Ken Anderson (Source: AP Photo/Statesman.com, Ricardo Brazziell)
WILLIAMSON COUNTY, TX — A corrupt former prosecutor will face a rare penalty for intentionally withholding evidence in a trial that sent an man to prison 25 years ago. For robbing an innocent man of decades of his life, the ex-D.A. will spend now have to spend 10 days in jail.
The case takes us back more than two decades. On the morning of August 13, 1986, the body of Christine Morton was found beaten to death with a wooden object in her bed. Her sheets were stained with blood and semen, and her credit card was missing. Her husband, Texas grocery store manager Michael Morton had not been home since 5:30 a.m., but was seized as the prime suspect. He had no arrests, convictions, or history of violence against anyone at that time. He was charged and put on trial for his wife’s murder.
The prosecution, led by district attorney Ken Anderson, presented no physical evidence or witnesses that tied Michael Morton to the crime. They hypothesized that Morton had beaten his wife to death before going to work because she refused to have sex with him on his birthday. The prosecution claimed that Morton arranged the scene to look like a burglary, and that he masturbated on his wife’s corpse.
These charges came while Anderson was sitting on evidence that could have redeemed Michael Morton. The Mortons’ 3-year-old son, Eric, had been present during the murder. According to Eric, the murderer was not his daddy, but a “monster.” Young Eric had described the crime scene and murder in great detail, and specifically told investigators that his “Daddy” was “not home” when it happened.
Additionally withheld was the fact that Mortons’ neighbors told investigators that a man had repeatedly parked a green van on the street behind the crime scene and walked off into a nearby wooded area, days before the murder. Then there was the inconvenient fact (for the prosecution) that the victim’s missing credit card had been used at a San Antonio jewelry store.
None of this evidence was released during the trial. On February 17, 1987, Michael Morton was convicted of murder and given a life sentence.
Ken Anderson coldly and knowingly ruined an innocent man’s life to advance his career. The conviction made Anderson look like a hero, and he went on to enjoy a fruitful 25 year career, which eventually propelled him to the position of Williamson County State District Judge.
Morton immediately appealed his conviction, but this appeal was denied. A 1990 DNA test of the bedsheet semen stain failed to clear Morton of the crime because the semen was his own. In 2005, more DNA tests were performed at the request of the Innocence Project and the law firm of Raley & Bowick in Houston. Only some of the evidence was allowed to be tested. Again, the results could not clear Morton, as the DNA samples allowed to be tested matched Morton. After all the crime scene was where he slept, so of course his DNA would be found everywhere. Only the discovery of foreign DNA would redeem Morton.
Finally in 2010, Morton’s attorneys successfully appealed the denial of testing on the bloody blue bandana covered in hair that was found 100 yards from the crime scene. In 2011, the samples were determined to be the victim’s blood and hair, found alongside the DNA from another unknown male. The DNA was ultimately linked to a convicted felon from California, Mark Alan Norwood.
Michael Morton after being exonerated following nearly 25 years in prison. (Source: Callie Richmond for The Texas Tribune)
Now that the cold case had been thrust back into public view, publicity was drawn to the corruption that had taken place more than 2 decades earlier. All of the evidence that had been withheld was suddenly seeing the light of day, and making a certain respected judge look like a criminal.
A month after Norwood’s conviction, a warrant was issued for the arrest of Judge Ken Anderson. He was charged with 3 felonies related to evidence tampering.
“Mr. Anderson consciously chose to impair the availability of the exculpatory evidence so he could obtain the conviction of Mr. Morton for murder,” Judge Sturns said.
After initially fighting the charges for several months, Anderson finally struck a bargain with prosecutors. The criminal charges of tampering with evidence were dropped, and on November 8th Anderson entered a plead guilty to being in contempt of court in 1987, when he told Morton’s trial judge that he had no favorable evidence to give to Morton’s lawyers.
Contempt of court. Like when someone speaks out of turn in front of a judge.
Some are celebrating the rare occasion that a corrupt prosecutor is facing any punishment at all. Others are cringing at the incredibly light sentence. Is this really justice? How many others were victims of this man’s criminal conscience?
“When you have individuals like Ken Anderson who engage in misconduct, such people tend to be serial offenders,” said Innocence Project co-founder Barry Scheck, describing Anderson as a “disgrace.”
Morton graciously said that he “never wanted Anderson’s head on a stick,” but instead exhibited some of the optimism that helped him survive 25 years in prison, saying that he hopes to see some laws get reformed. He said that it was a “good day.”
Some will embrace that optimism and celebrate this as a step in the right direction. Others are waiting for word of Anderson’s early release due to good behavior, and the reading on to the next injustice of the day.
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