This afternoon, Michael Morton received a long-awaited measure of justice when the inquiry into alleged misconduct in the 1987 trial that resulted in his wrongful conviction ended with a stinging rebuke to the man who prosecuted him. State district Judge Louis Sturns, who presided over the court of inquiry, ruled that Ken Anderson—the former D.A. of Williamson County who prosecuted Michael—should face criminal charges for his conduct. Though Anderson has denied any wrongdoing, Sturns found that Anderson lied when he assured the trial judge that he had no evidence in his possession that was favorable to the accused. This was a deliberate “concealment of evidence,” Sturns said, which was “intended to defraud the court” and win a conviction. Sturns stated his belief that Anderson committed a felony by doing so.
In the end, Sturns found that Anderson committed criminal contempt of court, and he issued a warrant for an arrest. Anderson—a sitting district judge—left the courtroom with his lawyers, walking past the courtroom where he currently presides, to be booked into the Williamson County jail. (He will be released this afternoon on $2,500 bond.) The case will now be referred to a grand jury, which can issue an indictment. Anderson, who faces reelection next year, could face jail time if he is found guilty.
As long as 26 years ago, Michael’s lead trial attorney, Bill Allison, suspected that Anderson had not turned over all of the investigators’ reports in the case to the defense. As I wrote in the second half of my two-part series on the case, Anderson and Allison had repeatedly battled over this issue:
During two pretrial hearings, the lawyers had clashed over what evidence the state should, or should not, have to turn over. As Allison remembered it, state district judge William Lott had ordered Anderson to provide him with all of Wood’s reports and notes before the trial so he could determine whether they contained any “Brady material.” (The term refers to the landmark 1963 U.S. Supreme Court ruling in Brady v. Maryland, which holds that prosecutors are required to turn over any evidence that is favorable to the accused. Failure to do so is considered to be a “Brady violation,” or a breach of a defendant’s constitutional right to due process.)
Judge Lott had examined everything Anderson had given him and ruled that no Brady material was present. Afterward, as is the protocol in such a situation, the judge had placed the papers in a sealed file that could be opened only by the appellate courts to review at a later date. Thinking back on that series of events, Allison had a terrible thought: What if Anderson had not, in fact, given Lott all of [Sgt. Don] Wood’s reports and notes?
Allison’s suspicion was based on two peculiarities of the trial. First, Anderson had not called Wood to the stand to testify. This was highly unusual, given that Wood was the case’s lead investigator. Allison had also overheard a conversation at the end of the trial, which I described in the first half of my Morton story, when he lingered in the courtroom after the verdict was read:
Both he and prosecutor Mike Davis, who had assisted Anderson during the trial, stayed behind to ask the jurors about their views of the case. It was during their discussions in the jury room that Allison says he overheard Davis make an astonishing statement, telling several jurors that if Michael’s attorneys had been able to obtain Wood’s reports, they could have raised more doubt than they did. (Davis has said under oath that he has no recollection of making such a statement.) What, Allison wondered, was in Wood’s reports?
In fact, many details in Wood’s reports supported the idea that Christine Morton had been killed by an unknown intruder. The most significant document that the defense never saw was an eight-page transcript of a phone call that had taken place between Wood and Christine’s mother, Rita Kirkpatrick, less than two weeks after Christine’s murder. During this phone conversation, Kirkpatrick told Wood that the Mortons’ three-year-old son, Eric—who was home at the time of the murder—had reported seeing a “monster” kill his mother. He also said that his father had not been home when the crime occurred. Many of the details that Eric gave to his grandmother—such as the fact that the perpetrator threw a blue suitcase on the bed after he killed Christine—dovetailed perfectly with the crime scene.
That a former D.A.—much less a sitting district judge—will be held to account for alleged prosecutorial misconduct is extraordinarily unusual, if not unprecedented. Now, based on Judge Sturns’s ruling, Anderson is being held accountable for the decisions he made more than a quarter-century ago which sent Michael to prison for a crime he did not commit.