GEORGETOWN — Defiant, angry and frustrated, former prosecutor Ken Anderson took the stand on Friday to defend himself, ending a week of dramatic testimony in an unusual court of inquiry that is examining whether the former district attorney committed criminal misconduct during the trial that led to the wrongful murder conviction of Michael Morton.
Morton was sentenced to life in prison in 1987 for his wife’s murder, and he spent nearly 25 years behind bars before DNA evidence led to his exoneration in 2011. Lawyers for the exoneree contend that Anderson deliberately withheld critical evidence that could have prevented Morton’s wrongful conviction. Anderson adamantly denied any wrongdoing, and in his often impassioned testimony criticized the court of inquiry.
During about six hours on the stand, Anderson expressed no remorse for his own role in the miscarriage of justice that befell Morton. Instead, he repeatedly became indignant at the public accusations of wrongdoing that he has faced over the past 18 months. He defended the decisions he made while prosecuting Morton and seemed concerned about the damage the now famous case had inflicted on his reputation in his community. Anderson also lamented that he had expended his life-savings to hire lawyers to defend himself against allegations he called “so bogus it is unreal.”
“I had to spend the money to hire lawyers. And I worked my entire life and now they have it,” he said.
Eric Nichols, a former prosecutor who is representing Anderson, asked his client to tell Morton, who sat in the front row of the courtroom, surrounded by his fiancé and mother, how he felt after having himself been the subject of “false accusations” over the last 18 months.
Anderson turned toward Morton, who was sent to prison in 1987 just months after his wife was brutally murdered, leaving behind a 3-year-old son with whom he is only now re-establishing a relationship.
"I know what me and my family have been through in the last 18 months, and it's hell," Anderson said, his voice cracking. "And it doesn’t even register in the same ballpark as what you went through, Mr. Morton, so I don't know that I can say I feel your pain, but I have a pretty darn good idea how horrible what we've gone through for 18 months has been, with false accusations and everything else, and what happened to you is so much worse than that. I can't imagine what you're feeling.”
As he had previously, Anderson apologized not for any errors he might have made in Morton’s case but for the system which he said, “screwed up.”
"I've beaten myself up on what could have been done different, and I frankly don't know,” the 60-year-old judge said.
Under questioning from former Harris County prosecutor-turned-defense lawyer Rusty Hardin, the appointed attorney pro tem in the court of inquiry, Anderson at times began shouting. At one point, when Hardin read to the former prosecutor from Anderson’s 1997 book Crime in Texas, the bespectacled judge grabbed the book away from Hardin. His hands shaking, he angrily read from it: Hardin had mistakenly said that a chapter in the book focused on the Morton case. In fact, only a short introductory section discusses the case. Anderson loudly read the name of each chapter in the table of contents to make his point.
Hardin’s questioning focused on what Anderson knew about two key pieces of evidence: a transcript of a phone call in which Morton’s mother-in-law recounted to police a conversation with her 3-year-old grandson, who said he saw a “monster” beat his mother to death while his father wasn’t home, and a report in which neighbors told police they saw a man in a green van park near the Mortons' home and walk into the woods behind it several times before the crime.
Morton’s lawyers during his trial — Bill Allison and Bill White — contended that the murder happened while he was at work and must have been committed by an intruder, a theory that has since been proven true. The transcript and the green van report would have bolstered their case, but Allison and White said in testimony earlier in the week that Anderson never gave it to them. Morton’s lawyers allege that Anderson violated a judge’s order to turn over that information to the court.
Anderson insisted that there was no judge’s order requiring him to turn over that evidence. He also argued that although he was not required under law or by a judge’s order to give Morton’s lawyers the transcript or the green van report that he must have told them about it. He said he had no “independent recollection” of doing so, but faulted Morton’s lawyers for not following up on the information.
“I read that to the lawyers, and they could have done what they wanted,” Anderson said.
In his testimony early in the day, Anderson said that one important reason he decided to become a prosecutor was that he wanted to help victims, particularly child victims of sexual assault. As Hardin questioned him for nearly four hours, he asked over and over about how the prosecutor could fail to remember a piece of evidence as dramatic as the transcript in which a toddler describes seeing his mother brutally murdered.
"How could a former prosecutor who cares so deeply about children not remember anything about a child seeing his mother killed in a case that he prosecuted? How could that be?” Hardin asked incredulously.
“I have no recollection of a particular piece of evidence of that nature or in that detail,” Anderson said.
Friday’s dramatic and at times awkward testimony marked the crescendo of a week of emotional testimony in a case that has gripped national headlines since August 2011, when DNA showed Morton was innocent.
The case has become an example among those who advocate for criminal justice reform of why prosecutors ought to be held accountable for mistakes that cost innocent people years in prison. A finding by the court of inquiry that Anderson committed criminal violations could result in the arrest of the former Williamson County district attorney.
Anderson’s lawyers worked throughout the week to show that the former prosecutor was not obligated to turn over evidence to Morton’s lawyers. They also made the case that Morton’s own trial lawyers failed to adequately investigate the case and made critical missteps during their defense of him.
Hardin, for his part, attempted to prove that Anderson, in his prosecutorial zeal, went to great lengths to keep evidence from Morton's lawyers. And he made a case that prosecutors could avoid circumstances like the one in which Anderson now finds himself by simply opening their files to the defense.
Tarrant County state district Judge Louis Sturns, appointed by the Texas Supreme Court to oversee the court of inquiry, said he would consider all of the evidence presented by Hardin and Anderson’s lawyers. He asked both sides to submit to him proposed recommendations. And he said he would call them all back at a later date as early as this spring.
Morton exited the courtroom Friday afternoon, after a week of hearing the excruciating details of his botched trial rehashed and a day of listening to one of the men he feels was responsible for his wrongful conviction defend his work. “Yikes,” Morton said to a gaggle of television cameras and news reporters. He took a deep breath before describing the day of heated verbal sparring as “wrenching.”
Morton said his impression was that Anderson accepted no responsibility for the injustice he suffered.
"I was hoping for more," he said. "I think we saw someone who is still struggling with denial and anger."