Michael Morton was wrongfully convicted of murder for beating his wife to death in 1986. As a result, he spent twenty-five years in prison, leaving the couple’s 3-year old son behind to be raised by someone else. In October 2011, Morton was finally released from prison when new DNA evidence proved he did not kill his wife.
Now, a seldom used court of inquiry is hearing evidence for whether the prosecutor who convicted Morton, Ken Anderson, should face criminal charges for hiding evidence in the case. Courts of inquiry are special court used when public officials are accused of wrongdoing. It is similar to a grand jury proceeding except that the public official is allowed to defend themselves against the evidence presented. In addition, the State Bar of Texas is suing Anderson because of his conduct in this case.
Anderson, who is now a district judge, allegedly knew, but failed to tell Morton’s defense team, that Morton’s 3-year old son witnessed the murder of his mother and had said a “monster” killed her and his dad was not home at the time. Further, Anderson allegedly failed to tell Morton’s attorney that neighbors had reported that a man parked a green van near the Morton home and walk into a wooded area behind it. Morton’s defense at trial was based on a theory that an unknown person committed the crime; such a theory would have been bolstered by the evidence regarding a “monster” and an unknown man walking in the woods behind the Morton home.
Judge Anderson has apologized to Morton but denied any wrongdoing. Morton testified during the court of inquiry and said he did not want revenge against Anderson but that there needed to be some accountability for what happened. He tearfully said, “I ask that you do what needs to be done. But at the same time to be gentle with Judge Anderson.”
I am not sure many people would be able to request “gentle” treatment for misconduct that resulted in 25 years of your life being taken away. Whether or not Judge Anderson will ever face criminal charges for his conduct remains to be seen. The court’s decision could be made as early as this week. However, no matter what the court of inquiry decides, Morton will never be able to replace the 25 years he spent in jail.
Criminal charges against Judge Anderson will perhaps provide a small measure of accountability in the justice system for this case. It could send a clear message to other prosecutors that not “playing fair” can have disastrous consequences – not only for the suspect you are trying to convict — but also for your job, your law license, and most importantly for your freedom.
As for future criminal defendants and criminal defense attorneys, this case exemplifies that a separate and complete investigation needs to be conducted by the defense team. Everyone hopes that the prosecutor is going to “play fair,” but in order to provide a thorough defense against criminal charges, a defense team needs to do a lot of their own work too – interviewing witnesses, visiting the crime scene, and hiring experts (such as DNA experts) if needed.