GEORGETOWN, Texas (AP) — As Michael Morton became a household name across Central Texas, his story became harder for John Bradley to shake. The district attorney in Williamson County, Bradley spent years arguing against DNA testing of a bloody bandana that could have cleared Morton of his wife's murder. The bandana was eventually tested, and Morton walked out of prison after nearly 25 years.
The case helped bring down a sharp-eyed, tough-talking attorney once named prosecutor of the year in Texas. Bradley lost Tuesday in a Republican primary to retain his seat after his opponent waged a campaign focused on Morton.
In a state where dozens of wrongfully convicted people have been freed, Bradley's loss was an extremely rare example of a wrongful conviction case having electoral consequences. Bandanas popped up near Bradley's campaign signs, and mailings from both sides addressed his role in the case.
"The guy that went to jail, all it would have taken was a signature for DNA," said Gene Barnhart, a 69-year-old resident of Georgetown, just north of Austin, who voted for Bradley's opponent. "I just didn't like the way that was handled."
Observers and criminal justice advocates said they couldn't remember another prosecutor being turned out of office for his handling of a wrongful conviction case.
"I've always wanted to see an exoneration case translate itself into a political result like this," said Jeff Blackburn, chief counsel for the Innocence Project of Texas. "Now, it's beginning to come true."
Morton spent 24 years in prison for the killing of his wife, Christine, who was beaten to death in the couple's bed on Aug. 13, 1986. Bradley, who did not return messages seeking comment, was not in the district attorney's office when Morton was convicted and sentenced to life in prison.
Morton and his attorneys now accuse the trial prosecutor, Williamson County District Attorney Ken Anderson, of not turning over all the evidence in the case. Among that evidence were statements from Morton's then 3-year-old son, Eric, who told his grandmother that he saw someone else commit the murder, and a neighbor who saw a man park a green van near the Morton home and walk into a wooded area behind it.
Anderson was appointed a district judge in 2002. He now faces a proceeding known as a "court of inquiry" to investigate whether he acted properly in the case.
Bradley, meanwhile, was district attorney when Morton's legal team first filed for DNA testing of the bandana in 2005. Bradley opposed the request. In court filings, he called the bandana "irrelevant" and questioned if it had been contaminated.
After a prolonged court battle, the bandana was tested last year. It revealed traces of Christine Morton's blood and that of another man, not her husband. Morton was released. The man matched to the bandana, Mark Alan Norwood, was arrested for the slaying one month later.
While Morton has become a national symbol of wrongful convictions, Bradley has apologized repeatedly and argued that he eventually supported Morton's release.
"I regret the delays associated with litigation surrounding the DNA testing," Bradley wrote in a letter to supporters posted on his campaign website. "I have offered my apology to Mr. Morton. And I will do everything within my power to make sure this never happens again. But the truth is that we made the best decisions we could with the information that was available to us at the time."
County Attorney Jana Duty, who ran against Bradley in the Republican primary, made Morton a centerpiece of her campaign. Two of Duty's campaign mailings focused on the Morton case, and a third mentioned it.
"I think it was a key issue in this campaign because it highlights everything that can go wrong in the criminal justice system when the system is not balanced," Duty said.
A group supporting her posted "Remember Michael Morton" signs throughout the county, and some of Bradley's signs were tagged with bandanas. Besides the national attention it received, Morton's case was frequently covered by local media. Morton did not endorse either candidate in the primary and declined to comment about Tuesday's results.
Duty was also backed by a number of local defense attorneys, including several former prosecutors in Bradley's office. And she won critical endorsements from the local sheriff's association and a group of sexual assault nurses.
"I would say it was an important factor, but it wasn't the only factor," Duty said of the Morton case. "Law enforcement was frustrated. The sexual assault nurses were frustrated. And that's why they were pushing for change."
Bradley was named prosecutor of the year in 2009 by the Texas District & County Attorneys Association, but he was also the target of many who criticized his chairmanship of the state Forensic Science Commission. When the commission examined arson investigation tactics in the case of a man convicted of killing his three children, Bradley slowed the panel's study of the case and pushed members to find
Willingham was executed in 2004.
Duty won 55 percent of the vote Tuesday to Bradley's 45 percent and will face Democrat Ken Crain in November. The Morton case, but not Willingham's, came up repeatedly in conversations with local voters who were asked to explain their choice.
"There was just something about Bradley I didn't care for," said Diane Sansom, 75, of Georgetown, who voted for Duty. "Six years denying DNA, that's uncalled for."
Joanne Land, 63, of Round Rock, supported Bradley because she had previously served on a grand jury and was impressed by his work, although she was troubled by the case.
"Even at that, I still thought he was doing a good job," Land said.
Much has changed in Texas since Morton was sent to prison. The Legislature has expanded access to post-conviction DNA testing multiple times. The state also pays wrongfully convicted inmates $80,000 for every year they were imprisoned — a compensation law considered to be the most generous in the country.
Public awareness of wrongful convictions has also grown as more than 80 people in Texas have been freed, according to the National Registry on Exonerations.
"Voters, no matter how seemingly conservative their habits may be, do not like the idea of innocent people being convicted," Blackburn said. "If that issue is squarely put like it was in that race, you can change the political composition of DA races."
State Sen. Rodney Ellis, D-Houston, who clashed with Bradley over the Willingham case, said Friday that he admired the district attorney's intellect and public service.
"I certainly believe that he opposed those efforts out of conviction, but I think he has learned first-hand that the system is not infallible and some reforms are truly necessary," Ellis said in an email. "He has said that he has had an epiphany and I take the man at his word."
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