Michael Morton Prosecutor Will Face Criminal Charges for Withholding Evidence
Texas Judge Charges Former Williamson County Prosecutor Ken Anderson With Three Felonies for Concealing Evidence of Morton’s Innocence
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(Austin, TX; April 19, 2013) – Today a Texas court has ruled that former Williamson County District Attorney Ken Anderson will face criminal contempt and tampering charges for failing to turn over evidence pointing to the innocence of Michael Morton, who was later exonerated by DNA evidence after serving 25 years for his wife’s murder, despite a court order and legal obligation to do so. The Judge ruled there was probable cause to believe Anderson violated three criminal laws by concealing evidence in the case and issued a warrant for his arrest. The decision to bring criminal charges against Anderson comes at the conclusion of a Court of Inquiry that was convened at the request of the Innocence Project, which uncovered evidence that Anderson failed to turn over that could have prevented Morton’s wrongful conviction during its decade long legal battle to prove Morton’s innocence. The court found that Anderson should face criminal charges for failing turn over favorable evidence pointing to Morton’s innocence despite specific requests from the defense and an order by the trial judge to do so. The court made specific findings that Anderson knew of evidence supporting Morton’s innocence but intentionally failed to disclose it to the defense.
Following today’s hearing, Anderson was taken to Williamson County jail for processing. He is expected to be released on bond which was set at $2,500 for each felony count.
“We believe this is a landmark case. I know that good prosecutors, and that’s most of them, agree that it’s important Judge Anderson be held accountable for the willful misconduct that caused Michael Morton to lose 25 years of his life,” said Barry Scheck, Co-Director of the Innocence Project, which is affiliated with Cardozo School of Law. “It’s extremely rare for prosecutors to be punished for deliberately hiding exculpatory evidence, much less face criminal charges. But this outcome will hopefully usher in a new era of oversight to ensure that prosecutors live up to their ethical obligations.”
After Morton was exonerated for the 1987 murder of his wife Christine, the Innocence Project filed a report calling for a Court of Inquiry to investigate whether Anderson engaged in criminal conduct by failing to turn over to the trial court as requested evidence favorable to Morton that was in his file and police files. The Innocence Project conducted depositions of key witnesses and uncovered other evidence showing that Anderson did not turn over the transcript of the victim’s mother telling lead investigator Sgt. Don Wood that Morton’s 3-year-old son told her that Morton was not the attacker, a message to Wood dated two days after the murder reporting that what appears to be the victim’s Visa card was used at store in San Antonio, a report from a neighbor observing someone in a van staking out the Morton’s house before the murder and a report saying that a check made out to the victim may have been cashed with a forged signature nine days after her murder which police appeared to dismiss out of hand before investigating. Morton maintained all along that the murder was committed by a third-party intruder in the course of a burglary.
In March 2013, Mark Alan Norwood, who was identified as the likely true perpetrator through the Innocence Project’s DNA testing, was convicted of the murder of Michael Morton’s wife and sentenced to life in prison. Norwood has also been indicted for another murder in Texas that was committed after Morton was wrongfully imprisoned.
District Judge Louis Sturns of Fort Worth presided over the Court of Inquiry under a special appointment by Chief Justice Wallace Jefferson of the Texas Supreme Court. At the hearing, he said that the Court of Inquiry does not require him to decide whether the statute of limitations prevents prosecution and that Anderson must raise that issue after his arrest. In February, Judge Sturns heard evidence about Anderson’s handling of the case over a weeklong hearing. Today, Judge Sturns announced his decision in the matter, finding that there was probable cause to believe that Anderson was guilty of criminal contempt and concealment of official records for deliberately disobeying the trial judge’s directives to disclose exculpatory evidence and ordered Anderson’s arrest in the courtroom.
“This case provides a very clear roadmap for judges going forward on how to deal with prosecutors who deliberately hide exculpatory evidence,” added Scheck. “The court found that Anderson intentionally misled the trial judge, and that’s what makes this prosecution possible. If judges ordered prosecutors to follow state ethical obligations to disclose all evidence that tends to negate guilt, we would have a very powerful tool for holding accountable those few prosecutors who intentionally break the rules.”
Anderson, who is now a sitting district court judge in Williamson County, is also facing disciplinary action from the State Bar of Texas for his actions in the Morton case. Over the past year, the Innocence Project launched the Prosecutorial Oversight campaign to bring better oversight and accountability over prosecutors. Research conducted over a five year period in six states, including Texas, has found that prosecutors are almost never disciplined for even intentional misconduct. While the available data is scarce, the Innocence Project notes that very few prosecutors have ever been charged criminally for their misconduct.
“Hopefully this case will serve as a wake-up call to prosecutors across the nation that there are real consequences for ignoring the ethical rules that have been established to ensure that everyone gets a fair trial,” said Nina Morrison, a Senior Staff Attorney with the Innocence Project. “As we’ve seen by what happened to Mr. Morton, failing to abide by these rules can have devastating consequences, and prosecutors should be held accountable for their actions just like virtually every other profession.”
Morton was represented by Scheck and Morrison at the Innocence Project, John Raley with Raley & Bowick in Houston, TX, and Gerry Goldstein and Cynthia Orr with Goldstein, Goldstein & Hilley in San Antonio, TX. Rusty Hardin of Rusty Hardin and Associates in Houston, TX, conducted the Court of Inquiry as the Attorney Pro Tem (special prosecutor) under appointment by Judge Sturns.