In 1988, husband and father Michael Morton was wrongfully convicted for the murder of his wife, Christine. By the time Morton was freed in 2011, it was clear that evidence existed at the time of his trial which pointed to a an alternative suspect, Mark Norwood, who went on to kill another woman in the same manner that he killed Christine Morton. After Michael Morton’s exoneration, the Texas State Bar and the district court judge over the case called for a court of inquiry into former Williamson County District Attorney Ken Anderson’s conduct.
(Courts of inquiry, which are unique to Texas, are explained by the Texas Tribune here.)
On Friday, April 19, Judge Sturns (who presided over the Court of Inquiry which concluded a week of hearings on February 9) authorized criminal charges to be laid against Ken Anderson, now a sitting district court judge. The Innocence Project, who won Morton’s case, reports that the Court ruled there was probable cause to believe Anderson violated three criminal laws: criminal contempt of court, tampering with physical evidence and tampering with government records. The Court issued a warrant for his arrest.
In discussing the Court’s ruling, Michael Morton stated, “The important thing is that there is transparency in our system, and accountability. No one is above the law.” In a sense, the outcome of the Inquiry proves Morton right; on the other hand, the unprecedented nature of the result demonstrates how far we have to go in providing meaningful accountability for prosecutors who deliberately commit misconduct.
One step toward this in Texas would be the passage of SB 1611, which unanimously passed out of the Senate and is pending in the House. In an editorial last Friday, the Houston Chronicle pointed to the Michael Morton case as the poster child for why lawmakers ought to support SB 1611. The measure would require prosecutors to disclose certain materials, including witness statements and offense reports, to defendants. (A recent report by Texas Appleseed and the Texas Defender Service highlighted the lack of uniformity among District Attorneys in Texas as to what material they disclose.) The editorial discussed why these reforms are so desperately needed to prevent future wrongful convictions and restore Texans’ faith in their criminal justice system:…[T]his is not about Anderson; this is about justice. Morton himself has not called for revolution, and he has denied being a crusader, but he cannot deny that his plight has started an upheaval in Texas’ criminal justice system. After all, his name is attached to the first change to Texas’ discovery rules in nearly 50 years. The Michael Morton bill (SB 1611), which unanimously passed the Texas Senate earlier this month, would codify and mandate evidence sharing between prosecutors and defendants to hopefully prevent any similar cases in the future. Though perhaps Anderson’s mug shot will be a more dire warning to renegade prosecutors. Now the state House has to vote on the bill and send it to Gov. Rick Perry for his signature. If passed, the Morton bill would reduce wrongful convictions. It would save taxpayer dollars wasted on unnecessarily long trials that could have been resolved by sharing evidence. Most importantly, it would help restore the public’s faith in courts shaken by all too many exonerations of innocent people railroaded by an unfair system.