Big news that for the first time ever, a prosecutor will serve jail time (only 10 days, but still) for his role in convicting an innocent man.
I’m celebrating, of course, but I’m concerned that the headlines are wrong in an important way. So many headlines are like this one, saying that Ken Anderson will go to jail “for wrongfully convicting” Michael Morton, an innocent man who spent 25 years in a Texas prison.
Morton’s loss is impossible to wrap my head around, and I hope it’s the focus of lots of attention, because it reminds us how important all this is.
But we need to keep in our sights that Ken Anderson is not going to jail because of wrongful conviction. Our system is human-based, and it can make mistakes. Wrongful convictions can happen honestly, especially in close-call situations. But a mistake is not what happened here, and not what Anderson is to be punished for.
Anderson is NOT going to jail for convicting an innocent man. Any prosecutor acting in good faith could convict an innocent person. Anderson is going to jail because he broke the law, behaved in an egregiously unethical manner, and abused the vast power entrusted to every prosecutor.
He’s going to jail for intentionally failing to disclose evidence that Mr. Morton did not kill his wife.
Then, he continued to fail to disclose it for the next 25 years. After the trial, he woke up every single day and didn’t disclose it. He was rewarded and became a judge.
Morton, knowing the truth, woke up every day in a prison. So, it’s easy to focus on Morton’s situation. His wife was murdered, and that would be enough for anyone, but then he was convicted of that murder. Unimaginable.
And it’s almost as easy to focus on how illegal and unethical Anderson’s actions were. And they were.
But we need to turn our attention, at least briefly, not to Morton, and not even to Anderson, but to the fact that we have a system that allows and even rewards prosecutors who do this. Most of the “villains” in (true-life) exoneration stories have gone on to better career positions, such as police chief or judge.
Scrupulous prosecutors — the ones who don’t withhold evidence, who offer reasonable plea deals, who charge fairly, who keep their minds open to the possibility that they are capable of human error — they don’t get as many wins, and they don’t get the big cases because the way to get big cases is to win the smaller ones.
I don’t know what the fix is, but it would be a start if we — as a society — could acknowledge that the game is rigged.
Maybe there is no good alternative to vast prosecutorial discretion, but I wish we could find ways to reward the men and women who do the job with honor, dignity, and fairness.