April 30, 2013

Hunter Becomes the Hunted

When we hear a news story about a person being freed from prison years after being wrongfully convicted of a grisly murder, often there’s a perverse punch line to the whole sordid affair – the prosecutor responsible for the case, responsible for a ruined life and an innocent person spending years in a cage, is now a judge. Not only does the miscarriage of justice not impede a prosecutor’s career, in most cases it seems like a boon.

Which is what makes what happened in Texas a couple of weeks ago so amazing and important.

On August 16, 1986, Christine Morton was brutally murdered in her home near Austin, Texas. As often happens in such cases, Christine’s husband, Michael, was treated as a potential suspect from the beginning. He was arrested in September and convicted in 1987 and sentenced to life in prison. Morton spent 25 years in a cage before DNA testing confirmed what he had been saying all along – that he was innocent. He was formally acquitted in 2011. For a detailed, fascinating, and chilling account of Morton’s saga, see here and here.

Ken Anderson, who was the lead prosecutor in Morton’s case, is now a judge, naturally. He’s also, now, under arrest:
Ken Anderson was in the courtroom as Judge Louis Sturns issued his ruling and turned himself in afterward. Sturns said there was sufficient evidence that Anderson was guilty on all three charges brought against him for his handling of the case against Michael Morton: criminal contempt of court, tampering with evidence and tampering with government records.

‘Mr. Anderson consciously chose to conceal the availability of the exculpatory evidence so he could convict Mr. Morton for murder,’ Sturns said. ‘This court cannot think of a more intrinsically harmful act than a prosecutor's intentional choice to hide evidence so as to convict a defendant facing a murder charge and a life sentence.’
At issue in Anderson’s case are two pieces of evidence collected by police that pointed to someone other than Morton as the killer. One was a report of a suspicious van in the area at the time of the killing, while the other was a report that Morton’s young son, who was at home when his mother was murdered, that a “monster” hurt his mother, not his father. As Judge Sturns concluded in his findings of fact, this was:
evidence that showed Mr. Morton did not murder his wife.
In addition, Judge Sturns concluded that Anderson knew about this evidence and failed to turn it over to the defense or follow up on potential leads:
[t]he sheriff’s department and Mr. Anderson quickly concluded Mr. Morton was responsible for killing his wife, and so curtailed further investigation of the murder.
Anderson’s failure to disclose evidence forms the basis of the criminal charges against him.

Will they stick? It will be interesting to see. One problem that’s already been raised is the statute of limitations. The original trial judge is dead, which may harm Anderson’s ability to defend himself. And, of course, the entire point of statutes of limitations is to prevent someone needing to defend themselves years after an event when memories have faded, physical evidence has disappeared, and witnesses have died or disappeared. Regardless, it doesn’t seem like much of a stretch to argue that Anderson’s conduct was ongoing so long as Morton was still in prison, which might squelch any statute of limitation problem.

Even if Anderson escapes conviction, the very fact that he’s being dragged into court for prior malfeasance is a step in the right direction. If he doesn’t wind up in jail, he will, at some point in the future, have to face the voters (judges in Texas are elected). Then the ball will be in their court – will they reward a man who sent an innocent man to a cage for a quarter-century with another term? If they do, it will say all too much about how this system got to the place where it could make such mistakes in the first place.

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