Let’s Put Justice Back into the Justice System
By: Sígrid Vendrell-Polanco, Law Clerk at the Law Offices of Stephen G. Cline**
It used to be exceedingly rare for prosecutors to be reprimanded for prosecutorial misconduct in the criminal justice system. Used to be. Could things be taking a turn for good?
In November of 2013, District Judge Ken Anderson, of Williamson County, Texas, was sentenced to jail time, forced to retire as judge, and give up his license to practice law because of a Brady violation he committed in 1987. That’s right, you read that correctly: sentenced to jail time. That’s close to unheard of in criminal prosecution! Usually prosecutors with a Brady violation get a slap on the wrist for this type of prosecutorial misconduct. And to think that this happened in the most conservative state in the U.S.? Sounds impossible.
So what’s the story, you ask? Well, back in 1986, Christine Morton was found beaten to death in her own bed. Who is always the first suspect? The husband, of course. Prosecutor, then, Ken Anderson, investigated Michael Morton, Christine’s husband, as the only possible suspect. He investigated the murder, charged Morton, and along the way, forgot to disclose two key pieces of exculpatory evidence.
The first was a transcript of Christine’s mother being interviewed by police after the murder. The mother stated that Christine and Morton’s son was in the house at the time of the murder, witnessed the murder, and even gave a description of the attacker. Not only had that, but the kid even said that his father, the only suspect the prosecutor ever considered, was not even home that night.
The second was a police report dated before the murder reporting a suspicious character driving around the Morton house, parking close to the house and venturing into the woods behind the Morton property. This occurred several times before the murder, by the same unidentified character, driving a green van, every time.
If these police reports were disclosed during trial, don’t you think the jury might have returned a different verdict? Although there was no physical evidence or eye witness testimony, Mr. Morton was eventually convicted of the murder of his wife, Christine, and sentenced to life in prison. Now, a long 25 years later, Mr. Morton’s pleas were finally heard and DNA testing that was not available then was used to test the DNA on a blue bandana from the scene of the crime. Not only was Mr. Morton’s DNA NOT on that bandana, but another man’s was.
What’s sad is not just that Mr. Anderson’s actions caused a man to lose 25 years of his life wrongfully incarcerated, but that Mr. Anderson, in not exposing those key pieces of evidence, caused the right man to roam the community, free of the responsibility to pay for his actions, free to kill again. And in fact, that is exactly what he did. Mark Alan Norwood’s DNA was identified on that bandana, a man who was also charged with murdering yet another woman in Austin, Texas only a year after Christine’s murder, in the same manner as Christine’s murder.
Back to that jail sentence. Mr. Anderson pled out of his criminal and civil charges and was order to serve a whopping, wait for it…10 whole days in jail! That’s right, yet again, you read that correctly. Mr. Anderson was sentenced to 10 days in jail for his contempt of court in failing to stop an innocent man from putting on a fair trial. The poor husband serves close to 25 years in prison for a crime he did NOT commit, and the prosecutor, who then became a judge, pleads guilty for misconduct and serves 10 days in jail.
Believe it or not, there are mixed reactions about this in the legal community. Surprisingly, most defense attorneys that I have spoken to about the case are ecstatic about the outcome, including Justin Brooks, director of the California Innocence Project at California Western School of Law, in San Diego, California. Mr. Brooks stated to me how unheard of it is to reprimand any prosecutor, much less a now-judge, and much less make them serve jail time for their misconduct! He is appalled that the Texas courts would go to such lengths to punish a prosecutor for a Brady violation. Some defense attorneys are just happy to get these kinds of cases out there, give them publicity and show that there are prosecutors who are actually punished for their wrongdoings.
However, some prosecutors, defense attorneys and a large portion of the public, don’t believe that a 10 day sentence is enough. And, mainly, they don’t believe it will deter other prosecutors from doing the same. This should be the saddest thing of all. That the people are not aware of how often there is prosecutorial misconduct along with the much publicized police misconduct. And that prosecutors themselves, don’t think this case will impact other prosecutor’s behavior.
It still shocks me that there are people in our nation who don’t believe that individuals are wrongfully incarcerated. It shocks me that the general public doesn’t understand how far prosecutors and law enforcers can go sometimes, just get someone, anyone, behind bars for a crime, whether they committed it or not.
So, could things be taking a turn for good? I certainly hope so. I certainly hope that this case from the Great State of Texas sets an example for the nation. I hope that other states follow that example and begin taking Brady violations more seriously. Let’s take a stand against the Mr. Anderson’s of the criminal justice system. Let’s put justice back into the justice system.
Attorney Stephen G. Cline has been practicing San Diego criminal defense for 20 years. His reputation and experience will be the key to the aggressive defense of your San Diego criminal case. Call today at (619) 235-5638 to review your specific case!**This post has been submitted by a guest author interning with the Law Offices of Stephen G. Cline. Mr. Cline believes in giving back to the industry and sharing his knowledge and experience by mentoring third year law students through clinical internships with California Western School of Law. While the opinions expressed are that of the author, Mr. Cline has reviewed and approved this post.