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Today In Texas Justice


This story of another innocent man exonerated after 25 years in prison because of suppressed evidence (while the man who killed his wife was left free to kill at least one other person) contains an excellent of example of the kind of “evidence” that seems to frequently come up when innocent people have been convicted:

“There were a lot of cars in the street. There was a big yellow crime-scene ribbon around our house,” he says. “Neighbors were across the street, clustered on the corner … talking to each other, and of course, when my truck comes racing up, they all kind of key on me.”

Boutwell met Morton outside the front door and, in front of everyone, bluntly told him Christine Morton was dead, murdered in their bedroom. Morton reeled.

“You really don’t know how you’re going to react until it happens to you, and with me, I remember it was as if I was … falling inside myself,” he says.

Morton was stunned, nearly mute, which fueled the sheriff’s suspicions and became a major prosecution touchstone at his trial. The fact that Morton didn’t cry out or weep became evidence that he didn’t love his wife and had killed her.

As it happens, this also came up during the Willingham case. And, of course, Amanda Knox. And while Casey Anthony is a different issue in that it’s very possible that she actually committed the crime, the focus on how she allegedly acted incorrectly after the fact made it pretty clear that the state was lacking in actual evidence. There is, we can be confident, no single way in which people who find out that loved ones have been killed act.

In addition, see this recent story of a Texas woman convicted on an extraordinarily implausible theory that she poisoned her son with salt, which also relied heavily on this kind of crap. Hannah Overton is almost certainly another person rotting away in prison because of this variety of pseudo-evidence, and unfortunately she can’t be exonerated by DNA evidence.

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  • jeer9

    Basing a judgment of guilt (Justine’s) upon a suspect’s “abnormal” reaction after the crime is as old as Shelley’s Frankenstein and remains as flawed now as it was then. And of course Victor, the most irresponsible character, gets the fairest treatment from the authorities after Henry’s murder. But then we never seem to get beyond appearances. It makes a person almost want to set himself on fire.

    • McKingford

      I remember the case that brought this home best for me. Our firm represented a guy out on bail after being convicted of murdering his girlfriend, and where his seemingly indifferent reaction to hearing the news of her death was a major issue for the prosecution. The fact that he had bail pending appeal spoke volumes to the strength of his appeal. Under Ontario procedure, he had to turn himself in to custody at the local jail for the release of his appeal.

      Unfortunately for him, the appeal was rejected (although a subsequent appeal to the Supreme Court was successful). I was tasked with going to the jail to break the news to him – and keep in mind that this result was really a shock to everyone (as borne out by the subsequent success of the Supreme Court appeal). So although the expectation had been that the client would be spending just a few hours in custody to see to the release of the appeal judgment, the practical reality was instead that he would be serving out the balance of a life sentence.

      Now, the only news that I can imagine being *worse* than hearing that your girlfriend has been murdered, is hearing that you will spending the rest of your life in jail for that murder – especially contrary to the expectation that you will be exonerated.

      Yet in the face of this terrible news, he just shook his head, and in a flat, affectless, and monotone voice said “wow, that’s terrible news. Boy, that’s hard to believe”…as if he had just been told that his team’s ace would be skipping a start to rest a sore shoulder.

      So yeah, I don’t put much stock in reactions anymore.

      • Linnaeus

        Shock makes people react in ways one wouldn’t expect.

      • Sev

        The thing is, though, this sort of reminds me of the moral of Campos’ post above, about what lousy planners people generally are in terms of saving for retirement. I mean, people who are about to be accused of major crimes really really really ought to invest in some basic acting lessons.

        • jeer9

          You’re missing the point. People who are accused of horrible crimes are often innocent and their strange or unpredictable reactions to the charge reveal absolutely nothing about their culpability. Guilty people, on the other hand, one might suspect are probably quite practiced in their sorrowful responses. In either case, evaluations of psychological states should receive little weight. Investigators must examine closely the physical evidence.

          What makes Frankenstein so horrific is that the evidence was planted on Justine by the creature and the jurors refuse to listen to all of the sterling character testimony about her. Logic tells them that the circumstantial facts are irrefutable. And it doesn’t help that the village priest coerces a confession out of her through threats of eternal damnation. Reason and religion are thus equally flawed in their stringent exercise.

