On Jan. 21, 2011, former Chicago Police Commander Jon Burge learned his fate – a sentence of four-and-a-half years in federal prison for perjury and obstruction of justice for lying under oath about his use of torture to extract confessions from numerous criminal suspects, an overwhelming number of them being Black men. He had been fired earlier in 1993, prosecuted only for lying in a civil case. He served more than four years in prison and died in 2018.
In 1987, when Ken Anderson served as district attorney of Williamson County, Texas, he successfully prosecuted Michael Morton for murdering his wife, Christine. However, based on a report from the National Registry of Exonerations, Anderson had concealed that neighbors had seen a suspicious stranger hanging around the Morton’s home.
After the murder, with Morton in custody, someone else attempted to use a credit card belonging to his wife and cashed a $20 check that had been among items contained in her missing purse. The Morton’s three-year-old son, who witnessed the killing, told his grandmother, “a monster” killed his mother when “Daddy was not there.”
Researchers discovered that even more atrocities had been committed by an officer of the court – all for the sake of securing a guilty verdict.
In 2011, DNA testing of a bandana found near the crime scene identified the real killer. The District Attorney’s Office had successfully resisted testing the bandana for many years. Meanwhile, Morton languished in prison for 24 years for a crime that he did not commit – a crime which represented an unimaginable tragedy for him and his family.
The real killer went on to bludgeon another woman to death in 1988. Anderson, later disgraced, pled guilty to contempt of court, spent four days in jail, would then be disbarred and eventually forced to resign from the position he later secured as a judge.
While researchers of a new report released Tuesday, Sept. 15, said it’s hard to summarize the enormity of the harm Burge and his underlings inflicted upon their victims, and what Anderson did, they successfully pieced together a critical and comprehensive study on tainted cases that further underscore why many Americans – particularly Blacks – have lost trust in the police and prosecutors.
The report, “Government Misconduct and Convicting the Innocent: The Role of Prosecutors, Police and other Law Enforcement,” highlights examinations conducted by the National Registry of Exonerations of more than 2,400 nationwide cases that measured the role of government misconduct in wrongful convictions and how African Americans specifically have suffered from those actions.
The study found that 54 percent of official misconduct involved corruption or negligence by police, prosecutors, lab workers or other government employees.
The authors, which included researchers from the Newkirk Center for Science at the University of California, Irving, the University of Michigan Law School and the Michigan State University College of Law, cautioned that “the tally is very likely a vast undercount of the actual number of instances in which misconduct has led to the convictions of innocent people.”
They outlined that many who’ve been wrongly convicted, including those who pleaded guilty to low-level crimes, did not have the necessary resources or adequate legal counsel.
Why did Ken Anderson conceal all that evidence of Michael Morton’s innocence?
“We don’t know. We could ask, but we wouldn’t trust the answer, if any was given, and Anderson himself may no longer know if he ever did,” the authors wrote.
Still, the report concludes that the most important causes of official misconduct in criminal cases are systemic – “pervasive practices that permit, if not encourage, bad behavior; lack of the resources needed to train, supervise and conduct high-quality investigations and prosecutions; and ineffective leadership by police commanders, crime lab directors and chief prosecutors,” the authors stated.
“If these systemic problems are corrected, misconduct is less likely to occur – and when it does happen, more likely to be counteracted before innocent people are condemned,” they wrote.
Overall, Black defendants’ exonerations have a slightly higher rate of misconduct than those of white defendants, 57 percent to 52 percent.
But the differences are more significant for murder cases (78 percent to 64 percent) – especially those with death sentences (87 percent to 68 percent) – and drug crime exonerations (47 percent to 22 percent).
The study concluded that official misconduct falls into five general categories:
Witness tampering occurred in about 17 percent of exonerations.
Misconduct in interrogations occurred in 57 percent of all exonerations with false confessions or about seven percent of all cases.
Fabricating evidence happened in about 10 percent of cases, in three forms: forensic fraud – in three percent of exonerations, police officers or forensic analysts lied about forensic evidence.
Fake crimes – in four percent of exonerations, police planted drugs or guns on innocent suspects, or lied and said the suspects had assaulted them.
Fictitious confessions – in about two percent of exonerations, officers fabricated confessions from defendants who did not confess.
At trial, misconduct occurred in about 23 percent of exonerations, about evenly divided between perjury by law enforcement officers, 13 percent, and trial misconduct by prosecutors, 14 percent (with some overlap).
Most often, police lied about an investigation’s conduct including what a witness said or how a lineup was conducted. The most common subject of police perjury was the conduct of interrogations at which innocent defendants confessed.
“We miss a great deal of police perjury,” the authors wrote. “We rarely have access to transcripts or other detailed information about trial testimony, so we only learn about perjury at trial if it becomes a conspicuous issue.”
In 1959, the Supreme Court held that a prosecutor has a constitutional obligation to correct perjury by a state witness even if she did not herself offer the false testimony. However, researchers discovered that prosecutors permitted perjury to go uncorrected in 8 percent of exonerations. In most cases, the perjury was by civilian witnesses.
Federal prosecutors committed misconduct in exonerations more than twice as often as police (52 percent to 20 percent), while state prosecutors committed misconduct less often than police (29 percent to 36 percent).
“We know that prosecutors lied in court in 4 percent of exonerations. The real rate may be higher since we only count cases with clear evidence that prosecutors made statements they knew were false,” the researchers noted further.