moves and more are needed. Texas justice will be served only when forensic professionals work in a culture that sees science as their clients, not police and prosecutors.