Friday in Texas, former prosecutor and judge Ken Anderson pled guilty to criminal contempt for intentionally withholding evidence that could have cleared Michael Morton. Anderson prosecuted and convicted Morton for the murder, who then spent 25 years in prison before DNA evidence cleared Morton and the real killer was found. Anderson went on to become a judge, before resigning in September of this year. As part of his plea agreement, Anderson will spend 10 days in jail, do 500 hours of community service, and surrender his law license.
As a practical matter, what’s the point? A sentence of 10 days and community service is the type of sentence given to a first time offender, to teach them a lesson and make it memorable, so they won’t do it again. Ken Anderson isn’t going to do it again – he’s not practicing law anymore. He’s done all the damage he is going to do in the 25 + years since Michael Morton’s conviction. Is a sentence of 10 days in jail and community service enough to deter other prosecutors from committing the same crime?
Despite his guilty plea, Anderson continues to maintain that he did nothing wrong. Anderson refuses to accept responsibility for what he did, will spend a few days in jail – 0.1095% of the time that Michael Morton spent in jail – and will go on to enjoy his retirement following 16 years as a DA and 11 as a judge.
At a hearing earlier this year, Anderson lamented that “the system screwed up” maintained that he did nothing wrong, and complained about “what me and my family have been through for 18 months of false accusations.” Although Anderson claimed to have no memory of the proceedings, another prosecutor that worked with him on the case testified that Anderson had acknowledged the exculpatory evidence and that he had planned on changing his theory of the case if the evidence was discovered (if the defense learned of the three year old’s statement excluding his father, the theory would be that the killer wore a scuba diving suit that disguised him and which would explain why Morton’s clothing had no blood on it).
Morton was accused of bludgeoning his wife to death in 1986. Anderson’s theory was that Morton killed his wife because she wouldn’t have sex with him, despite substantial evidence that someone had come into their house and murdered Morton’s wife after Morton left for work. Evidence collected by law enforcement that Anderson did not disclose to the defense included: neighbors saw a man in a green van behind Morton’s house at the time of the murder, their three year old son had said that he saw a “monster” beat his mother to death (not his father), Morton’s wife’s pocketbook was stolen and credit cards and her checkbook were fraudulently used days later, there were unidentified fingerprints in the home and there was an unidentified footprint in the yard.
Anderson did not call the chief investigator, who had the reports containing the exculpatory information, as a witness at the trial. The trial judge ordered Anderson to disclose all evidence that the police had collected, and Anderson responded by providing the judge with Morton’s statements to the police and nothing else.
Who is to blame for Michael Morton’s loss of 25 years of his life? His defense lawyer, the police investigator, and other prosecutors in Anderson’s office are no doubt guilty of negligence. Ken Anderson intentionally took those 25 years from Morton. What he did is no more excusable than the actions of a common murderer or kidnapper, and less so considering many murderers or kidnappers will acknowledge their crime, accept responsibility, and feel remorse for the hurt that they caused their victims.