In 1987, Michael Morton was convicted of beating his wife, Christine, to death the year before.
At a pretrial hearing in the case, the judge specifically asked the prosecutor in the case, Ken Anderson, whether he possessed any evidence that was favorable to the defense. By law, prosecutors have a constitutional and ethical duty to discover and turn over such evidence, whether or not the judge asks.
Anderson answered no, but he did, including the following two pieces of evidence that the jury never heard about. The first was a statement from Morton’s then 3-year-old son, who actually witnessed the killing. (God forbid.) The child, who described the killer as a “monster” who was not his father, had told Christine’s mother (his maternal grandmother) that his father was not home at the time. The second was a series of statements from neighbors who told police they saw an unidentified man in a green van park near the Mortons’ home and repeatedly go into the woods behind it. There were also reports that someone had used Christine’s credit card after her death and forged her signature on a check. The jury never heard about any of it.
And what a difference that makes. Michael Morton served 25 years in prison before DNA evidence exonerated him and pointed to the true perpetrator. That person has since been convicted of Christine’s murder and is awaiting trial for the 1988 murder of another woman who was beaten to death in similar fashion.
On Friday, Anderson pleaded no contest to contempt of court. He was sentenced to ten days in jail, 500 hours of community service, and a $500 fine. And he will be disbarred. In exchange, he will not have to answer to a felony evidence-tampering charge that could have carried a ten-year sentence. It may be the first time on record that a prosecutor goes to jail for failing to turn over defense evidence in a criminal case. But it should not be the last when the facts support it.
In reality, cases like these are the exception, not the rule, and the more deliberate, egregious ones are rare, maybe exceedingly so. As a former prosecutor, I know plenty of prosecutors who labor every day to do what’s right and who taught me a thing or two about working cases carefully and responsibly.
But cases like these are not vanishingly rare, and perhaps more common than that when the stakes are higher or the prosecutor is, for whatever reason, too invested in an outcome. The motives may be manifold. But as Michael Morton may attest, even one case is a crime that is one too many.