By Will Weissert
AUSTIN — A special investigation will be launched to determine if a former prosecutor who is now a judge hid evidence in a trial that sent a man wrongly convicted of his wife’s murder to prison for nearly 25 years, Texas’ chief justice ordered Thursday.
A proceeding known as a “court of inquiry” will determine whether Judge Ken Anderson, when he was a district attorney, failed to turn over all documents that would have supported the defendant’s claims of innocence and whether he tampered with evidence and court records, according to the order signed by Texas Supreme Court Chief Justice Wallace Jefferson.
Courts of inquiry can be convened when legal officials and other public servants are accused of wrongdoing, and have the power to hear evidence and summon witnesses. It is similar to a grand jury proceeding, but Anderson will have the chance to defend himself against evidence presented.
Attorneys for Michael Morton say they hope the process results in criminal charges against Anderson. Morton, 57, spent 24 years in prison before new DNA testing showed he didn’t kill his wife, Christine, who was beaten to death in the couple’s bed on Aug. 13, 1986. He was freed in October.
Morton’s legal team accuses Anderson, the case’s lead prosecutor, of keeping key facts from the defense. That included statements from the couple’s then-3-year-old son that he witnessed the murder and his father wasn’t responsible, and the fact that Christine Morton’s credit card was used after her death.
The attorneys say Anderson did not turn over all evidence police had collected, even after presiding judge William Lott explicitly ordered him to do so.
Morton, who claimed an intruder broke in and killed his wife after he left for work, was subsequently convicted on circumstantial evidence and sentenced to life in prison. Lott has since died.
Anderson has apologized to Morton for what he’s called failures in the system but said he believes there was no misconduct in the case. Since 2002, he has been a judge in Williamson County, just north of Austin, where Morton was convicted.
Eric Nichols, one of Anderson’s attorneys, said Thursday that he looks forward to the court of inquiry as “an opportunity to do whatever we can at this point to clear Judge Anderson’s good name.”
District Judge Louis Sturns of Fort Worth was assigned to oversee the proceeding.
Morton’s Houston-based attorney, John Raley, said Sturns may soon appoint a special prosecutor, but that there’s no timetable for when the court of inquiry will begin.
“This is a historic moment for Texas justice,” said Raley, who has spent years representing Morton pro bono.
Jefferson’s order came after a 138-page report prepared by Morton’s attorneys outlined their allegations against Anderson.
Texas District Judge Sid Harle read the report and heard arguments from both sides last week, before asking the Supreme Court for the investigation.
Harle wrote to the chief justice that “there is probable cause to believe” Anderson failed to provide the defense with key evidence at trial, “including several documents containing information highly favorable to the accused.”