Exonerated of Murder, Morton Seeks Prosecutor Inquiry
Updated 10:30 a.m.: Lawyers for Michael Morton this morning filed a report requesting a court of inquiry to examine the role of Williamson County state district Judge Ken Anderson, the former prosecutor, in Morton's wrongful conviction.
A Texas man wrongfully convicted in 1987 of murdering his wife is scheduled to be officially exonerated on Monday.
That is no longer so unusual in Texas, where 45 inmates have been exonerated in the last decade based on DNA evidence. What is unprecedented is the move planned by lawyers for the man, Michael Morton: They are expected to file a request for a special hearing to determine whether the prosecutor broke state laws or ethics rules by withholding evidence that could have led to Morton’s acquittal 25 years ago.
“I haven’t seen anything like this, ever,” said Bennet L. Gershman, an expert on prosecutorial misconduct at Pace University in New York. “It’s an extraordinary legal event.”
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The prosecutor, Ken Anderson, a noted expert on Texas criminal law, is now a state district judge. Through a lawyer, he vigorously denied any wrongdoing in Morton’s case.
Morton, who was a manager at an Austin supermarket and had no criminal history, was charged with the beating death of his wife, Christine, in 1986. He had contended that the killer must have entered their home after he left for work early in the morning. But Anderson convinced the jury that Morton, in a rage over his wife’s romantic rebuff the previous night — on Morton’s 32nd birthday — savagely beat her to death.
Morton was sentenced to life in prison. Beginning in 2005, he pleaded with the court to test DNA on a blue bandanna found near his home shortly after the murder, along with other evidence.
For six years, the Williamson County district attorney, John Bradley, fought the request for DNA testing, based on advice from Anderson, his predecessor and friend. In 2010, however, a Texas court ordered the DNA testing, and the results showed that Christine Morton’s blood on the bandanna was mixed with the DNA of another man: Mark A. Norwood, a felon with a long criminal history who lived about 12 miles from the Mortons at the time of the murder. By then, Morton had spent nearly 25 years in prison.
Norwood has been arrested and charged in Christine Morton’s death and is a suspect in a similar murder from 1988.
The filing by Morton’s lawyer, John Raley of Houston-based Raley & Bowick, and attorneys from the New York-based Innocence Project, which represents prisoners seeking exoneration through DNA testing, is asking for what is known as a “court of inquiry.” The attorneys lawyers did not share the document with reporters but answered questions about it.
They will ask the court to determine that there is probable cause to believe that Anderson withheld reports that the judge in the 1987 trial had ordered him to turn over. Judge William S. Lott had demanded the documents to determine whether they might help Morton’s case. Finding nothing exculpatory in the small number of documents he was provided by the prosecutor, the judge ordered the record sealed.
In August, however, a different judge ordered the record unsealed, and Morton’s lawyers discovered that Anderson had provided only a fraction of the available evidence. Missing from the file was the 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 had seen a “monster” — who was not his father — attack and kill his mother.