In 1987, Mr. Morton was convicted of beating to death his wife, Christine, and sentenced to life in prison. He maintained his innocence, and in 2010 DNA testing confirmed that he was not the killer.
Even before a Texas court vacated Mr. Morton’s conviction, his lawyers alleged that Mr. Anderson, the prosecutor in his case, had deliberately withheld evidence that would have exonerated him. During Mr. Morton’s trial, the judge had ordered Mr. Anderson to turn over any such evidence and received only a few documents in return. In fact, Mr. Anderson possessed many documents he did not turn over, including a transcript of a phone conversation revealing that the Mortons’ 3-year-old son had described his mother’s killer as a “monster” who was not his father.
Mr. Anderson, who later became a judge, has said he did not consider the judge’s order official because it was not written down. But he was fully aware of his ethical duty to disclose important exculpatory evidence and that a failure to disclose violates due process rights under the Constitution. In April, a judicial investigation found probable cause to believe that Mr. Anderson was in criminal contempt for withholding the documents. On Friday, he pleaded no contest. In addition to receiving the jail sentence, he was disbarred and stripped of his law license.
This case may sound extreme, but prosecutorial misconduct is far too common, and the remedies for it, if any, usually come long after the harm has been done. Criminal defense lawyers have called for judges to issue a standard written order reminding prosecutors of their ethical duty and to warn them of contempt charges if they do not comply. Prosecutors should welcome this practice to reinforce professional standards and identify the wrongdoers among them.