      • Mike Schilling

        in a flat, affectless, and monotone voice [as] if he had just been told that his team’s ace would be skipping a start to rest a sore shoulder

        Dammit, he’s hurt again? How could those dumb motherfuckers give a five-year contract to some fragile SOB that hurts himself combing his hair! Jesus Christ, I’d root for the fucking Dodgers before I buy one more ticket from those assholes!

  • Amanda in the South Bay

    Morton was stunned, nearly mute, which fueled the sheriff’s suspicions and became a major prosecution touchstone at his trial. The fact that Morton didn’t cry out or weep became evidence that he didn’t love his wife and had killed her.

    What the fuck do they teach at law schools in Texas these days? How are juries stupid enough to believe this sorta thing? Are prosecutors in Texas slimy, sleazy, evil, stupid, or all four?

    • efgoldman


      • DrDick

        And those are the good ones.

        • R Johnston

          Yup. The good ones knowingly rely on bad evidence and withhold exculpatory evidence. The bad ones are the sociopaths who actually plant evidence and destroy exculpatory evidence.

          • Bill Murray

            how do the one’s that fall asleep while representing you fall?

            • R Johnston

              They’re a more mixed bunch than the Texas prosecutors. Some of them are just overworked and underpaid to the point of exhaustion, some of them are alcoholics, and some of them just don’t give a fuck.

  • Manju

    Man, I can’t wait to get the inside dope on Boss Hog. What the F happened there?

    If you recall, after basically giving all the victims of the Citizens’ Council the Bird, he decided to express remorse by releasing 2 African Americans who were doing Life…for stealing a ham sandwich or something.

    But then he couldn’t stop. Upon leaving office, he started pardoning anyone he could get his hands on. Its almost like he completely lost his faith in local justice. Next thing you know, he’ll be blogging over at Radley Balko’s place or something.

  • shah8

    Wait now, what?

    NOW you take pseudo-evidence seriously? I guess you’ve gotten your senses back.

    • Scott Lemieux

      “Psuedo-evidence?” Like looking at how well a team runs the ball to evaluate claims that they have an elite running game?

      • shah8

        /me rubs fingers on forehead

        No, you were not looking at how well a team ran the football, any more than Michelle Rhee was looking at how well teachers educated students.

        You took a bit of truthiness from Bill Barnewell, who peddles such things (just like how people peddles the notion that houses or stocks always goes up), and twisted pretty much everything to fit in your preconceived notions. You actively refused to take even basic measures to evaluate your thoughts to see if any of it actually made sense. From my vantage point, it was because you really, really, really wanted to believe you were smarter than an NFL coach.

        Well, no, you’re not. You’re not even saying anything that has been new for 60 goddamned years, which is part of why I know you’re wrong. Coaches over the years have indeed thought about this, and in various strategies, sought to incorporate these notions, even in eras where you could mug a wide receiver. There is not, in fact, minimal literature on this topic, from both the coach standpoint and stat geek standpoint. If you were ever actually interested in your precious concept being challenged, you could easily google to get contrary opinion–anywheres from “mildly wrong” to “totally wrong”. You could show an interest in the various conceptual offenses that are around this concept you’ve seem to have “discovered”. Run & Shoot is only one of them. Air Raid is another. The Urban Meyer system is yet another, among spread concepts that do or don’t rely on RB production. Football is simply not a sport that offers a great deal of visibility to various statistical techniques and statgeeks over the years have fallen into the rabbithole of trying various alchemical formulations (hey, if you get it to go, you could win a mint online gambling). This is not the first time I’ve seen this sentiment. It’s not even the tenth, and usually, the people that cotton on to this, are about the same age as people who read The Fountainhead for the first time.

        But the bottom line is, you’re not interested, no more than the sheriff you’re posting about right now, in Doubt. At worst, you play the “shape of the world differ, experts say” game. What you think is what makes sense, as far as you’re concerned, and as you’ve noticed just now, people who do that tend to really hurt others through their willful woodenheadedness. It’s why I’ve dogged you for so long (although sleepiness and strong emotions also drove that typing last night) on this topic. People behave this way to assert dominance, and this sort of crudeness, regardless of how insignificant the topic actually is, should be called out for exactly what it is.

        • Scott Lemieux

          You could show an interest in the various conceptual offenses that are around this concept you’ve seem to have “discovered”.

          This would be a very convincing rebuttal to the zero people arguing that NFL teams should never call running plays or employ minimally competent running backs. As to the actual argument — that investing top dollar and/or drafts picks in running backs is generally a terrible idea and the precise quality of your running game makes very little difference to winning or losing the modern NFL — this is neither here nor there.

          But I did appreciate your cherry picking teams that allegedly won with running who instead demonstrated that teams win Super Bowls all the time with mediocre-to-terrible running games. Normal trolls would just refuse to provide evidence; you provided evidence that refuted your own argument.

  • dilbert dogbert

    Are those convicted of child molestation in the McMartin PreSchool case on coerced testimony by pre-schoolers still in prison?

    • Linnaeus

      IIRC, no convictions were ever obtained in the McMartin case. A couple of the defendants were kept in custody during the trial, because bail was set very high or denied outright, and because the trial was so long, they ended up spending significant time in jail. But they were acquitted in the end.

      • Bill Murray

        Peggy McMartin Buckley was acquitted on all charges, Ray Buckley was acquitted of 52 of 65 with the jury hung on the other 13. He was retried on 6 of the 13 and these were again hung and the case was closed with the charges dismissed. Ray Buckley spent 5 years in prison during the trials

        • Mike Schilling

          And his livelihood, career, and reputations were destroyed. But he was never convicted so, you know, the system worked.

          • Halloween Jack

            Not to mention that the people responsible for the coerced testimony of the children, Kee MacFarlane and Astrid Heger, don’t seem to have suffered any professional consequences as a result of their actions.

    • snarkout

      Gerald Amirault of the Fells Acres case was released in 2004; he was up for parole in 2001, but it was denied by Acting Gov. Jane Swift. (His mother spent eight years in prison and died while her case was being appealed.)

  • Jamie Mayerfeld

    Great post. Thanks for the Amanda Knox reference, which is extremely germane. Many people are convinced of her guilt because of stories (themselves distorted) about her unusual deportment at the police station. Can anyone tell me if Nina Burleigh’s book on Amanda Knox is good? I’ve read Candice Dempsey’s book, which is excellent.

    • Scott Lemieux

      I’ve read an extended excerpt, which was terrific.

      • Jamie Mayerfeld

        Thanks — I’ll probably buy it.

    • Ruviana

      I’ve only read the Burliegh book which was terrific. I read it just before Knox was released and I was incredibly relieved that she was. The whole case stank to heaven. The prosecutor, the same guy in The Monster of Florence, was a loose cannon and the author of The Monster of Florence said his prosecution of Knox (the story was just breaking in Perugia when the book came out) would probably be a problem, as indeed it was.

      • Jamie Mayerfeld

        Thanks, Ruviana!

  • Mike D.

    Just unspeakably sick, in particular because this is just basically how it works in a significant minority of cases generally. It’s not like these are freakish outlier examples.

  • azelie

    It’s not exactly the same as being imprisoned for years because of how people perceive your affect, but it seems related to the assessment of whether rape victims behave in the way that police think they “should”. My brother used to investigate crimes on a military base in Texas, and rape was a very frequent occurrence, but he seemed to reflect a culture that was skeptical of rape allegations, especially if the victim didn’t act a certain way. There didn’t seem to be much I could say to get him to rethink this approach. My impression is that this is not unusual in law enforcement and in trials.

  • seeker6079

    Let’s not forget that cops are terrible judges of how people should react. Worse, far worse, they seem to be suspicious to the point of paranoia of people who keep calm and rational and in charge of their emotions in a crisis; it’s almost as if they can’t believe that somebody can be as calm or calmer than they, the Magnificent Professionals. If you have a grip, then you’re BAD!.

    Ask Robert Baltovich, a man who spent years in jail because, inter alia, he handled stress well, didn’t crack under the strain of his ex-girlfriend’s disappearance and did his best to help her parents and the police. His thanks? The missing persons cops called the homocide cops and said, basically, “she’s dead and he did it” and after that the Toronto cops never looked at anybody else, even when evidence started to flow that she was murdered by a notorious serial killer.

  • Not like I need anymore ideas for posts (still have too many drafts that are not yet completed), but this is nonetheless and awesome post and a great resource for any blogger.I wish I would have thought of this idea….Great job.Phil

  • Michele

    Scott how can I reach you about another wrongful conviction of 6 men in CO? They are innocent and the judged violated their 5th amendment rights, right to a speedy trial and allowing evidence that would clearly exonerate them. Email me at [email protected]

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