Earlier this month, Ken Anderson, a sitting state judge and the prosecutor in Morton's case, sat in front of a court of inquiry. Anderson was accused of intentionally defying court orders to turn over certain types of evidence. He hid a number of items that suggested Morton's innocence, and in the process, he allowed the real murderer to go free. Not only did Morton spend a decent portion of his adult life in prison. In addition, the now-accused murderer went on to kill again. The court of inquiry has yet to return a finding, but it could determine that Anderson needs to stand trial on contempt of court charges.
My first reaction to reading stories about the court of inquiry was some combination of shock and disgust. Anderson still refuses to take responsibility, and he still claims that in his "heart," he knows he did nothing wrong. Anderson is arrogant; he occupies a moral high ground he's not earned. But there's nothing shocking about a prosecutor, especially in a place like Williamson County, Texas, displaying callousness and dishonesty in the name of protecting the conviction-driven "justice" system. Anderson's not rare in any meaningful way. Sloppy, incompetent, and evil prosecutors like him are rewarded for their good work every year with governor-appointed district judgeships.
So this is not a diary about Ken Anderson. Even at one cent per word, I'm not sure he's worth the cost of a paragraph. This is a diary about Michael Morton, who's worth far more than my modest words can convey. Michael Morton displays the best that humanity can offer, and he's done so through almost three decades of a horror show.
Imagine for one second that someone you love deeply has been brutally murdered. Now imagine that murder took place one day after your birthday, and in the months to follow, you would be arrested, charged, and painted as a sex-obsessed monster. Now imagine you're convicted of that crime, your life ripped to shreds, and your tired body thrown into a Texas prison.
Two months after that conviction, would you have the peace of mind, and more importantly, the perspective, to write a letter that reads like this, as quoted in the Texas Monthly piece linked above:
“I have been told that you are to decide if I am ever to see my son, Eric, again. I haven’t seen him since the morning that I was convicted. I miss him terribly and I know that he has been asking about me.” Referring to the declarations of innocence he had made during his trial, he continued, “I must reiterate my innocence. I did NOT kill my wife. You cannot imagine what it is like to lose your wife the way I did, then to be falsely accused and convicted of this terrible crime. First, my wife and now possibly, my son! Sooner or later, the truth will come out. The killer will be caught and this nightmare will be over. I pray that the sheriff’s office keeps an open mind. It is no sin to admit a mistake. No one is perfect in the performance of their job..."Morton meant the words that concluded that paragraph. Over the next 25 years, he would continue to hold out his own innocence, working closely with post-conviction attorneys to uncover the evidence that eventually led to his exoneration. Though he went through a number of rough patches over that time, Morton rarely resorted to a level of anger that would have been justified for someone in his position.
And in Anderson's court of inquiry, Morton displayed a level of human kindness not often seen. Morton listened to nearly six hours of testimony from Anderson. That testimony included less fact recollection (Anderson's official position on many questions is that he doesn't remember) and more mitigation. At one point, Anderson bemoaned the fact that hiring an attorney for this matter depleted his life savings:
“I had to spend the money to hire lawyers. And I worked my entire life and now they have it,” he said.He was forced to listen to Anderson describe a broken system, taking no responsibility for his role in the ordeal. Anderson and district attorneys like him are the system, and his statements must have left Morton to wonder just who in the criminal justice apparatus Anderson is passing the buck to. But through all of that, Morton maintained tremendous perspective, arguing as hard as anyone for Anderson's right to a fair proceeding.
On the stand to give his own testimony, Morton described the gut-wrenching nature of more than two decades spent fighting the system. His extraordinary moment on the stand came when he asked Judge Louis Sterns to show mercy to the man whose actions led to the injustice:
"I ask that you do what needs to be done. But at the same time to be gentle with Judge Anderson," Morton, who began crying, told Sturns.Morton's incredible plea is evidence of heightened humanity undoubtedly earned through years of reflection in prison. Armed with little more than time, he had a unique opportunity to consider the many angles of his ordeal. And he realized that his own false conviction was the result of too many people too quick to judge without proper attention to the due process normally designed to prevent these situations.
Until I read Michael Morton's quotes, I had called for Ken Anderson's head. I fashion myself a defender, and these stories lend credence to our claims that most prosecutors are dirty. But what I realized is that principles are often buried when our emotional causes take center stage. As Morton rightly points out, even Anderson is a flawed human who made unthinkable mistakes. The principal of fairness can't be abandoned just because the accused at one time abandoned it.
It's a problem I often consider when thinking about potential clients. I decided to go into public defense because the poor take the short end of almost every stick, and my skills are best used in a court room. Behind much of my drive is a desire to protect specific groups - young, black males, namely - who have been marginalized and disadvantaged by society's structure, and who are traditionally treated inequitably in our courts. So how would I feel about representing a poor white client accused of brutally killing a young black boy because of the color of his skin? What would I do when my principles clashed in such dramatic fashion? The truth is that I don't know what I'd do in such a situation.
But I hope I'd have the perspective and integrity of Michael Morton, who recognized that in order to protect the rights of people like himself - wrongfully accused of crimes - he would have to also protect the rights of people like Anderson, the man in charge of the wrongful accusation. It's a sort of perspective that evidences emotional maturity. Morton has been fundamentally changed by his experiences within the justice system. But his changes have been for the better. Able to think outside of his own experiences and able to shake the primalistic urge for revenge, his concern is only with the brokenness of the system, a problem that threatens us all. Morton is someone who understands that the freedom of all of us depends upon the freedom of everyone, or as Lilla Watson put it, your liberation is tied up with mine.
Michael Morton received a settlement from the state of Texas. He used part of that money to help the cause that now powers his life - fighting for legislative changes to ensure that no one ever has to go through what he went through. He's a surprisingly upbeat and positive person, unwilling to use the exceptionally large cache of blame that we might have afforded him. He's the sort of selfless man who displays the absolute best that humanity has to offer. And he's a person whose character we should all aspire to.