Like James Woodard, Morton spent more than two decades in a Texas prison for a murder he did not commit. The prosecutor in Morton’s 1987 trial relentlessly pursued justice and won the wrongful conviction. But how he did it may finally send jurists a stern warning and result in even more vindication for Morton and his supporters.
Last month, when former Williamson County District Attorney Ken Anderson stepped down from his position as a state district judge, I felt a lump in my throat. Anderson, who has remained adamant that there was no wrongdoing in the conviction that shattered Morton’s life as a free man, issued a one-sentence resignation notice to Gov. Rick Perry. But an independent inquiry has determined that Anderson may have broken the law by withholding crucial evidence in Morton’s case.
While it is rare that prosecutors are punished harshly, there is no shortage of prosecutorial misconduct examples that we can learn from.
According to a 2003 study by the Center for Public Integrity, in more than 2,000 cases over a four-decade period, prosecutorial misconduct resulted in dismissals, sentence reductions and reversals. Yet prosecutors only faced a range of disciplinary action in 44 of those cases.
In a more recent study by the Northern California Innocence Project, researchers concluded that while state courts found “explicit” evidence of prosecutorial misconduct in more than 700 cases between 1997 and 2009, only 159 were deemed “harmful.” Even fewer were punished for misconduct.
Depending on the varying definitions of “harmful,” people’s lives are permanently altered because of careless mistakes and blatant cover-ups.
One solution that could make a dramatic difference would be a watchdog or whistle-blower system. Those in the best position to report prosecutorial misconduct are judges, defense attorneys and other working prosecutors whose voices and reputations carry weight as “officers of the court.” This would also help prevent wrongful convictions.
In James’ case, only days before his May 1981 trial started, prosecutors did not divulge pertinent information they had been given by Dallas investigators. The woman that James loved last had been seen at a convenience store getting into a car with three men. James Woodard was not one of them.
Morton spent 25 years proclaiming his innocence after being sentenced for the murder of his wife. My darling James refused parole 12 times because he wanted his good name more than he craved a guilty freedom. But James and Morton also have something else in common.
Both Texas exonerees were featured on the CBS-TV news show “60 Minutes.” During an interview with Scott Pelley, James inspired ordinary people around the world when he said, “A man has to stand for something.”
I wish James were standing here with me now to see what is happening with Anderson as a result of the Morton case. This bittersweet moment gives me pause during a time that has proven quite challenging. October is James’ birth month. But it will also mean marking the one-year anniversary of his death.
James Woodard died of a seizure last year in Dallas County Jail after being arrested at the scene of a traffic accident.
The Anderson inquiry and subsequent resignation is a wake-up call for rogue prosecutors and jurists who believe they can cut corners and play with a person’s life. Texas, the law-and-order execution capital of the world, not only leads the nation in DNA exonerations, Dallas has had more than any single jurisdiction in the nation: 24 men and counting since 2001.
Thanks to the Michael Morton Act, signed into law earlier this year in Texas, it may be a little easier to penalize prosecutorial misconduct.
Testifying at the court of inquiry in Austin, Anderson blamed the “screwed-up” system of justice for Morton’s wrongful conviction. Morton was in the courtroom. He is among a contingent of 49 innocent men exonerated in Texas by DNA evidence. They fully understand how rare it is that a district attorney – in any state and in modern legal times – is punished for wrongdoing.
Anderson faces 10 years and he could lose his law license. As the truth slowly but surely comes out, I reflect on the one thing that James will never have in common with Michael Morton: He did not live to marry his fiancée.
I am very happy for Morton and his new wife.