An unprecedented audit of cases handled by former judge Ken Anderson when he was Williamson County district attorney is taking shape.
“If we find a case where it looks like favorable evidence was withheld, and there’s a legal claim that might warrant overturning the conviction, it’s our intent to try to find an attorney to represent the person and try to get them relief,” said Nina Morrison, a senior staff attorney with The Innocence Project in New York.
Anderson withheld exculpatory evidence from Morton’s trial lawyers, and the audit will determine if he withheld evidence in other cases during his years as DA.
But co-counsel for Anderson, Beck Redden partner Eric Nichols of Austin, wrote in an email, “Anyone doing a fair assessment of Ken Anderson’s time as District Attorney should start with an examination of the many criminal cases that were declined for prosecution during Mr. Anderson’s tenure as DA, or dismissed following an arrest, due to the insufficiency of evidence.”
He wrote that Morton wouldn’t have been prosecuted, but a medical examiner found that Christine Morton died at 1:30 a.m., when Morton was at home.
Jennifer Laurin, a professor at The University of Texas at Austin School of Law who researches how to prevent prosecutorial error, said some prosecutors have conducted focused audits after finding prosecutor error, but this one is broader than anything she knows.
“It’s very unusual for a district attorney’s office, in response to these sorts of incidents, to say, ‘We’d like to use this as an opportunity to learn more broadly, to correct error more broadly, and perhaps learn from what went wrong,’ ” said Laurin, who is helping plan the strategy for the audit.
Morrison and Nick Vilbas, executive director of the Innocence Project of Texas, also both said they’ve never heard of such a large-scale audit.
“It’s a pretty big deal,” Vilbas said.
The audit also will examine cases in which former Williamson County DA John Bradley, who succeeded Anderson, denied post-conviction DNA testing, as he did for six years in Morton’s case. The DNA in 2011 proved Morton was innocent and pointed to the real killer, who was convicted in March.
Bradley didn’t return a telephone call seeking comment.
Current Williamson County DA Jana Duty will help identify cases that should be audited, provide files from the DA’s office and obtain law-enforcement files that might have additional material, said Morrison, co-counsel for Morton.
“We are enormously grateful for the district attorney’s cooperation and [are] moving forward one step at a time,” she said.
Duty didn’t return two telephone calls and an email seeking comment.
Prying Open the Past
The Innocence Project will assist with the audit, but Morrison said the bulk of the work would go to Texas lawyers, the Innocence Project of Texas and the Texas Criminal Defense Lawyers Association (TCDLA). First, the organizations must choose people for an audit committee.
Morrison said Laurin and Williamson County solo Patricia Cummings are on the team. In mid-December, TCDLA will appoint someone too, said its president, Bobby Mims.
Once in place, Morrison said the audit committee would sort and prioritize the cases to review. While the prospect of reviewing 15 years of Anderson’s work is daunting, there are ways to make it manageable, such as getting referrals from criminal-defense lawyers, only reviewing convictions and starting on cases where someone is still in prison.
Morrison said she encourages criminal-defense lawyers who suspected Anderson of a disclosure violation to contact the Innocence Project.
“We’re getting a lot of complaints,” she said.
Vilbas said the auditors might focus on cases that ended in conviction, reserving the first reviews for cases in which the criminal-defendant is still in prison.
“Clearly, those are the ones you want to work on first,” said Vilbas.
When the audits begin, each reviewer—pro bono lawyers and volunteer law students—would comb through the DA and law-enforcement files to learn about all of the evidence. In trying to determine if something was disclosed or not, reviewers would compare the state’s files with what came out in court. Maybe they could also use defense lawyers’ files for the comparison, said Vilbas.
“It’s a big task, and there’s a lot of moving parts, and it’s just going to take time to sort it out, because it hasn’t been done on this scale before,” he said. “As long as everyone is committed to the process—and justice—I think we’ll get where we need to get on it.”