Ken Anderson helped put an innocent man behind bars. Now, nearly 30 years later, he may finally get his comeuppance. He faces ten years in prison if convicted on all three charges against him: contempt of court, tampering with or fabricating physical evidence, and tampering with government records.
Anderson was the Texas prosecutor who helped wrongfully convict pharmacy manager Michael Morton of beating his own wife to death in the family’s Austin-area home in 1986. For years, Morton accused Anderson of withholding evidence that would exonerate him—including the testimony of his young son, who told police at the crime scene “a monster” killed his mother, and that “Daddy wasn’t home.”
It took more than two decades, but Morton was eventually released based on DNA evidence collected from the crime scene—evidence that could have been tested years ago but wasn’t, thanks to the stonewalling of Anderson and his colleague, John Bradley.
Anderson, now a judge in Texas, is currently on trial for prosecutorial misconduct in the Morton case.
Sadly, stories like Morton’s are all too common across the American criminal justice system. Since 1992, the state of Texas has handed out $65 million to 89 wrongfully convicted individuals—Morton alone has received $1.96 million for his 25 years behind bars.
Things in California are even worse: 120 people have been exonerated since 1989, costing the state $129 million.
Dealing with the fallout of wrongful convictions has become so commonplace that in 2009, Texas Governor Rick Perry signed a law ensuring certain wrongfully convicted individuals receive $80,000 per year as long as they live, as well as state health insurance benefits. While such a law surely helps make life easier for exonerated victims of an overzealous criminal justice system, it does little to hinder prosecutors from pursuing, or even rigging, future bunk cases.
“Prosecutors have absolute civil immunity from suit. Even if they lie, or put an informant on the stand who they know is lying, you can’t sue them.”
That a prosecutor like Anderson faces any repurcussions for his actions is a rarity. From 2004 to 2011, only one Texas prosecutor faced sanctions from the state’s Bar Association—despite 19 convictions being overturned during the same time period due to prosecutorial misconduct.
It’s perhaps not surprising that prosecutors are loath to bring charges against their own. What is shocking, however, is that in Texas and across America the wrongfully convicted are largely unable to seek justice against prosecutors even in the form of a civil trial.
“Prosecutors have absolute civil immunity from suit,” Alexandra Natapoff, author of Snitching: Criminal Informants and the Erosion of American Justice, tells TakePart. “Even if they lie, or put an informant on the stand who they know is lying, you can’t sue them.”
That immunity was recently reinforced by the 2011 Supreme Court case Connick v. Thompson, which ruled that even those who have been on the receiving end of willful misconduct—withholding or tampering with evidence for instance—on the part of prosecutors have virtually no right to seek civil litigation against those who wronged them.
Social justice advocates are trying to change that, although the specifics of the proposed reforms remain vague.
“We need to make sure meaningful external processes exist to investigate deliberate misconduct by the very people we entrust to be our guardians of justice,” prominent defense attorney and Innocence Project codirector Barry Scheck wrote last May in the American-Statesman.
A guilty verdict delivered against Ken Anderson would likely go a long way toward discouraging prosecutors from indulging in such blatant misconduct.
A guilty verdict, however, will do little to pacify advocates like the Innocence Project’s Scheck, who argue that systemic change is the only solution to ensuring innocent men and women will no longer be railroaded by corrupt prosecutors: “Simply doing nothing is a disservice to everyone, not least of all the hardworking men and women in district attorneys’ offices across the country whose reputations are tainted when the bad actors compromise the integrity of the system.”
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Matthew Fleischer is a former LA Weekly staff writer and an award-winning social justice reporter in Los Angeles. Email Matt