There is a popular saying from an 18th-century English judge, Sir William Blackstone, about being falsely accused, wrongfully convicted. He said that, “it is better that ten guilty persons escape than that one innocent suffer.”
When an innocent person goes to jail, it is a miscarriage of justice, certainly. Someone is being punished for something they did not do. But when the wrong person is convicted, it is really two separate tragedies. A dramatic example of this is in the news out of Texas regarding 58-year-old Michael Morton.
Morton was convicted in 1987 for the murder of his wife Christine, who was beaten to death in her bed. He then spent the next 25-years in prison before DNA testing on a piece of evidence recovered from near their home pointed to another man, Mark Norwood, as the killer.
Morton was freed in October of 2011, and Norwood was convicted last month in the murder of Christine Morton.
One year after Morton was falsely convicted, another Austin woman, Debra Baker, was killed in a manner almost identical to that of Morton. DNA evidence has linked Norwood to Baker’s murder as well; he is currently awaiting trial on those charges.
It is worth pointing out that Texas prosecutors fought this testing for six years before it was ultimately conducted.
Assuming, of course, that Norwood is actually guilty, here lies the real tragedy of false convictions. Morton served 25 years for something that he didn’t do, which is tragic in and of itself. Compounding that tragedy, however, is that police were no longer searching for Christine Morton’s killer. As far as the police and the courts were concerned, Michael Morton was their man.
Except that he wasn’t: Michael Morton was falsely accused, wrongly convicted.
And Debra Baker paid the ultimate price.
What makes this story truly remarkable, however, is that the prosecutor in the case, now-Judge Ken Anderson, is being prosecuted for allegedly hiding evidence favorable to the defense. Among the evidence Anderson allegedly kept hidden from Morton’s defense team are two key bits.
- A statement by Morton’s son that Morton was not at home at the time of the killing.
- Statements from neighbors indicating that another man was seen near the home.
These are certainly things you would want to know if you were defending Morton on charges of capital murder!
According to a 1963 Supreme Court decision, Brady v. Maryland, prosecutors must disclose evidence favorable to the defense. They must. Still, they sometimes don’t. Perhaps they count on the fact that, as long as certain evidence is kept well and deeply hidden, it will never be discovered. The tragedy is that, even when that illegally suppressed evidence is discovered, prosecutors rarely face significant repercussions for so-called “Brady” violations. They should.
But, even when prosecutors do face repercussions for sitting on evidence favorable to the defense, it is almost unheard of that they then face criminal prosecution as in Judge Anderson’s case. This is what makes the Morton case so remarkable: that Anderson was even prosecuted. Anderson is appealing his prosecution, hoping a statute of limitations defense will mean he won’t face conviction.
“It is more important that innocence should be protected, than it is that guilt be punished; for guilt and crimes are so frequent in this world, that all of them cannot be punished…. when innocence itself, is brought to the bar and condemned, especially to die, the subject will exclaim, ‘it is immaterial to me whether I behave well or ill, for virtue itself is no security.’ And if such a sentiment as this were to take hold in the mind of the subject that would be the end of all security whatsoever.” — John Adams, after having studied Blackstone
Regardless of what happens with Anderson, Michael Morton’s case brings into stark relief the full meaning of Blackstone’s admonition: would Debra Baker still be alive had Morton not been wrongfully convicted?
Although it is impossible to say, the question serves to illustrate the full picture of what happens when innocent people are falsely accused and wrongfully convicted: guilty people *also* go free, equipped with the knowledge that not only did they “get away” with it, but that no one is looking for them.