Systems don’t fail; people do – Austin American

Even as he offered an apology for a wrongful conviction that robbed an innocent man of 25 years of his life, State District Judge Ken Anderson sidestepped accepting responsibility for his role in it.

Despite evidence that pointed to someone other than Michael Morton in the murder of his wife, Christine, in 1986, Williamson County investigators and prosecutors focused on the husband. Michael Morton was convicted in 1987 and released from prison last month after DNA evidence implicated another suspect in the case.

Anderson, now a state district judge in Georgetown, was district attorney in Williamson County in 1986 and directed the Morton case. Though an apology from an officer of the court for a wrongful conviction is highly unusual, Anderson’s apology won’t give Morton 25 years of his life back. Nor will the apology repair the damage the conviction did to Morton’s family. Nor can the apology assuage the grief of the daughter who believes her mother was murdered because Christine Morton’s killer remained at large and free to kill again. Williamson County prosecutors ignored leads that might have led to the actual killer in their zeal to convict Michael Morton.

“As woefully inadequate as I realize it is, I want to formally apologize for the system’s failure to Mr. Morton and every other person who was affected by the verdict,” Anderson said at a news conference last week. It was rhetorical sleight of hand that ignores an obvious and compelling truth: The system doesn’t run itself. People run the system, and in this case, the people who run the system failed miserably.

As district attorney, Anderson swore to uphold justice. A record of winning convictions may make for good politics, but not all courtroom victories represent justice. Williamson County residents relish their reputation for being tough on crime. A narrowly focused pursuit of convictions, however, erodes faith in a system that functions well only if the public trusts it to be fair.

In Texas, at least 40 people have been exonerated by DNA evidence, according to the Innocence Project, which also handled Morton’s case.

Making the system fair is a responsibility entrusted to prosecutors, defense, investigators and judges who are that system.

Blaming the system is a convenient rhetorical device for a public official in a tough spot, but it renders Anderson’s apology hollow. If he is truly sorry, then Anderson should turn remorse into action by actively working to reform the system in a way that prevents future miscarriages of justice. Start with eliminating barriers that prevent post-conviction DNA testing and creating tougher sanctions against prosecutors who hide key evidence.

The Morton case is a high-profile embarrassment to Texas justice. Williamson County District Attorney John Bradley resisted instead of assisted efforts to test a bandana found near the Morton home for DNA. Morton’s lawyers ultimately prevailed and the DNA evidence cleared Morton.

Authorities now suspect Mark Norwood in the killing of both Christine Morton and Debra Baker, who was murdered in Travis County in 1988. DNA links him to both crimes. Norwood, who is in custody in Williamson County, has been charged in Christine Morton’s case.

Anderson said at his news conference that DNA evidence wasn’t available in 1987. While true, it ignores the fact that the Morton’s 3-year-old son told investigators his father wasn’t home when Christine Morton was killed. Chalk that up to the impressions of a traumatized 3-year-old if you will, but there was also evidence that Christine Morton’s credit card was used in San Antonio days after her death.

The State Bar of Texas has mounted an inquiry into Anderson’s conduct and the judge has given a deposition to Morton’s appellate lawyers. A transcript is expected to be released soon, maybe even this week. All that inquiry and investigation is warranted because the consequences of the Morton case were far-reaching, as Anderson himself acknowledged in his statement.

Christine Morton lost her life. Michael Morton lost 25 years. Their son lost both of his parents.

Caitlin Baker lost her mother, Debra. And the system Anderson talks about lost credibility.

Credibility is the foundation of the criminal justice system. The people who are the system have the responsibility to maintain that system’s integrity like it was their own because it is. A lifeless system doesn’t make choices and exercise judgment. Anderson remains a crucial element of our justice system. He continues to make choices and exercise discretion that has far-reaching consequences.

The system didn’t fail in the Morton case. The people who are the system failed.