Michael Morton, who served nearly 25 years in prison after being convicted for the 1986 murder of his wife, was officially exonerated on December 26, 2011.
Morton had been sentenced to serve life in prison. At the time that he was charged, Morton was a manager at an Austin supermarket and had no criminal history. Morton contended that his wife’s killer must have entered their home after he left for work early in the morning. Nevertheless, prosecutor Ken Anderson convinced the jury that Morton savagely beat his wife to death. The reason put forth by Anderson, a noted expert on Texas criminal law and now a state district court judge? Morton’s wiferefused to have conjugal relations with him on the night of his 32nd birthday.
In 2005, Morton pleaded with the court to test DNA on a blue bandana that was found near his home shortly after the murder occurred, along with some other evidence. However, for six years, the Williamson County district attorney, John Bradley, fought Morton’s request for DNA testing, based on advice given to him by Judge Anderson. In 2010, a Texas court ordered for DNA testing, and the results indicated that Mrs. Morton’s blood was mixed with another man: Mark A. Norwood. Norwood had a long criminal history and lived about 12 miles from the Morton home at the time of the murder. Norwood has been arrested and charged with Mrs. Morton’s murder and is also a suspect in a similar murder that occurred in 1988.
Currently, Mr. Morton’s lawyer, John Raley, and attorneys form the Innocence Project of New York, are expected to file a request for a special hearing known as a “court of inquiry” to assess whether the prosecutor broke state laws or ethics rules by withholding evidence that could have led to Morton’s acquittal 25 years ago. Mr. Morton’s legal counsel will ask the court to find probable cause to believe that Anderson withheld reports that the judge in the 1987 trial had ordered him to release. The judge’s purpose for this was to determine whether the documents might help Mr. Morton’s case. After nothing exculpatory was found in the small number of documents that the judge was provided by Anderson, the judge then ordered the record to be sealed.
It was discovered, in August, that Mr. Anderson had provided only a fraction of the available evidence, after a different judge ordered the record to be unsealed. An important piece of evidence that was missing from the file was the transcript of a telephone conversation between a sheriff’s deputy and Mr. Morton’s mother-in-law in which she reported that her 3-year-old grandson had seen a “monster”–who was not his father–attack and kill his mother.There were other pieces of evidence missing as well. For instance, there were missing police reports and reports that Mrs. Morton’s credit card had been used and a check with her forged signature cashed after her death.
In October, Judge Sid Harle of the Bexar County District Court ordered that Morton be released based on DNA evidence and authorized an unusual process allowing his defense lawyers to investigate the prosecutor’s conduct in the original trial. The lawyers questioned the lead sheriff’s investigator, an assistant district attorney who worked with Anderson and the former prosecutor himself.
According to the witness accounts, Anderson firmly controlled every detail of the prosecution. In a two-day deposition, Judge Anderson said that he recalled few details of the case and asserted that he had done nothing wrong. He said that he followed the judge’s orders and is “sick” over Morton’s wrongful imprisonment.
Some experts are skeptical that Judge Anderson could face serious punishment or disbarment, even in the event that the court decides that he committed malfeasance. Susan R. Klein, a professor at the University of Texas Law School who specializes in criminal issues and prosecutorial ethics, said that such actions would be considered “incredibly unusual.” Klein believes that this is the case particularly after the Supreme Court’s decision last year, which dismissed a $14 million civil jury award against a Louisiana prosecutor, Harry Connick, Sr., for his failure to release evidence that ultimately led to an exoneration.
Mark Dietz, a lawyer for Judge Anderson, said that he has yet to receive the report from Morton’s lawyers. Dietz questioned whether Judge Harle had jurisdiction to order a court of inquiry, and in a letter to Barry C.Sheck, co-founder of the Innocence Project, wrote that while his client welcomed “positive discussion about criminal justice reforms, “false and defamatory statements regarding Anderson’s conduct as a prosecutor in the Morton case have no proper place in that discussion.”
Mr. Sheck said that he hoped the court of inquiry will lead to changes in law and policy that could promote greater fairness in criminal cases, as “This is one of those catalytic, iconic cases that leads to reform.”