Morton Case Court of Inquiry One Step Closer
Ken Anderson may have deliberately concealed exculpatory evidence
State Judge Sid Harle on Friday signed off on a probable cause affidavit that sets the stage for Williamson County Judge Ken Anderson to face a court of inquiry into whether he deliberately concealed from Michael Morton exculpatory evidence that could have helped him avoid a murder conviction for his wife's brutal 1986 murder.
Morton was convicted and sentenced to life for the bludgeoning death of his wife, Christine, inside the couple's home. He spent nearly a quarter-century behind bars for the crime before DNA evidence tested last year pointed to another man, Mark Alan Norwood, as the real perpetrator. Morton was freed from prison, and Norwood was charged with capital murder and is awaiting trial.
As part of the proceedings associated with Morton's exoneration, his lawyers – John Raley from Houston along with Barry Scheck and Nina Morrison from the New York-based Innocence Project – urged Harle to rule that enough evidence exists to suggest that Anderson acted deliberately to keep evidence from Morton's defense to warrant the court of inquiry, which would determine whether Anderson acted in contempt of court.
At issue are key items of exculpatory evidence that were not made available to Morton's defense until years after his conviction, including the transcript of a discussion between the case's lead investigator and Morton's mother-in-law concerning a conversation in which Morton's young son described the killer and said it was not his father; reports from Morton's neighbors that a green van had been seen casing the neighborhood in the days prior to the murder; and a report that Christine's credit card had been used in San Antonio after her murder. Had those items been disclosed, they would have gone a long way to support Morton's assertion that an intruder killed his wife.
In court last week, Eric Nichols, one of Anderson's attorneys, argued that the credit card evidence might not be related to the case – even though a note about the fraud had been placed in the Morton investigative file – and that it wasn't clear that the van evidence was relevant, either. He also noted that it was recently discovered that a check cashed after Christine's death that was previously thought done by a stranger was actually done by Morton. Scheck said that information was only recently made available and that Nichols' use of it to argue against a court of inquiry was just a red herring.
Regardless, Nichols said he's confident that Anderson did not violate any law or code of ethics in his handling of the Morton case. Indeed, oddly enough, he suggested that there could be no concealment of evidence favorable to Morton if that evidence was in fact stored in a file at the sheriff's office – even if that evidence was never made available to Morton's attorneys – and argued that the entire proceeding was simply intended to "advance" Innocence Project goals to reform criminal evidence discovery practices.
Ultimately, Harle did sign off on the probable cause affidavit, which will be presented to Texas Supreme Court Chief Justice Wallace Jefferson, who will then decide whether and when to proceed.
Outside the courtroom, Nichols said the proceeding would give Anderson a chance to clear his name. "Judge Anderson is a fine man who has served Williamson County for many years," he said. "Anyone can make an accusation, [but] at the end of the day, they need to back up those accusations with evidence."
Morton was pleased with the outcome. "When you do the right thing, as the judge did today, everything else falls into place – it's just a matter of time."
Jordan Smith, Fri., Dec. 9, 2011
at Austin Music Hall
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