Growing up in the 1960s, Ken Anderson had admired the great trial lawyers movies: Gregory Peck in To Kill A Mockingbird and Spencer Tracy in Inherit the Wind. The good guys who broke down lying thugs on the stand.
"In reality, I don't see much brilliance in the courtroom," he wrote in his 1997 book Crime in Texas, Your Complete Guide to the Criminal Justice System. "Trials are won and the truth is exposed because of detailed, painstaking preparation done before the first witness is sworn in."
In 1985, at age 33, Anderson followed in the tough-on-crime footsteps of his predecessor and boss Ed Walsh to become the Williamson County district attorney. He held that job for more than 16 years before Gov. Rick Perry appointed him as a district judge in 2001. In those years, Anderson prosecuted hundreds of criminals, earning a reputation for persuading juries to assess harsh penalties.
One of those cases has come to define Anderson over the last year and a half as the antithesis of the truth-seekers he admired in the movies. He will sit at the defense table Monday, facing a rare court of inquiry. It will determine whether Anderson, now 60, should face criminal charges for his role in the wrongful murder conviction of Michael Morton, the grocery store manager who served nearly a quarter-century in prison for murdering his wife before DNA testing led to his exoneration in 2011.
Morton's lawyers allege that Anderson withheld key evidence that not only pointed to the young father's innocence but that allowed a murderer to remain free.
Anderson, who declined through his lawyer to be interviewed for this story, has contested allegations of wrongdoing and has said that he is sick over the wrongful conviction. And those in the Central Texas city of Georgetown, who have known Anderson over the years, say they can't believe that the church-going Boy Scout troop leader -- who tried to steer young people who veered into his courtroom onto a productive path -- could do the unethical things he's accused of doing. Even some defense lawyers who sparred with Anderson in the courtroom say allegations that he behaved underhandedly are hard to fathom.
"I never thought of him as acting unethically or in violation of the rules," said veteran defense lawyer Roy Minton. "I did think of him as being very strong and hard on crime, but that was the history of that county."
In Georgetown's small courthouse circles, there are different ideas about who may have contributed to the injustice that befell Morton.
Williamson County's legendary Sheriff Jim Boutwell, a tall, thin cowboy of a lawman who was rarely without his white Stetson, cowboy boots and handcuff tie clip, helped forge the county's tough-on-crime history.
A former Texas Ranger, Boutwell became famous in 1966 when Charles Whitman went to the top of the University of Texas tower with three rifles and a sawed-off shotgun and fired at students and faculty. Boutwell flew an airplane over the campus, distracting Whitman with gunfire long enough for officers on the ground to take him down. Boutwell cemented his reputation in 1983 when he and a task force of officers extracted hundreds of murder confessions from Henry Lee Lucas. After Lucas was sentenced to death, then-Attorney General Jim Mattox issued a report that dismantled many of the confessions and concluded that the drifter wasn't even in the same state when some of the killings were committed. In 2001 -- eight years after Boutwell died of cancer -- then-Gov. George W. Bush commuted Lucas' death sentence to life in prison.
Parker McCollough, a friend of Anderson's who would later become a state legislator, represented Lucas during that high-profile trial. It was one of many cases in which he sat across the courtroom from Anderson, who was then an assistant prosecutor.
"He was a very thorough prosecutor who took his job seriously," McCollough said. "I took it that that was the focus of what he was doing with his life at that particular point in his life. He was extremely conscientious."
Minton said Boutwell set the tone for criminal justice in Williamson County.
"He had more control over the courthouse attitude than any DA did back then," Minton said.
At the time of Morton's trial, Boutwell was regarded as a "lawman's lawman," Anderson wrote in his book. "We had a common purpose. We believed we really could make Williamson County a safer, better place for our neighbors to live in."
Boutwell's influence spread from the courthouse to politics, too. Politicians ranging from candidates for local office to the governor sought his approval. During Ann Richards' 1990 gubernatorial campaign, Boutwell grilled the candidate about her personal history and political views before giving his blessing. Then, he escorted Richards on visits to sheriffs across the state, urging them to support her.
"Boutwell was always talking about what politics ought to be and how tough he was on crime," Minton said.
When Christine Morton was found beaten to death in her bed on Aug. 13, 1986, Boutwell was among the first to arrive on the scene. He informed Michael Morton, when he arrived home from work, that his wife was dead and immediately read him his Miranda rights. Morton has said Boutwell treated him with suspicion from the start, a feeling fueled by an unpleasant note he had left for his wife expressing disappointment that she had fallen asleep during a romantic interlude the night before -- his birthday. About six weeks later, Morton was arrested and charged with his wife's murder.