Another Chapter Closes in the Michael Morton Case
The final day of the court of inquiry into alleged prosecutorial misconduct by former Williamson County D.A. Ken Anderson ended with the man who helped put Michael in prison for a crime he didn't commit calling the accusations against him "so bogus it’s unreal.”
Judge Ken Anderson took the stand Friday to defend himself on the last day of the court of inquiry into alleged prosecutorial misconduct in the Morton case. The former Williamson County D.A. was defiant as he fielded questions by attorney pro tem Rusty Hardin; Anderson discounted the importance of the inquiry itself, struck a sarcastic tone, and cast himself as the victim of a “media frenzy.” He offered a vague apology to Michael Morton without taking any personal responsibility for his role in Michael’s wrongful conviction, stating that “the system screwed up” and that he could not think of anything he could have done more than a quarter century ago that would have caused a different outcome.
Anderson seemed more sensitive to his own legacy and how difficult the revelations of the past eighteen months had been on him personally—a subject he returned to many times—than he did to the ordeal of the man he had convicted, who watched him from across the courtroom. The former prosecutor spoke angrily of spending his life savings to defend himself and of the tremendous toll the accusations against him had taken on his family. One of the few times he did not strike a belligerent tone came at the very beginning of his testimony when he spoke of his many years of service on behalf of crime victims in Williamson County. “We had a lot to be proud of and we still do,” he said, his voice breaking.
But Anderson’s lack of respect for the inquiry itself was jarring, and did little to curry favor with the dozens of spectators who crowded into the courtroom, who shook their heads and audibly gasped at his argumentative answers. He failed to get a smile out of visiting state district judge Louis Sturns, who is overseeing the proceeding, when he quipped at one point that it would be “a blessed day” if this were the very last court of inquiry ever to be held in the state of Texas. The allegations against him, he opined, “are so bogus it’s unreal.” He also admitted that he had not bothered to read the transcript of Michael’s 1987 trial in preparation for the legal proceeding, despite his own lawyers’ urging to do so.
Over the course of more than six hours of testimony, Anderson insisted that he had acted above board in the months leading up to, and during, Michael’s 1987 trial. Because so much time had passed since then, he testified, he had “no independent memory” of telling the defense of two critical pieces of evidence: a police report about sightings of a man in a green van who was spotted behind the Morton home around the time of Christine’s murder, and a transcript of Michael’s mother-in-law, Rita Kirkpatrick, telling an investigator that her three-year-old grandson, Eric, had told her that he had seen “a monster”—not his father—beat his mother to death. But Anderson insisted this was the type of evidence he routinely disclosed to defense attorneys and believed he had likely done so in this case.
Hardin scored some of his biggest points of the week when he used Anderson’s characterization of himself—as a champion of victims’ rights, and particularly the rights of victimized children—against Anderson. Anderson had testified at length about how he had taken an aggressive approach against child molesters when he was D.A. in the eighties, a time when sex crimes against children were not regularly prosecuted the way they are today. Hardin wondered how, then, Anderson had no memory of the account Eric gave his grandmother.
“How can a former prosecutor, now a judge, who cares so deeply about children not remember anything about a child seeing his mother killed in a case that he prosecuted?” Hardin asked. “How could that be? Judge, can you explain it? How could you forget it?”
“I have no recollection of it,” Anderson replied.
He went on to explain that he would not have put any credence in the fact that Eric had said his father was not present at the time of the murder.
“Judge, when you say you wouldn’t have put any credence in that . . .” Hardin drifted off, incredulous. “He was right, wasn’t he? He was right!”
“He was a traumatized three-year-old child,” Anderson shot back. “You can’t attach any significance to anything he said at that point.”
Hardin reminded Anderson that Eric’s account to his grandmother had included numerous details that corresponded to evidence at the crime scene, including a blue suitcase that was placed atop his mother’s body. “Why in the world would you not have wanted to investigate based on what that little boy said?” Hardin pressed him.
“You’d have to ask Boutwell that,” Anderson said, referring to the late sheriff who investigated the Morton murder in 1986.
During a discussion about what sort of changes should be made to prevent wrongful convictions, Anderson was unable to come up with any ideas for legislative measures or judicial reforms. He also declined to say that the Williamson County D.A.’s office had been wrong to fight DNA testing in Michael’s case for five years, even though that testing not only exonerated Michael, but identified the DNA of a man who has since been indicted for Christine’s murder and the 1988 murder of Debra Baker.
As reporters and cameramen gathered around Michael at the conclusion of the day, he seemed momentarily at a loss for words. Earlier in the week, Michael had asked Sturns to “be gentle” on Anderson. But Michael was clearly shocked by what Anderson had, and had not, said. Listening to the man who helped send him to prison for life, he told reporters, was “wrenching.” Anderson’s testimony “was unexpected to say the very least,” he added. “I was hoping for more.”
Before turning to walk away with the lawyers who secured his exoneration, Michael said, “I think we saw someone who is still struggling with denial and anger. . . .This is a man who has been in a position of power for almost three decades, and for the first time has had to answer for his actions, and he’s very uncomfortable with that.”
Michael stated that he trusted that Sturns—who will likely issue a decision this spring about whether Anderson should face criminal charges—would “do the right thing.”
For more on the court of inquiry, read executive editor Pamela Colloff’s two dispatches from Williamson County. And for more on the history of Michael’s case, read her two-part series, the Innocent Man.