The dramatic, high-profile guilty plea and incarceration of former Williamson County, Texas district attorney and district judge Ken Anderson has raised the possibility of more prosecutorial misconduct investigations in Texas and around the country.
Anderson was penalized after a court of inquiry, a unique Texas proceeding that allows a judge to determine whether prosecutors broke the law and, if so, to charge them, reported the Los Angeles Times.
Although it has been on the books in Texas since 1965, the court of inquiry was typically used to hold elected officials accountable. But the Morton case may change that.
"I am guardedly optimistic that we'll see more courts of inquiry," said Jeff Blackburn, founder of the Innocence Project of Texas, which helped free Morton.
The stakes are high in Texas. The state has executed 508 prisoners since lethal injection began in 1982, including 16 this year, according to the Texas Department of Criminal Justice. That's more than twice as many executions as the next two states in the national ranking, according to the Death Penalty Information Center.
Prosecutorial misconduct has become a concern to advocates for wrongfully convicted people nationwide. Only about a third of the nation's 1,269 exonerations have been linked to DNA, according to the National Registry of Exonerations, which advocates consider to be the most complete figures.
The remainder were attributed to a variety of factors, including ineffective assistance of counsel, faulty eyewitness identification, coerced confessions — and prosecutorial misconduct.
An Innocence Project study last year found 91 cases of prosecutorial errors in Texas from 2004 to 2008; in 19 cases, courts found the errors "harmful" and reversed the convictions.
In response, the Texas District and County Attorneys Assn. issued a report stating that all but six of the 91 cases involved "minor trial error" that "appellate courts deemed harmless" — not prosecutorial misconduct.
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