Sunday, February 17, 2013

Wrongful convictions a lasting scar on Texas justice system

The following opinion by Bob Ray Sanders was published by the (Ft. Worth, Texas) Star-Telegram on February 12, 2013.

In a Georgetown courtroom last week, a Texas judge took the witness stand on his own behalf during a special court of inquiry -- a rare event in this state -- to determine whether he committed prosecutorial misconduct 25 years ago as Williamson County's district attorney.

The court of inquiry will decide whether he should be prosecuted.

Monday morning, a 58-year-old father of two entered a Corsicana courtroom in shackles but left that day a free man after DNA testing proved he had been wrongly convicted of murdering a woman in 1981, a crime for which he spent almost 30 years behind bars.

At the time he was convicted and given a 99-year-sentence, his son and daughter were 7 and 4 respectively.

The two cases continue to shine a spotlight on this state's tragic record of sending innocent people to prison, and they highlight another problem that has received too little attention over the years: prosecutorial misconduct, whether unintentional or deliberate.

State District Judge Ken Anderson, who sits on the bench in Georgetown, was district attorney of Williamson County in 1987 and prosecuted Michael Morton, accused of fatally beating his wife, Christine.

Morton was convicted.

In October 2011, Morton, after serving 25 years of a life sentence, was freed when DNA testing proved that he was not the murderer.

The new testing implicated another man, who has been arrested.

Last fall, the State Bar of Texas found that Anderson had withheld evidence in Morton's case and had specifically disobeyed the trial judge's order to turn over all documents favorable to the defense.

Anderson at the time said the state had no such evidence, a statement the State Bar said "was false."

Included among the five specific pieces of evidence that the prosecution withheld was a transcript of statements by Morton's mother-in-law that indicated that the couple's 3-year-old son had witnessed his mother's beating, that the boy had said his father was not home at the time and that he said the perpetrator was "a monster."

Also withheld, the State Bar said, was a statement from a neighbor who had seen something suspicious: a man parking a van outside the Morton's home and going into a wooded area.

State District Judge Louis Sturns of Fort Worth is presiding over the court of inquiry. His decision is still weeks away.

During proceedings last week, Anderson, 60, took no personal responsibility, but he told Morton "the system obviously screwed up," according to The Associated Press.

Anderson said he ran a competent, professional office and his "worst nightmare" was knowing that an innocent man had been convicted.

If his experience is a "nightmare," what would you call that of the innocent man who had his freedom and his children taken away from him?

There is a growing fraternity of exonerated people in Texas who collectively have spent hundreds of years in prison.

In Dallas County alone, more than 30 people have been freed as a result of DNA testing.

The most recent exoneration came Monday in Corsicana. Randolph Arledge had been convicted of stabbing Carolyn Armstrong to death.

His guilty verdict was based partly on faulty eye-witness testimony -- a common flaw in such cases -- and statements by two robbery suspects who claimed Arledge told them he had stabbed someone.

The two robbery suspects had received favorable treatment in their cases in exchange for their testimony, according the "Memorandum in Support of Application for a Writ of Habeas Corpus."

Then there's the case of Larry Ray Swearingen, which I wrote about last month. Swearingen, who many people think is innocent, was scheduled to be executed for the 1998 murder of Melissa Trotter, a 19-year-old Montgomery College student. A district judge stayed that execution on Jan. 30.

Wrongful convictions will be a lasting scar on the Texas criminal justice system, which has to be the concern of more people than those involved in the Innocence Project.

But in order to address it fully, we also must examine carefully the issue of prosecutorial misconduct.

Bob Ray Sanders' column appears Sundays and Wednesdays.


Twitter: @BobRaySanders

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