Koror (Pacific Note) — “Palau has been a humbling experience for me,” John Bradley says, sitting at the Rose Garden Restaurant in Malakal, with his wife Leslie. Looking out from the restaurant’s open area overlooking Rock Islands, Bradley was savoring every minute of his remaining stay in this paradise island nation before heading to Hawaii. Amid his great moments in Palau, there have been bad times that he says he would rather forget.
Bradley stepped down from his post as Palau’s attorney general in September. His resignation is effective Nov. 30, two months ahead of his contract’s expiration.
Described as one of the most high-profile district attorneys in the United States, Bradley is a magnet for controversy. He moved to Palau in 2014 to serve as this island nation’s attorney general. His stint here is not short of disagreements.
Bradley’s career as Williamson County district attorney was marred by his role in the case of Michael Morton, a former Texas inmate who served 25 years after being wrongfully convicted for the 1986 murder of his wife, Christine, in Williamson County. Although Bradley was not involved in convicting Morton, he argued against the reopening of the case when he became a district attorney in Texas. In 2011, Bradley — then chairman of the Texas Forensic Science Commission — “tenaciously fought” the Innocence Project’s campaign to get Morton’s conviction reversed. For six years, Bradley opposed DNA testing until the appellate court ruled in favor of Morton. A judge ordered the DNA testing, which eventually proved Morton’s innocence. He was released from prison in October 2011. DNA tests linked Mark Alan Norwood, a dish washer who lived in Austin, to Christine Morton's murder. Norwood was convicted and sentenced to life.
In Palau, Bradley said he was very careful not to impose any “American idea” on this island-nation with a population of less than 20,000. “Working in Palau is a very good education for me,” said Bradley, who resigned from his post in September. “It changed the way I looked at how I do that job. In Texas, I was an elected district attorney and was responsible for criminal prosecution. Here the job is much broader. What we are really doing is representing the Republic of Palau.”
He said he listened to the community, of which he eventually became a part. While Bradley wanted to fulfill his job with caution, he could not avoid conflicts. He figured in a bitter squabble with the Vice President and Ministry of Justice Antonio Bells, who suspended him for 10 working days without pay in December 2015 on grounds of insubordination.
In April this year, Bells sued Bradley and other officials for allegedly depositing a U.S. grant into a nongovernmental account and expending it illegally. In a separate lawsuit, Bells sued Bradley, along with former Interim Special Prosecutor and Public Safety Director Ismael Aguon, for “humiliation” caused by misconduct of public office charges filed against him last year, and eventually dropped by ISP in January. Bells included Bradley in the civil action for allegedly denying him representation. Bells eventually dropped the lawsuit.
Bradley said his unpleasant encounters with Bells are the episodes in Palau that he would rather leave behind. He hopes that he can shake Bells hand someday.
Nevertheless, Bradley is grateful for President Tommy Remengesau Jr. taking a chance on him amid all the controversy. “He supported me and I will always appreciate that,” he said.
In 2014, Remengesau stood by his decision to hire Bradley, as he appealed to critics not to focus on the Morton’s case. “Mr. Bradley readily admits that he made a serious error in judgment by not agreeing to the DNA testing, and he is painfully aware that his actions kept an innocent man locked up for longer than he should have been,” read a 2014 statement from the Office of the President. “Mr. Bradley says that the Morton case has changed him as a person and has made him a more balanced, fair, and humble prosecutor.”
Remengesau said Bradley’s years of experience as a prosecutor convinced him to hire him despite the Morton controversy. “He never violated any law or ethical rules and that his skills and track record makes him a good fit for Palau,” the president said, adding that Palau needs an “experienced and skilled prosecutors to help keep our community safe.”
Bradley considers the case of the abandoned Chinese cruise ship Xian Ni in Palau as one of his biggest accomplishments as attorney general. The owner of the Xian Ni was invited to send the ship to Palau for the Pacific leaders' forum in 2014 to provide additional accommodation for delegates. But the ship arrived late. The ship owners later proposed to turn Xian Ni into a floating hotel but the Remengesau government deemed it unfit for that purpose. A Philippine salvage company called Fahrenheit has been awarded the contract to remove Xian Ni in 2015.
Bradley has more than 25 years of experience in prosecution. He was the district attorney of Williamson County, first as an appointee of Texas Governor Rick Perry and was later elected three times. Bradley served as the Williamson County district attorney from 2001 until 2012, when he lost the election to then-County Attorney Jana Duty.
Bradley formed a training program for law enforcement officers, modernized the screening and processing of criminal cases, and expanded funding for victim advocacy programs. He was named Prosecutor of the Year in the State of Texas.
Often regarded as “a well-connected ally” of Perry, Bradley denied speculations that he got the Palau job through the Texas governor. He said he came across and responded to an online ad for the Attorney General position in Palau. The only involvement Perry might have had — if at all — in getting job, he said, was a recommendation he had requested. When he learned that Perry was about to travel to Palau in 2014 as part of a project to search for missing American World War II soldiers, Bradley requested the governor’s office to put in a good word for him. He wasn’t sure though if Perry did talk to the president about him.
But Remengesau had all but praises for Bradley, who he said did an “excellent job.” Bradley is completing his job in Palau by Nov. 30, 2016. Bradley said his stay in Palau was good for him; he spent more time diving and enjoying the island life with his wife Leslie.