Texas judge orders inquiry into wrongful-conviction case
A Texas judge ruled Friday that there was probable cause to believe a former district attorney refused to turn over evidence that contributed to the wrongful murder conviction of Michael Morton, who served 25 years of a life sentence before being exonerated late last year.
Morton, 57, a former grocery store clerk, was ultimately freed thanks to DNA evidence unavailable when his wife was beaten to death in their suburban Austin home in 1986. After he was freed, another man was charged in connection with her killing.
On Friday, Bexar County District Court Judge Sid Harle recommended that the Texas Supreme Court convene a court of inquiry to investigate possible prosecutorial misconduct in the Morton case by then-Williamson County Dist. Atty. Ken Anderson, now a district court judge.
Morton’s lawyers said the ruling illustrated the perils of prosecutors withholding evidence in criminal cases.
“Tragic consequences can result when prosecutors put aside their ethical obligations in their zeal to win convictions. Yet far too often their misdeeds go unpunished,” said Barry Scheck, co-director of the New York-based Innocence Project, which championed Morton’s case. In an interview with the Los Angeles Times, he added that Judge Harle’s ruling served as a reminder that "no one is above the law.”
Anderson’s lawyer said his client welcomed the court of inquiry as a chance to clear his name.
“We look forward to the opportunity to demonstrate further that the allegations against Judge Anderson are completely without merit,” Austin-based attorney Eric Nichols said in an interview.
Friday's ruling comes after a request by Innocence Project lawyers in December for a court of inquiry, a special Texas legal procedure. The chief justice appoints a judge who conducts the court of inquiry and then appoints a lawyer to represent the state.
In a report filed with their request, Innocence Project lawyers noted that their depositions with key witnesses, including Anderson, showed that he had not turned over evidence that could have helped show that Morton had not beaten his wife, Christine, to death on Aug. 13, 1986.
Anderson, who has apologized for the wrongful conviction, said in his deposition that he could not remember many details about how he handled the Morton case. He contended that he gave Morton’s lawyer everything a judge had ordered him to provide, which he believed was limited to reports by the lead investigator concerning Morton’s initial statements.
But Innocence Project lawyers, through public records requests, obtained evidence they claimed was exculpatory, or could have helped prove their client’s innocence, including: a transcript of the victim’s mother saying the couple’s 3-year-old son told her Michael Morton was not the attacker, a neighbor’s account of seeing someone staking out the Mortons' house before the killing, and records showing the victim’s Visa card was used after her death.
On Friday, Morton's attorneys also revealed new information about a personal check that they had once argued was evidence of Morton's innocence. The $20 check was cashed after Christine Morton's death.
Morton's attorneys had surmised the check suggested that others were involved in her death. But Scheck said he and other lawyers only last week discovered deposit slips showing the check was deposited into a joint account for Christine and Michael Morton.
The discovery removed some of the mystery surrounding the check, but Scheck said Morton's legal team disclosed the information to the court in the interest of transparency.
“We’re doing by example what should have been done in this case” by prosecutors, Scheck said.
But Anderson’s attorney said Scheck and Morton’s other attorneys should have revealed that information long ago.
“It is remarkable to us after all these months and all the things that have been said in filings that they continued to take the position that this was exculpatory,” Nichols said.
--Molly Hennessy-Fiske in Houston
Photo: Williamson County District Judge Ken Anderson faces a court of inquiry after apologizing for the system's failure in the case of a man who served 25 years in prison for a murder he did not commit. Credit: Laura Skelding/Austin American-Statesman/Associated Press.