Texas Justice Re-Revisisted

Long-time readers of Wickersham’s Conscience may recall Michael Morton. Morton was wrongfully convicted of mudering his wife. The prosecution concealed evidence. Morton served 25 years in a Texas penitentiary before being exonerated in 2011.

WC is late in reporting this news, but Texas has finally acted to punish the prosecutor who intentionally concealed from the defense and the jury the evidence that proved Morton didn’t commit the crime. When the Innocence Project finally obtained the evidence that prosecutor Ken Anderson had hidden, it filed a brief asking the Texas Supreme Court to create a Court of Inquiry, the process used in Texas to look into prosecutorial misconduct. Eventually the Texas Supreme Court granted the petition. Prosecutor Anderson, in the meantime, had become a Texas state judge. Recall that’s an elected position in Texas. Doubtlessly, Judge Anderson’s toughness with criminals was a factor in his campaign.

The Court of Inquiry ruled there to be probable cause to believe Mr. Anderson had violated criminal laws by concealing evidence and charged him with criminal contempt. The State Bar of Texas also brought ethics charges against Mr. Anderson. In early November 2013, Mr. Anderson entered a plea to criminal contempt and agreed to serve a 10-day jail sentence. He resigned from his position as a district court judge and permanently surrendered his law license.

The sentence wasn’t even a slap on the wrist. WC knows prosecutors who would gladly serve ten days in the slammer to get a conviction in a big homicide case. One of the functions of a criminal sentence is to deter others. Ten days won’t deter anyone. The Texas justice system took so long to act against Anderson that even cutting short his legal career isn’t that much of a punishment.

WC isn’t the only person who feels Andersn’s sentence was outrageously light. Pamela Colloff, writing in Texas Monthly, said,

Wonkette headline succinctly summed up the public’s reaction: “Good News: Prosecutor Does Time For Misconduct! Bad News: 10 Days When Victim Rotted For 25 Years!”  The Austin-based criminal justice blog Grits for Breakfast dubbed Anderson’s punishment “tepid justice,”  noting that though Anderson had to forfeit his law license, his career had hardly been cut short; he had practiced law for more than three decades, first as a prosecutor and later as a district judge, and will, despite a felony conviction, retain his judicial pension.

There is a faint hope that Anderson could face more criminal charges. As a part of the deal, the Innocence Project obtained appointment of an independent investigator to look into Anderson’s other successful criminal convictions to see if the prosecutorial misconduct in Morton’s case was the exception or the rule.

In the meantime, Morton is doing pretty well for a man who had a third of his life stolen. After his release, he moved in with his parents in Liberty City, Texas, and later started renting a house in nearby Kilgore. In March 2013, he married Cynthia May Chessman, a member of the church he has attended since his exoneration, and they are happily living in Texas. Morton worked very hard to help push a bill through the Texas Legislature – the Michael Morton Act – requiring prosecutors to turn over to the defense all exculpatory evidence in a criminal case. It’s not perfect, but then, this is Texas.

If anyone claims the death penalty is a good idea, they first need to consider Michael Morton.