Tuesday, December 27, 2011

Let Anderson's record be heard by a court

The following editorial by the Editorial Board was published in the December 26, 2011 edition of The Statesman (Austin, TX):

Michael Morton ends 2011 an innocent man. Meanwhile, District Judge Ken Anderson ends the year under a cloud of suspicion about his conduct prosecuting Morton for the murder of his wife almost 25 years ago.

Last week, District Judge Sid Harle formally dismissed the murder charge against Morton. Morton, wrongly imprisoned in 1987 and not released until October, was always actually innocent of beating to death his wife, Christine, in their Williamson County home in 1986. Now the state concurs; Morton is innocent.

With Morton's innocence legally declared, Harle now should convene a special court of inquiry to investigate allegations by Morton's lawyers that Anderson, who was Williamson County's district attorney when he prosecuted Morton, concealed evidence that might have exonerated Morton of the charge that he killed his wife.

Anderson denies the allegations. In our view, let a court of inquiry consider Anderson's denials.

The family of Debra Masters Baker is also calling for a court of inquiry. Baker was beaten to death in her bed in Travis County in 1988, two years after Christine Morton was killed in a similar way.

Morton was released from prison after DNA tests on a bandana found near the Morton home ruled him out as his wife's killer.

Authorities have since charged Mark Norwood with Christine Morton's death, and they suspect Norwood in Baker's murder. DNA evidence connects him to both crimes, police say.

Morton's lawyers, led by Barry Scheck of the Innocence Project in New York, say Anderson did not give Morton's trial lawyers key pieces of evidence that could have prevented his conviction. In addition, they say Anderson committed contempt of court by failing to give trial Judge William Lott all the reports and notes collected by the case's lead investigator, Sgt. Don Wood of the Williamson County Sheriff's Department.

Eleven days after Christine Morton's murder, her mother, Rita Kirkpatrick, talked with Wood on the phone about a chat she had had with Morton's 3-year-old son. According to the police transcript of the call, Kirkpatrick said the boy told her a "monster" had beaten his mother and that his father was not home when it happened.

Excerpts of this interview were found this summer in Anderson's trial file. Morton's lawyers say Anderson never told Morton's trial lawyers about Kirkpatrick's call.

Also unknown to Morton's trial lawyers: reports that a check made out to Christine Morton had been cashed more than a week after her murder; a report that Morton's credit card might have been used in San Antonio two days after her death; and a police report prompted by a Morton neighbor who saw the unidentified driver of a green van walk on several occasions in the wooded area behind the Morton house.

Anderson says he gave Morton's trial lawyers all the information they needed. He says he wasn't legally required to give defense lawyers a copy of the phone transcript because it was not admissible evidence.

Last month, Anderson apologized for "the system's failure" in wrongly convicting Morton. As we said in response to Anderson's apology, wrongful convictions don't exist because of failures of the system. They exist because the investigators, prosecutors and judges who run the system fail. They make honest mistakes, are unaware of contradictory evidence, or, in their zeal for convictions, either blind themselves to alternative possibilities or rationalize misconduct to fit the "truth" as they see it.

By asking the system to assign blame for Michael Morton's wrongful conviction, his lawyers are breaking new ground. Never before has the prosecutor in a wrongful conviction case been subjected to such an inquiry. But it's ground that needs to be broken. Prosecutors whose deliberate actions steal decades from someone's life should be punished.

Perhaps Anderson concealed evidence. Perhaps he did what was required of him to do. Perhaps there was nothing at the time (remember, DNA testing was in its infancy in 1987) that would have kept Morton from being sent to prison.

We need to know, and Anderson's system needs its credibility restored. Judge Harle should convene a court of inquiry, and the sooner the better.

No comments: