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Friday, March 10, 2023

Prosecutorial Misconduct: The Michael Morton Case

     The criminal trial, as designed, is not the most efficient method of getting to the factual truth of a matter. Too much relevant evidence is excluded from the jury to make this the main purpose. The principal goal of a trial, at least in theory, is not to produce information, but to produce due process and justice. Prosecutors, as officers of the court, have a legal and ethical duty not to pursue defendants in cases involving weak or exonerating evidence. But some do, because regardless of the evidence, their priority is to convict, and to win.

The Michael Morton Case

     In 1987, a jury found Michael Morton guilty of beating his wife to death a year earlier in their Austin, Texas home. The prosecution, based on flimsy circumstantial evidence, convinced the jury the defendant had killed his wife because the night before she had sexually rebuffed him. Mr. Morton, a supermarket manager, claimed that an intruder had murdered his wife that morning after he had left for work.

     The judge sentenced Michael Morton to life in prison. In 2005, attorneys for the prisoner began petitioning the court to have a bandanna found near the murder site tested for DNA. The Williamson County district attorney (who had not prosecuted Morton) fought this request for six years. He did this on advice from Ken Anderson, the man who prosecuted Mr. Morton and had since become a judge.

     In 2010, a Texas court ordered the DNA testing of the blue bandanna as well as other physical evidence associated with the murder case. DNA analysts found that the bandanna contained the murder victim's blood mixed with the DNA of a man named Mark A. Norwood, a convicted felon with an extensive criminal history. At the time, Mr. Norwood lived 12 miles from the murder scene. Norwood had also been a suspect in a similar 1988 murder case. The police arrested Mark Norwood and charged him with the Morton homicide.

     In December 2011, after living 25 years behind bars, Michael Morton walked out of prison exonerated and free. His lawyer and attorneys with the New York based Innocence Project asked for a "Court of Inquiry," a special hearing to determine if prosecutor Ken Anderson broke laws or rules of ethics by withholding evidence that would have exonerated Mr. Morton in 1987.

     Morton's attorneys discovered that prosecutor Anderson had withheld the transcript of a telephone conversation between a police officer and the defendant's mother-in-law in which she reported that her 3-year-old grandson had seen a "monster"--not his father--attack and kill his mother. Also withheld were statements from neighbors who had seen a man park a green van and walk into the woods behind the murder house.

     In the Morton case there were other claims of prosecutorial misconduct. If the Court of Inquiry agreed with Morton's legal team, former prosecutor, now judge, Ken Anderson would face bar association disciplinary action and possible criminal prosecution.

     In November 2013, Ken Anderson agreed to give up his law practice in return for a jail sentence of ten days for hiding exculpatory evidence in the Morton case. The consensus among people familiar with the case leaned strongly toward the notion that Mr. Anderson had gotten off light.

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