Former Williamson County District Attorney Ken Anderson this afternoon pleaded guilty to criminal contempt for withholding exculpatory evidence during his prosecution of Michael Morton, who was wrongfully convicted of the 1986 murder of his wife Christine.
Morton spent nearly 25 years behind bars before being exonerated by DNA evidence in 2011. After Morton was released from prison his lawyers sought a rare court of inquiry into whether Anderson deliberately concealed from Morton's defense exculpatory evidence that could have helped him avoid conviction for Christine's brutal murder.
Indeed, there was ample evidence pointing to another culprit, including information from neighbors who saw a green van near the house before the murder, and a transcript of a conversation between Christine's mother and police during which she related that Eric Morton, the couple's young son, had seen the "monster" who killed his mother in the couple's bedroom. It was not Michael, he said.
Ultimately, it was DNA on a bloody blue bandana found outside the Morton's house that led to the apprehension of her real killer, Mark Alan Norwood. Unfortunately, that revelation was more than two decades too late for another family, that of Debra Baker, who was also murdered in her bedroom, in Austin, in 1988. Norwood has also been linked to that slaying.
In April Judge Louis Sturns, who presided over the court of inquiry, found there was probable cause to believe Anderson was guilty of criminal contempt and of withholding evidence.
Today, Anderson, who had been serving as a district judge until he tendered his resignation to Gov. Rick Perry in September, pleaded guilty to contempt in exchange for a 10-day turn in the Williamson County Jail, a $500 fine, and 500 hours of community service. He will also give up his law license.
According to the Innocence Project, whose lawyers, along with Houston civil attorney John Raley, took on Morton's case, Anderson's case may be the first time a prosecutor has been criminally punished for withholding evidence. "Today's historic precedent demonstrates that when a judge orders a prosecutor to look in his file and disclose exculpatory evidence, deliberate failure to do so is punishable by contempt," Barry Scheck, co-director of the IP, said in a press statement.
The IP is now teaming up with the Texas Criminal Defense Lawyers Association and the Innocence Project of Texas to coordinate a review of other cases Anderson prosecuted to determine whether he may have committed other acts of prosecutorial misconduct. Current WilCo DA Jana Duty has pledged to support the review, which will also include cases handled by her immediate predecessor, John Bradley, who for years blocked Morton's attempts to secure DNA testing of the bloody blue bandana. "The number of prosecutors who deliberately break the rules is small, but history shows they tend to be repeat offenders," Scheck said. "What the new Williamson County prosecutor is doing today should become a best practice adopted by prosecutors across the country."
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