The process of accountability for former Williamson County District Attorney Ken Anderson, for the wrongful conviction of Michael Morton, begins this week. From the AAS, Morton prosecutor faces court of inquiry this week.
Exactly 16 months after Michael Morton was freed from prison, an unprecedented hearing will begin Monday in Georgetown to determine if his prosecutor, former Williamson County District Attorney Ken Anderson, should himself be prosecuted and possibly jailed.
Anderson faces a court of inquiry, a rare and uniquely Texas procedure that will examine allegations that he lied and conspired to conceal evidence — in violation of the law and a judge’s order — that could have spared Morton from serving 25 years in prison in the beating death of his wife.
In the time since DNA tests confirmed his innocence, Morton — who is expected to testify Monday — has worked to rebuild his life, particularly his relationship with son Eric, who was 3 when he was arrested, and a granddaughter born shortly after his release.
Anderson’s fortunes, meanwhile, have fallen.
Once synonymous with Williamson County’s tough-on-crime image, Anderson was a politically astute, award-winning district attorney for 16 years. Praised as a tenacious advocate for child victims, he was a sought-after speaker and the co-author of several legal reference books. When Gov. Rick Perry needed to fill a state district court vacancy, Anderson was the natural choice.
And here’s how the court of inquiry will work.
The inquiry will resemble a trial, but with several essential differences.
Up to 20 witnesses will be questioned and cross-examined in an effort to reconstruct events before, during and after Morton’s 1987 trial for the murder of his wife, Christine, in their Williamson County home.
But the court of inquiry will not end with a verdict of guilt or innocence for Anderson, who has denied wrongdoing in the case.
Instead, the judge appointed to preside over the court — state District Judge Louis Sturns of Fort Worth — will determine whether there is reason to believe state laws were broken in the way Anderson prosecuted Morton. If the answer is yes, state law requires Sturns to issue an arrest warrant charging Anderson with one or more crimes, potentially leading to a criminal trial.
In that way, a court of inquiry is closer to a grand jury, which decides whether there is enough evidence to proceed to trial.
Unlike a grand jury, however, the court of inquiry will be open to the public, and Anderson’s lawyers will be there to question witnesses, raise objections and present their own evidence.
There also will be no prosecutor. Instead, a Sturns-appointed “attorney pro tem” — noted defense lawyer Rusty Hardin, aided by several members of his Houston law firm — will present evidence, question witnesses and perform any task that Sturns believes will help him understand the issues.
“It’s not a trial. It’s an evidentiary hearing for the judge to hear from both sides,” Hardin told the American-Statesman recently. “And it’s not like a trial where there’s a prosecutor trying to get somebody convicted. I think our role is to try to make sure the judge has all the evidence before him so he can make an informed choice.”
When the testimony is over, Sturns can issue an immediate ruling or take the matter under advisement.
The Texas Tribune also has a write up on this week’s Anderson court of inquiry, Michael Morton’s Conviction Comes to Define Anderson. The article reminds us of how Williamson County “justice” was back then. In a word, lazy. Two buddies in a rural county, a Sheriff and a DA, could concoct a plausible scenario and sell it to a local jury and they’d buy it hook, line, and sinker. Whether it was based in fact or not. And they knew, just knew, they were right.
Parker McCollough, a friend of Anderson’s who would later become a state legislator, represented Lucas during that high-profile trial. It was one of many cases in which he sat across the courtroom from Anderson, who was then an assistant prosecutor.
“He was a very thorough prosecutor who took his job seriously,” McCollough said. “I took it that that was the focus of what he was doing with his life at that particular point in his life. He was extremely conscientious.”
Minton said Boutwell set the tone for criminal justice in Williamson County.
“He had more control over the courthouse attitude than any DA did back then,” Minton said.
At the time of Morton’s trial, Boutwell was regarded as a “lawman’s lawman,” Anderson wrote in his book. “We had a common purpose. We believed we really could make Williamson County a safer, better place for our neighbors to live in.”
Boutwell’s influence spread from the courthouse to politics, too. Politicians ranging from candidates for local office to the governor sought his approval. During Ann Richards’ 1990 gubernatorial campaign, Boutwell grilled the candidate about her personal history and political views before giving his blessing. Then, he escorted Richards on visits to sheriffs across the state, urging them to support her.
“Boutwell was always talking about what politics ought to be and how tough he was on crime,” Minton said.
When Christine Morton was found beaten to death in her bed on Aug. 13, 1986, Boutwell was among the first to arrive on the scene. He informed Michael Morton, when he arrived home from work, that his wife was dead and immediately read him his Miranda rights. Morton has said Boutwell treated him with suspicion from the start, a feeling fueled by an unpleasant note he had left for his wife expressing disappointment that she had fallen asleep during a romantic interlude the night before — his birthday. About six weeks later, Morton was arrested and charged with his wife’s murder.
In Crime In Texas, Anderson described how he and Boutwell meticulously pieced together “circumstantial murder cases,” plotted undercover operations and made plans to help crime victims on coffee-stained napkins at the L&M Café in Georgetown.
“Perhaps no sheriff and district attorney had a closer working relationship than Jim and I had,” he wrote.
The Morton murder was among the cases the two men worked on together. The theory Anderson developed with Boutwell’s help was that Morton had been so enraged by his wife’s rejection that he bashed in her head with a billy club before using her lifeless hand to masturbate.
In 1987, Morton was convicted and sentenced to life in prison.
“Life in prison is a lot better than he deserves,” Anderson told newspaper reporters.
If Anderson is as good a man as the article goes on to say his punishment is that he has to live with what he did to Michael Morton and his family for the rest of his life. He shouldn’t be able to practice law anymore, but that’s up to the legal system in Texas. Which allowed Michael Morton to go to prison for 25 years for a crime he didn’t commit. So Andeson should just do the right thing and retire. But who knows whether either of those things will happen.