Updated at 4:41 p.m. with additional details and context throughout and comment from Williamson County District Attorney John Bradley.
Tarrant County state district Judge Louis Sturns will lead a court of inquiry to investigate allegations of criminal prosecutorial misconduct against former prosecutor Ken Anderson, who saw to the wrongful murder conviction of Michael Morton in 1987.
Morton was exonerated of his wife's 1986 bludgeoning death in October after DNA tests confirmed his innocence. Defense lawyers have alleged that the wrongful conviction would not have happened and Morton would not have lost 25 years in prison if Anderson, who is now a Williamson County state district judge, had not deliberately withheld evidence that indicated his innocence at the time of the 1987 trial.
“This is a historic moment for Texas justice," said John Raley, the Houston lawyer who has worked pro bono on Morton's case for eight years. "We are confident that Judge Sturns will handle this important case with the seriousness and probity demonstrated by Judge [Sid] Harle and [Texas Supreme Court Chief] Justice [Wallace] Jefferson.”
Eric Nichols, a former assistant attorney general and a lawyer for Anderson, said that he is looking forward to the opportunity to clear his name. Anderson has strenuously denied any wrongdoing in the Morton prosecution. "We look forward to participating in a proceeding that for the first time will not be one-sided, as all of the proceedings have been to date," Nichols said.
Morton's lawyers, including Raley and Nina Morrison and Barry Scheck of the New York-based Innocence Project, sought a court of inquiry to determine whether Anderson broke state laws and violated professional ethics codes by withholding evidence when he prosecuted Morton. They filed a 140-page report outlining the allegations to Bexar County state district Judge Sid Harle, who presided over Morton's exoneration.
Last week, Harle recommended that Justice Jefferson appoint such a court after he decided there was probable cause to believe that Anderson should face charges of contempt of court, tampering with evidence and tampering with government records.
"The record contains evidence that a public official may have committed serious misconduct, and that this misconduct may have contributed to the wrongful conviction and lengthy incarceration of ... Michael Morton, now known to be factually innocent," Harle wrote in his order.
In a letter to Sturns today, Texas Supreme Court Chief Justice Wallace Jefferson advised the judge that he has been assigned to oversee the unusual court proceeding. Sturns, 62, is a Republican from rural East Texas and previously served on the Texas Court of Criminal Appeals. He first ran for a Tarrant County judicial post and won in 1986. In an autobiographical video on his campaign website, Sturns says, "The presumption of innocence means a lot. It means that I have to do my best to make sure that I set aside preconditions or ideas that I have." He goes on to say that religion plays a role in his life and he serves as chairman of the board at his church.
Morton contended during his 1987 trial that his wife’s killer must have entered their home after he left for at about 5:30 a.m. But Anderson told the jury that Morton, who had no criminal history, beat his wife to death in a perverted rage because she denied him sex. Meanwhile, Morton’s lawyers allege, Anderson was concealing evidence that pointed to the very scenario Morton described.
Morton was sentenced to life in prison, but continued to maintain his innocence. He pleaded with the court, beginning in 2005, to test DNA on a collection of evidence, including a blue bandana found near his home shortly after the murder.
Williamson County District Attorney John Bradley fought the request for DNA testing, based on advice from Anderson. In 2010, though, a Texas court ordered the DNA testing. The results showed Christine Morton’s blood on the bandana mixed with the DNA of Mark A. Norwood, a felon with a long criminal history who lived near the Mortons at the time of the murder. A Williamson County grand jury indicted Norwood this month. Norwood's DNA has also been identified on a pubic hair found at the scene of Debra Masters Baker's 1988 murder.
It is unclear at this point where the court of inquiry will be conducted. If Sturns decide to have the court in Williamson County, where the Morton trial occurred, the local district attorney would typically be assigned to represent the state's case against Anderson. But Bradley said today that he would recuse himself and ask Sturns to appoint a special prosecutor if the court of inquiry is held in Williamson County.
"There's no question in my mind that I will inform the judge it would be much more appropriate for him to appoint someone else," Bradley said.
In their report to the court, Morton's lawyers argue that Anderson concealed police reports that Judge William S. Lott ordered him to disclose during the 1987 trial so that he could determine whether they might help Morton’s case. Lott found nothing exculpatory in the few pages Anderson gave him, and he ordered the record sealed.
When a different judge ordered the record unsealed in August, Morton’s lawyers discovered that Anderson had provided very few of the available police reports. Key pieces of evidence were missing, including a transcript of a telephone conversation between a sheriff’s deputy and Morton’s mother-in-law in which she reported that her 3-year-old grandson, Eric, had seen a “monster” — who was not his father — attack and kill his mother.
Police reports from Morton’s neighbors were also missing. They told police they saw a man in a green van park near their home and walk into the woods behind their house. Also missing were reports that Christine Morton’s credit card had been used and a check with her forged signature cashed after her death. Last week, Morton's lawyers said in court that recent investigation showed that the check had been deposited by Morton with others after his wife's death.
In his lengthy deposition last year, Anderson said he recalled few details of the case and contended that he did nothing wrong. He said that he had interpreted the judge’s order to disclose police reports as a narrow request for one report and that he felt “sick” over Morton’s wrongful imprisonment.