GEORGETOWN, Texas (AP) — A former Texas district attorney whose prosecution led to an innocent man spending 25 years in prison for his wife's murder looked the man in the eye Friday and said "the system obviously screwed up" but offered no apology.
Now a judge in Georgetown, north of Austin, Ken Anderson said he couldn't imagine doing anything differently in the case of Michael Morton, who was freed in 2011 after new DNA tests tied someone else to his wife Christine's beating death in 1986.
Anderson, 60, testified on his own behalf as testimony wrapped up in a five-day court of inquiry, a rarely used proceeding held when officials or public servants are accused of wrongdoing. Fort Worth-based District Judge Louis Sturns will eventually decide whether Anderson could face criminal charges on allegations he intentionally hid evidence from Morton's defense attorneys.
At times fighting back tears, Anderson called Morton's case his "worst nightmare" but defended his conduct.
"We had a lot to be proud of, we still do," Anderson said, his voice wavering. Then, pounding on the witness stand, he continued: "The office I ran was professional, it was competent. We did things right. We got it right as much as we humanly could."
After testimony ended, Sturns said it will be several weeks before the parties reconvene. He did not say whether he will issue a ruling then.
Morton called listening to Anderson on the stand "wrenching."
"I think we saw someone who is still struggling with denial and anger," he said, "and possibly a man who has spent at least three decades in a position of power and for the first time has had to answer for his actions, and he's very uncomfortable with that."
Morton's defense attorneys said during his original trial in 1987 that prosecutors were withholding evidence, and the presiding judge ordered Anderson to let him review any case files that could contain evidence that would help Morton's legal team. Anderson produced only a few pages of information, which the late judge decided wouldn't sway the case.
Police notes that said the Mortons' 3-year-old son, Eric, told his grandmother he saw a "monster," not his father, beating his mother were omitted, along with a report from a neighbor who said she saw a man park a green van near the Morton home and head into a wooded area, as if he were casing the residence.
Anderson, who testified Friday that he's spent his life savings "defending myself against accusations that I think we all know are false," claimed the judge only asked for a small portion of the police notes — and he complied.
Asked if there was any weight to accusations he hid evidence, Anderson responded that he'd reviewed the case "until I'm blue in the face. There is nothing in that record that even remotely says that."
He was later shown a portion of the trial transcript where the judge asked: "Mr. Anderson, do you have anything that is favorable to the accused?" Anderson replied that he did not.
Morton's attorney, Rusty Hardin, then asked whether Anderson thought that exchange constituted contempt of court.
"I'm frustrated that you would have contempt of court before a judge who has been dead for years," Anderson replied. "Who knows what we were thinking about, what we were talking about? Nobody knows."
He explained that he was reluctant to turn over the full police notes to the defense because "they were on a fishing expedition," desperately looking for anything that would indicate an intruder committed the slaying. Anderson also said, however, that he "must have" told Morton's attorneys about the green van — even though he has no memory of doing so.
Asked about Morton's son, Anderson said: "What Eric told his grandmother is a traumatized boy saying what you'd expect out of a traumatized little boy."
Hardin shot back: "He was right, wasn't he judge? We have no doubt now."
The new DNA tests, conducted on a bloody bandanna found near the Mortons' home, pointed to Mark Alan Norwood, who is set to be tried for Christine Morton's murder in March. Norwood also has been indicted in the 1988 slaying of an Austin woman who lived near the Mortons.
Anderson said all evidence could be seen differently with the benefit of hindsight. He also accused Hardin of wanting to "see me handcuffed and taken to jail" on matters "that are so bogus it's unreal."
Given the chance to address Morton directly, Anderson said he had been gracious since his exoneration and added, "I've apologized that the system screwed up and it obviously screwed up."
"I've been beating myself up on what else I could have been done different," Anderson concluded, "and I frankly don't know."
Morton, 58, returned his gaze, offering little emotion. Speaking to reporters moments later, however, Morton's voice cracked as he pointed out that Anderson didn't personally apologize.
"I'm not sure that he has a complete grasp of what this is all about emotionally and personally," Morton said. Upon more reflection he continued, "I honestly don't feel that he senses any responsibility in any of this."