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Texas opens court of inquiry into claims of prosecutor misconduct

February 04, 2013|By Molly Hennessy-Fiske
  • Michael Morton, left, was exonerated in the beating death of his wife after 25 years. Monday he attended a Texas court of inquiry focused on the prosecutor in his case.
Michael Morton, left, was exonerated in the beating death of his wife after… (Ricardo B. Brazziell / Statesman.com )

GEORGETOWN, Texas — In emotional testimony Monday, a Texas man told a judge how it felt spending 25 years in prison for a murder he did not commit.

“Brutal,” Michael Morton said. “But after a couple decades, I got used to it.”

Morton, 58, who grew up in Los Angeles, was convicted in the 1986 beating death of his wife, Christine, at their home. He was exonerated and released almost a year and a half ago after DNA tests confirmed his innocence. Another man has since been charged in connection with the killing.

Now the man who prosecuted Morton, Williamson County District Judge Ken Anderson, faces an unprecedented “court of inquiry” about 30 miles north of Austin in which a judge will decide whether the then-district attorney lied and concealed evidence that could have cleared Morton.

It is the first time the state has convened such a hearing for prosecutorial misconduct. Although part of Texas law since 1965, the court of inquiry has typically been used to consider allegations against elected officials. Some hope this week’s hearing will lead to a greater examination of alleged misconduct by prosecutors not just in Texas, but nationwide.

“This is going to be a significant case for prosecutorial misconduct. It could lead to judges giving more specific orders about turning over evidence,” said Barry Scheck, co-founder of the New York-based Innocence Project, who attended Monday’s hearing.

Texas District Judge Louis Sturns, who is presiding over the court of inquiry, must determine whether state laws were broken in Anderson’s prosecution of Morton. If so, the judge must issue an arrest warrant, potentially leading to a criminal trial.

Morton’s attorneys — including several from the Innocence Project — appealed for the court of inquiry after uncovering evidence they believe should have been disclosed under the landmark 1963 U.S. Supreme Court decision Brady vs. Maryland, which requires prosecutors to share evidence favorable to the accused with defense lawyers.

Rusty Hardin, the special prosecutor appointed for the court of inquiry, asked Morton on Monday how he felt when he learned that information that could have cleared him was not shared with his attorneys during his 1987 trial.

That evidence, Hardin said, included an interview the lead investigator conducted with Morton’s mother-in-law in which she recounted how his 3-year-old son, Eric, at home at the time of the murder, claimed his father wasn’t there but that he saw a “monster … hurt Mommy.”

“I was stunned,” Morton said. “All those years … the primary thing that kept hitting me was why? What purpose, what motivation?”

On the stand Monday, Morton occasionally choked up, but remained mostly composed, at times smiling.

He sat facing Anderson, who appeared impassive. Anderson has apologized, but also denied wrongdoing in the case.

Last fall, the State Bar of Texas filed a lawsuit accusing Anderson of professional misconduct in Morton’s prosecution. A date has yet to be set for that civil trial.

Anderson’s attorney, Eric Nichols, a former prosecutor with the Texas Attorney General's Office, focused his questions Monday on what the trial judge, who has since died, ordered Anderson to turn over.

He argued that Morton’s lawyers ruled out relying on his son as a witness before his trial and emphasized that Innocence Project lawyers, not Morton, have been pursuing charges against Anderson. Nichols noted that two Innocence Project claims about concealed evidence that could have cleared Morton were recently found to be false.

“You are not interested in seeing someone prosecuted on insufficient evidence?” Nichols said.

“Correct,” Morton said.

Hardin argued that even if the evidence couldn’t have cleared Morton, it should still have been turned over before trial.

Morton said he’s not out for revenge, just accountability.

“I don’t want anything ill for Judge Anderson,” Morton said, tearing up, “But there are consequences for our actions. There needs to be accountability, because without that, everything else falls apart.”

Some said they hope the inquiry leads to increased oversight of prosecutors.

“There is no doubt that the eyes of Texas are going to be on this proceeding,” said Kathryn Kase, executive director of Texas Defender Service, a nonprofit that trains and assists lawyers who represent death row inmates. “Bad forensic science is not the only reason people get wrongfully imprisoned, and we have to be dedicated to trying to stop that.”

Texas State Sen. Rodney Ellis, a Houston Democrat, has proposed legislation to create an “innocence commission” in Texas like some other states to systematically investigate wrongful convictions. Ellis attended Monday’s hearing and said it showed the need for such a commission to find solutions to prevent future mistakes, especially for poor defendants who cannot afford the “firepower” of the high-caliber lawyers that filled the courtroom Monday.

“It’s really hard to get to the real problem of what went wrong” with prosecutorial misconduct, Ellis said. “You ought to have a system, a way in which hard questions are asked.”

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molly.hennessy-fiske@latimes.com

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