November 8, 2013 was a good day and a step in the right direction for the criminal justice system in this country. On that day, Ken Anderson, former Williamson County District Attorney and District Court judge, pled no contest to criminal contempt charges for deliberately withholding exculpatory evidence during his 1986 prosecution of Michael Morton for the murder of his wife Christine. As a result of Mr. Anderson’s prosecutorial zeal, Mr. Morton was convicted of a crime he did not commit and spent nearly 25 years behind bars until he was exonerated by DNA evidence in 2011.
The exculpatory evidence withheld by Mr. Anderson came to light during a rare Court of Inquiry that was convened at the request of The Innocence Project after Mr. Morton’s exoneration. The judge presiding over that inquiry found that Mr. Anderson had concealed two critical pieces of evidence that supported Mr. Morton’s innocence, deliberately disobeyed the trial judge’s order to turn over all exculpatory evidence to Mr. Morton’s defense team, and lied about the existence of evidence in his possession that was favorable to Mr. Morton. That withheld evidence consisted of (i) statements by Mr. Morton’s young son (who was present at the time of the murder) that the “monster” that killed his mother was not Mr. Morton, and (ii) statements by neighbors who described seeing a man in a green van parked nearby the Morton home just before the murder.
Based upon these findings, the Court of Inquiry ordered Mr. Anderson arrested. Faced with a potential 10 year prison terms for evidence tampering, he agreed Friday to plead no contest to criminal contempt charges. His punishment: 10 days in Williamson County Jail, a $500 fine, 500 hours of community service, and the loss of his license to practice law.
Although the punishment seems disproportionately lenient given the egregiousness of Mr. Anderson’s crime, Mr. Morton was pleased that he had achieved his twin objectives: removing Mr. Anderson from the bench and ensuring that he could never practice law again. “It was one of those necessary evils, or distasteful requirements that you have to do in life,” Morton said, calling it “a good day.”
Unfortunately, it was an extremely unusual day as well. Prosecutors are rarely, if ever, held to account for deliberate misdeeds that result in the long-term incarceration of the innocent. In fact, according to Barry Scheck, co-director of The Innocence Project who partnered with attorney John Raley on Mr. Morton’s case, Mr. Anderson’s conviction and disbarment are “historic,” perhaps the first time that a prosecutor has ever been criminally punished for failing to disclose potentially exculpatory evidence. That sad and breath-taking reality is what makes this story all the more remarkable.
The Innocence Project in conjunction with the Texas Criminal Defense Lawyers Association will now conduct an independent review of all cases that Mr. Anderson prosecuted during his tenure as District Attorney. They will also review select files of John Bradley who fought Mr. Morton’s attempts to secure the DNA testing that ultimately proved him innocent. As Mr. Scheck has noted, “The number of prosecutors who deliberately break the rules is small, but history shows they tend to be repeat offenders.” The Williamson County District Attorney has pledged to cooperate with this review.