Ken Anderson has been a Williamson County (Texas) district judge since 2002, but in 1987 he was the district attorney who prosecuted Michael Morton for fatally beating his wife to death. Morton was convicted and served 25 years in prison before DNA tests proved he was innocent. (This is yet another triumph of The Innocence Project.) Another man has been arrested for the murder of Morton’s wife Christine, as well as a second woman he allegedly killed in similar fashion while Morton was behind bars.
Last week, a five day hearing examined Judge Anderson regarding his conduct in the case, in a special court of inquiry to determine whether he engaged in criminal wrongdoing as well as unethical prosecution. Among the questions raised was why Anderson never divulged to Morton’s defense team a police report that Morton’s neighbors had said that they saw a suspicious man walking into the woods behind the Morton home shortly before the murder, and why Morton’s three-year-old son’s statement that “a monster,” not his father, beat the child’s mother to death was similarly withheld. On the stand enduring five hours of questioning, a tearful Anderson could only say that he didn’t remember not turning over the evidence to the defense, while defense attorneys adamantly insisted that they never received it. The hearing also revealed that Anderson kept his lead investigator from testifying at trial, when his testimony would have ensured that the child’s statement and the report about the stranger were raised in court, as well as allowing defense attorneys to cross-examine the investigator regarding his peculiar theory of the case.The theory, which was subsequently endorsed by DA Anderson, was that Morton become homicidal after his wife fell asleep when he sought to have sex with her, and donned his scuba wet suit so his son wouldn’t know it was him beating her to death.
Late in the hearing, Anderson’s attorney asked him to explain to Morton how he felt, and the beleaguered judge said: “I apologize that the system screwed up. It obviously screwed up. And I beat myself up on what could have been done differently, and I frankly don’t know.” Morton has a different interpretation, telling reporters, “I think we saw someone who is still struggling with denial and anger, a man who has spent at least three decades in power who for the first time is having to answer for his actions.”
I don’t know whether Anderson intentionally withheld evidence in the process of prosecuting Michael Morton, because he thought Morton was guilty, whether he just made a series of mistakes, or whether, as he says, the system failed. I do know that he is ethically obligated to step down as a judge. His credibility, fairness, competence, commitment to justice, integrity and trustworthiness have all been called into question by the inquiry, as well as the unavoidable fact that he prosecuted an innocent man who went to prison for a quarter of a century, and while he was there, the real murderer may have killed again. The justice system cannot have a judge ruling on people’s lives who has something like that on his record and conscience. I wouldn’t want my fate to rest with such a judge, and as a lawyer, I wouldn’t want my client’s fate to be determined by such a judge either.
If Judge Anderson wants to prove his commitment to justice, he should accept responsibility for the horrible miscarriage of it he played a central role in bringing about, and bolster faith in it by removing from the justice system a judge who can no longer maintain the public’s trust: himself.
RELATED NOTE: Fark really needs to remove its flat-out untrue characterization of the case, for it is unfair to Judge Anderson as well as its readers. The funny-headlines-to-real-stories site, a terrific source for ethics-related incidents, falsely labelled this one “If you’re a prosecutor in Texas, and you hide DNA evidence to convict an innocent man of murdering his wife allowing the actual murderer to go free, then we’ll promote you to Judge.” There is no allegation that Anderson hid DNA evidence—the technology didn’t even exist when Morton was originally convicted. Nor was he “promoted to judge” because he hid such evidence, or because he hid any evidence at all: when Anderson became a judge in 2002, Morton was still in prison and considered guilty. Even for a humor site, this is perilously close to defamation, an intentional and reckless falsehood with malicious intent. Fark often twists the real story slightly to make a joke, but this crosses lines that shouldn’t be crossed.
Graphic: Amazon AWS