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Judge Orders Court of Inquiry for Morton Prosecutor

Photo by Callie Richmond, Texas Tribune

GEORGETOWN — Judge Sid Harle said today he will recommend that Texas Supreme Court Chief Justice Wallace Jefferson convene a court of inquiry to review a slew of evidence against former Williamson County prosecutor Ken Anderson and determine whether there is probable cause to press criminal charges of prosecutorial misconduct related to his work in 1987 to secure a wrongful murder conviction that sent Michael Morton to prison for life.

In addition to allowing a full public airing of the evidence, the Bexar County state district judge said the unique legal proceeding would allow Anderson, who is now a district judge, the opportunity to clear his name.

“The only method and venue I know of for that to occur and for Mr. Morton’s interests to be served” is a court of inquiry, Harle said.

Morton was convicted of the 1986 murder of his wife, Christine Morton, who was bludgeoned to death in the couple's North Austin home. DNA testing results last year showed that Morton was innocent and that another man was likely responsible for his wife's gruesome death. After spending 25 years in prison, he was released in October and charges against him were dismissed in December.

Morton's lawyers — John Raley of the Houston law firm Raley & Bowick and Barry Scheck and Nina Morrison of the New York-based Innocence Project — have argued, though, that there was plenty of evidence back in 1987, without DNA, to prevent the former grocery store manager's wrongful conviction. They allege that Anderson, who is now a state district judge in Williamson County, deliberately concealed that evidence to secure Morton's conviction, a move that allowed the killer to go free and strike again. They argue that Anderson should be charged with contempt of court and tampering with official documents.

After the hearing, Scheck said he was pleased by the judge’s decision. And a smiling Morton said, “When you do the right thing, as the judge did today, everything else falls into place. It’s just a matter of time. It’s the beginning.”

Eric Nichols, a former assistant attorney general who is representing Anderson, said his client looks forward to the opportunity to clear his name during the court of inquiry. “Judge Anderson is a fine man who has served the people of Williamson County for many years. It’s unfortunate that these accusations have been made,” Nichols said. “At the end of the day, they need to back up those accusations with evidence.”

Nichols added that he is confident there is no evidence that Anderson violated any ethics codes or laws, as Morton’s lawyers allege.

Last month, Morton and his lawyers asked Harle to launch an unprecedented court of inquiry to determine whether Anderson broke state laws and violated professional ethics codes by withholding evidence when he prosecuted Morton.

Morton had contended during his 1987 trial that his wife’s killer must have entered their home after he left for work early in the morning. But Anderson convinced the jury that Morton, who had no criminal history, beat his wife to death in a perverted rage because she denied him sex. All the while, Morton’s lawyers allege, Anderson was concealing evidence that pointed to just the scenario Morton described.

They argue that Anderson withheld police reports that Judge William S. Lott ordered him to disclose during the trial so that he could determine whether they might help Morton’s case. Lott found nothing exculpatory in the few pages Anderson provided, and he ordered the record sealed.

When a different judge ordered the record unsealed in August, Morton’s lawyers discovered that Anderson had provided just a few pages of the available police reports. Crucial evidence was missing, including a transcript of a telephone conversation between a sheriff’s investigator 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. 

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.

Gone from the file, too, were reports that Christine Morton’s credit card had been used and a check with her forged signature was cashed after she died.

Morton’s lawyers conceded today in court, though, that they had recently discovered in the course of the ongoing investigation of the man whose DNA was discovered near the scene of Christine Morton’s murder that the signature on the check was Morton’s and that it was deposited in the couple’s bank account.

In November, Mark Norwood, the man whose DNA was connected to Christine Morton's death and to the 1988 killing of Debra Masters Baker, was arrested and charged with murder. A Williamson County grand jury indicted Norwood this month.

Baker’s family, including her husband Phillip, her son Jesse, her daughter Caitlin and her sister Lisa Conn, were in the courtroom for the proceedings Friday. The family joined in Morton’s request for the court of inquiry.

John Raley, Morton’s pro bono lawyer from Houston, said the court of inquiry is needed to ensure the rule of law is maintained in Texas courts.

“Brave men and women, your honor, have died for this liberty,” Raley said, arguing emotionally to Judge Harle. “Send a message that the rule of law will be followed in our courts, and that there will be consequences when the rule of law is callously disregarded.”

Brandi Grissom joined the Tribune after four years at the El Paso Times, where she acted as a one-woman Capitol bureau during the last two legislative sessions. Grissom won the Associated Press Managing Editors First-Place Award in 2007 for using the Freedom of Information Act to report stories on a variety of government programs and entities, and the ACLU of Texas named her legislative reporter of the year in 2007 for her immigration reporting. She previously served as managing editor at The Daily Texan and has worked for the Alliance Times-Herald, the Taylor Daily Press, the New Braunfels Herald-Zeitung and The Associated Press. A native of Alliance, Neb., she has a degree in history from the University of Texas.
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