Former Texas prosecutor and district court judge Ken Anderson agreed Friday to serve 10 days in jail, complete 500 hours of community service and give up his law license for hiding evidence in a 1987 murder trial that sent an innocent man to jail for nearly 25 years.
Anderson hid two crucial pieces of evidence from the defense team of Michael Morton, who was accused of beating his wife to death, which would have supported their theory that Morton’s wife Christine was killed by a stranger who came into the house via an unlocked back door, not her husband.
According to local newspaper The Austin American-Statesman, Anderson hid a typewritten transcript of an interview with Christine Morton’s mother, Rita Kirkpatrick, that revealed Morton’s 3-year-old son saw the murder take place, described the attacker as a “monster” and said Michael was not home during the attack.
Anderson also hid a police report about the suspicious behavior of an unknown driver of a green van who had on several occasions parked and walked into the wooded area behind the Morton’s home before the murder.
Anderson offered up a different theory, that Michael Morton killed his wife Christine in a late-night fit of rage, staged the home to appear as if a break-in had occurred, and left to go to work the next day.
According to the medical examiner on the case, the time of death could have been no later than 1:15 a.m., which made Morton the only viable suspect. No witnesses or forensic evidence ever tied Morton to the crime, and a murder weapon was never found.
Morton was released in 2011 after an appeals-court-ordered DNA test of blood from a blue bandanna found on the street behind the house revealed that a man named Mark Alan Norwood was the actual killer.
Norwood is serving a life sentence for Christine Morton’s murder and was also charged with the 1988 murder of Debra Masters after his DNA was discovered in her home.
The case was one of Anderson’s first major cases as a top prosecutor for the state. Barry Scheck, co-founder of The Innocence Project, an NGO which advocates for prisoners who claim they were wrongly convicted, announced after the verdict that his group will conduct an independent review of all cases Anderson prosecuted in his 16 years as district attorney to see if Anderson hid evidence in those cases as well.
As a part of the deal that will put Anderson behind bars for 10 days, charges of tampering with evidence have been dropped and Anderson has settled his civil suit with the State Bar of Texas, agreeing to be disbarred and pay a $500 fine.
Anderson faced up to 10 years in prison if he had been convicted of tampering with evidence. Anderson accepted the plea deal in the same Williamson County courthouse where he later spent 11 years as a state judge. He resigned in September.
Morton watched from the front row of the gallery Friday as the man who helped convict him now sat at the same defense table he once did. Morton smiled and was hugged by family members after the judge adjourned.
“It’s a good day, ” Morton told the Statesman after the hearing. “I said the only thing that I want, as a baseline, is Ken Anderson to be off the bench and no longer practicing law — and both of those things have happened, and more.”
Anderson has previously apologized to Morton for what he called failures in the system but has said he believes there was no misconduct.
"In a case like this, sometimes it's hard to say what meets the ends of justice and what doesn't. There is no way that anything we can do here today can resolve the tragedy that occurred in these matters," Judge Kelly G. Moore said Friday. "I'd like to say to Mr. Morton, the world is a better place because of you."
Since being freed from prison, Morton has become a visible embodiment of problems in the legal system in Texas, which leads the nation in prisoners set free by DNA testing — 117 people in the last 25 years. Earlier this year, the former Republican chief justice of the Texas Supreme Court urged lawmakers to act on the issue.
Morton was a regular presence at the Texas Capitol this spring and helped push through the Michael Morton Act, which helps compel prosecutors to share files with defense attorneys that can help defendants' cases.
Al Jazeera and The Associated Press