Judicial System Consequences

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The following is a reprint from the Austin American-Statesman, Editorial Board

We felt the severity of this issue warranted a reprint in Louisiana, as the lesson is universal.

Original title: Anderson should weigh consequences to justice system before continuing as judge

By Editorial Board(Link here to original)

It remains to be seen whether former Williamson County District Attorney Ken Anderson will face criminal charges in a criminal court for allegations of hiding key evidence to win a conviction. It’s a serious charge that carries with it a vital concern of whether those entrusted with upholding the law are above the law. A trial is the right place to sort out the guilt or innocence of Anderson, whose conduct as a prosecutor and officer of the court has fallen under a cloud of suspicion in the Michael Morton case.

justiceUnfortunately, a trial is not a sure thing because of laws limiting the time in which exonerees can bring charges against prosecutors. What is encouraging at this point is the determination of the system to hold Anderson accountable.

Morton might have been spared nearly 25 years in prison for a crime he didn’t commit if the evidence Anderson kept in his files, which pointed to Morton’s innocence, had been turned over to Morton’s defense lawyers in 1987.

It was not. Anderson, now a sitting district judge in Williamson County, has denied any wrongdoing in his role as lead prosecutor in the case regarding the 1986 murder of Morton’s wife, Christine. Anderson now is facing career-ending consequences or worse. Last week, Anderson was arrested and booked into jail and then released on bond after a specially convened court found that he intentionally hid evidence to secure Morton’s conviction, American-Statesman writer Chuck Lindell reported.

District Judge Louis Sturns, who presided over the court, was frank in his ruling: “This court cannot think of a more intentionally harmful act than a prosecutor’s conscious choice to hide mitigating evidence so as to create an uneven playing field for a defendant facing a murder charge and a life sentence.”

Sturns said what needed saying given Anderson’s conduct and his unwillingness to take personal responsibility for his oversight of the investigation and prosecution of the Morton case. That much was clear from Anderson’s apology in 2011 following Morton’s exoneration by DNA evidence.

SocialJustice“As woefully inadequate as I realize it is, I want to formally apologize for the system’s failure to Mr. Morton and every other person who was affected by the verdict.”

As we noted then, the system doesn’t run itself — people run the system. It was Anderson’s “woefully inadequate” conduct — be it intentional or otherwise — that failed Morton and the people of Williamson and Travis counties. Not only was Morton imprisoned for decades, but a killer was left on the streets to kill again.

Justice DefinedSturns’ ruling, Lindell reported, is the first step in a potential criminal case against Anderson, who served as Williamson County’s district attorney for 16 years before becoming a district judge in 2002. It’s a case complicated by legal deadlines that make it difficult for the case to advance, even if Anderson committed the crimes of which he is accused. Anderson’s attorneys are arguing that the statute of limitations ran out 23 years ago so any crimes are too old to prosecute. That the case might not go to trial on its merits but be stopped on legal process is something that prompted the Texas Senate to pass a bill extending the deadline to four years from the date of their release from prison for exonorees to file grievances. That is a needed change the House also should approve.

But it won’t apply to Anderson, who is accused of improperly concealing two key pieces of evidence: a transcript of a police interview revealing that Morton and his wife’s 3-year-old son witnessed the murder and said his father was not at home at the time; and a police report about a suspicious man who had parked a green van near the Morton home and, on several occasions, walked into the wooded area behind the home. The evidence, which ultimately exonerated Morton, was DNA found on a bandanna near the Mortons’ Williamson County home. That DNA evidence led to the conviction this year of another man, Mark Alan Norwood, in the murder of Christine Morton.

What Public Records?
Public Interest

There is a public interest in the Anderson case going to trial. It’s not just about righting a grievous wrong done to an innocent man, who at the time was a husband and father working as a grocery store manager — though that is important. The justice system cannot be sustained without public trust. That trust relies on a basic tenet that when people break the law, they are held accountable. And that tenet must apply equally to all, especially law enforcement officials. Sturns knows that.

As for Anderson, state law does not require him to step down as the case advances. But he should give serious thought to resigning to prevent further damage to the office with which he is entrusted. It’s time for him to consider whether he can any longer be effective in his job as a district judge overseeing criminal cases, and it would signal that at last he is taking personal responsibility for his conduct in the case that deeply damaged Morton and the public’s trust in the Texas justice system.

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