Going on this week is a court of inquiry in the matter of Williamson County Judge Ken Anderson, who was the District Attorney that won a conviction against Michael Morton for the murder of his wife, Christine, which as we know has since been overturned after DNA evidence cleared him and implicated another man. The court of inquiry is to evaluate the claims made by Morton’s attorneys that Anderson deliberately withheld exculpatory evidence, which may lead to criminal charges being filed against Anderson if that allegation is found to have merit. The Statesman and the Trib have all the background on this unusual proceeding, and for everything you need to know about the Morton case, read the two-part Texas Monthly story (and be prepared to have your heart broken by it) as well as Scott Henson’s interview with author Pam Colloff. Finally, you can follow the inquiry itself at the Trib’s liveblog.
Whatever else comes out of this inquiry, what I would like to see happen is a re-evaluation of how we think about those who fight crime. From the Trib story:
Anderson, who declined through his lawyer to be interviewed for this story, has contested allegations of wrongdoing and has said that he is sick over the wrongful conviction. And those in the Central Texas city of Georgetown, who have known Anderson over the years, say they can’t believe that the church-going Boy Scout troop leader — who tried to steer young people who veered into his courtroom onto a productive path — could do the unethical things he’s accused of doing. Even some defense lawyers who sparred with Anderson in the courtroom say allegations that he behaved underhandedly are hard to fathom.
“I never thought of him as acting unethically or in violation of the rules,” said veteran defense lawyer Roy Minton. “I did think of him as being very strong and hard on crime, but that was the history of that county.”
In Georgetown’s small courthouse circles, there are different ideas about who may have contributed to the injustice that befell Morton.
Williamson County’s legendary Sheriff Jim Boutwell, a tall, thin cowboy of a lawman who was rarely without his white Stetson, cowboy boots and handcuff tie clip, helped forge the county’s tough-on-crime history.
A former Texas Ranger, Boutwell became famous in 1966 when Charles Whitman went to the top of the University of Texas tower with three rifles and a sawed-off shotgun and fired at students and faculty. Boutwell flew an airplane over the campus, distracting Whitman with gunfire long enough for officers on the ground to take him down. Boutwell cemented his reputation in 1983 when he and a task force of officers extracted hundreds of murder confessions from Henry Lee Lucas. After Lucas was sentenced to death, then–Attorney General Jim Mattox issued a report that dismantled many of the confessions and concluded that the drifter wasn’t even in the same state when some of the killings were committed. In 2001 — eight years after Boutwell died of cancer — then-Gov. George W. Bush commuted Lucas’ death sentence to life in prison.
There’s no question that the path to Michael Morton’s conviction was paved by Sheriff Boutwell’s myopic, almost comically flawed investigation of the case. And whether Anderson was criminally negligent or not, there’s no question that exculpatory evidence was not made available to the defense. By their actions, geared towards convicting Michael Morton, Boutwell and Anderson are responsible for at least one other murder apparently committed by Mark Alan Norwood, who now stands accused of Christine Morton’s death. To me, anyone who by their actions could allow this to happen doesn’t get to be “hard and strong on crime”. Too many people who have that reputation – and this certainly includes now-former Williamson County DA John Bradley, who lost his primary race last year after waging and finally conceding a long battle to keep Michael Morton from doing the DNA test that led to his exoneration – who are more accurately described as being “tough on defendants” or “tough on suspects”. The two are not the same, a lesson I hope is finally starting to sink in. Maybe Mark Alan Norwood would not have been caught in time to prevent him from killing Debra Baker in 1988, but there’s no doubt that Boutwell and Anderson’s zealous pursuit of Michael Morton cost him 25 years of his life, for no good purpose. Had they been as committed to the truth and to justice with the same fervor, the world would be a better place today. It’s time for us to rethink what it means to be “tough on crime”, because the way we use that phrase now, it’s not a virtue.