Column: Anderson’s unjust punishment an injustice for everyone
Both Michael Morton, convicted in 1987 of murdering his wife, and Ken Anderson, the district judge and former district attorney that prosecuted Morton, will be enjoying the holidays at home with their families.
The travesty here is that Morton does so after being wrongfully convicted of murder and spending 25 years of his life in prison. Anderson is home following a 10-day sentence for contempt of court.
Our judicial system should be embarrassed that it can dole out a life sentence to an innocent man then turn around decades later and send the man found guilty of withholding evidence in the case to jail for a little over a week.
I worked in Williamson County for nearly a decade and the conservative stronghold is full of larger-than-life crime fighters who love to beat the drum of justice and accountability for crime. It is this mentality, this cowboy approach to justice, that creates the egos and bravado that lead to injustice. Apparently they do not have the same conviction for holding themselves accountable.
The evidence that Anderson withheld was testimony from Morton’s young son that showed his father was not at home at the time of the murder. But Anderson had his man. He had the conviction in his grasp and was not about to give it up. Finding the truth was not as important as earning a conviction.
Nearly two decades later, Morton’s legal team began pushing to review DNA evidence they believed would exonerate him. For six years, new district attorney John Bradley fought that effort, still clinging to that stubborn assumption they could not be mistaken. Through it all, winning and saving face was more important than being right.
Once the DNA evidence was investigated, Morton’s case was overturned and he was freed. Both Anderson and Bradley apologized at the time – too little too late to make amends for taking 25 years from Morton.
This is not an indictment of district attorneys everywhere, but an indictment of the reprehensible actions of one that stole a good portion of a man’s life and another who fought against taking steps to be sure real justice was served. Still, it should serve as a reminder to all of them the amount of power and responsibility they hold in their hands.
Because of this great power over the future of others, they should act with the greatest integrity. We are supposed to trust that they above all others will apply our laws fairly and judiciously. We expect they will seek the right outcome, not the most expedient or beneficial one; that truth will trump everything.
But as with most things that lead to failures among us, selfishness and ego play a dangerous role. When you inject politics, money and electability into the equation you add an element of selfishness and greed. When you let egos and power interfere, you allow someone to become blind to what is best or right and cling to what enhances that power and prestige.
In Williamson County, drunk driving and drug convictions garner the steepest penalties, but can these offenses be considered more egregious than Anderson’s willful sacrifice of Morton for his own success? His sentence of 10 days in jail, disbarment and community service say yes.
Sadly, this phenomenon of stealing people’s lives through flawed justice is not rare.
A New York man, Derrick Deacon, is free this week after also spending 25 years in jail on a murder conviction. New evidence showed he was not the killer and it has recently been revealed a witness who claimed at the time Deacon was not the killer never testified, claiming she was threatened and coerced by police.
In the U.S., 311 people have been freed thanks to DNA evidence through 2010. These individuals have served an average of 13 years in prison for crimes they did not commit. In a world where it is easier than ever to be sure, how can we leave any possible evidence uncovered? Do we not owe it both to victims and those accused to be sure?
Justice is an important word in our society, held in the highest regard along with liberty and freedom. We expect those who enforce and administer justice to do so with the utmost integrity and seek the truth and nothing more.
We believe it is failure when we don’t find those responsible for our most heinous crimes and punish them. But the bigger failure – and one we should be most ashamed of – is finding “justice” at any cost for the sake of ego or personal gain.