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Univ. of South Carolina School of Law

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Sunday, April 29, 2012

The Good Wife, The Court Of Inquiry, The JFK Assassination, The Battle Of Little Big Horn & Ken Anderson

I finally caught up with last week's episode of "The Good Wife." In the episode, "The Penalty Box,"

DNA evidence has once again shaken things up in the Chicago legal world this week as well-respected criminal court justice Richard Cuesta has been pulled off cases and put in "the penalty box." He’s being accused of prosecutorial misconduct during his time at the State’s Attorney’s office in the 1990s. The current S.A.’s office is not eager to prosecute Cuesta based on this new evidence. If Cuesta did commit misconduct as a prosecutor twenty years ago many more of his convictions could face appeal. The case in question is the 1992 murder of Terri Rooney. The victim's husband, Patrick Rooney, was convicted of her murder. But new DNA evidence determined the presence of another person's blood on the knife that killed her

So, in the episode, Alicia and the team defend Judge Cuesta, played by the always reliable David Paymer, before a court of inquiry helmed by the loquacious Judge Murphy Wicks, played by Stephen Root (a vartation of his judge character from "Justified"). The ASA on the case is Seth Kleiberg, played by Jim True-Frost, a/k/a Prezbo from "The Wire." So, what's a court of inquiry, and what's the real life case that gave the episode a "ripped from headlines" feel?

So first, what's a court of inquiry? The opinion of the United States District Court for the District of Texas in In re McClelland, 260 F.Supp. 182, 184 (S.D. Tex. 1966), contains a nice description of the court of inquiry in Texas:

As contemplated by this statute, and in practice, the Court of Inquiry is purely a fact finding proceeding. It may issue subpoenas, take testimony, and do nothing else. There are no parties. There is no accused. No trial is conducted. The Justice of the Peace sitting in this capacity cannot determine any civil or criminal liability. If the facts developed indicate that a crime has been committed, the Justice of the Peace may issue an arrest warrant. That is the only order (other than subpoenas) which he may issue. Thus, the Court of Inquiry is completely unrelated to grand jury proceeding. As this is a local procedure conducted at the county level, I am advised by the Attorney General of Texas that there are no accurate figures or statistics with regard to the purposes or frequency with which it is used. However, in general, history shows that the Court of Inquiry procedure has been availed of in cases of wide public interest, as when the conduct of some public agency or official is called in question, and irrespective of the question of criminality.

Probably the most famous example of a court of inquiry is the one that almost occurred:

[A} Court of Inquiry was scheduled to inquire into all matters in connection with the assassination of President John F. Kennedy in Dallas, Texas, on November 22, 1963, though this was abandoned when the President of the United States by proclamation created The Warren Commission to make a similar inquiry on a nationwide scale.

Often times, courts of inquiry are convened to inquire into questionable actions involving military personnel or property. For instance, in 1879, President Rutherford B. Hayes requested a court of inquiry to investigate the conduct of Major Marcus A. Reno during The Battle of Little Big Horn. The court of inquiry found that Reno, the officer in charge of the only unit to survive the battle, did not act with cowardice. (You can access the entire record of the court of inquiry by clicking here).

Sometimes, however, courts of inquiry are convened to investigate the actions of prosecutors as is the case with the impeding court of inquiry for District Judge Ken Anderson.

The inquiry will examine allegations that Anderson, when he was Williamson County district attorney, withheld crucial evidence that might have shown that [Michael] Morton did not murder his wife, Christine in 1986. Morton was freed in October after DNA evidence linked another person to the killing.

Specifically, it is alleged that

Anderson had provided very few of the available police reports. Key pieces of evidence were missing, including a transcript of a telephone conversation between a sheriff’s deputy and Morton’s mother-in-law in which she reported that her 3-year-old grandson, Eric, had seen a "monster" — who was not his father — attack and kill his mother. 

Police reports from Morton’s neighbors were also missing. They told police they saw a man in a green van park near their home and walk into the woods behind their house. Also missing were reports that Christine Morton’s credit card had been used and a check with her forged signature cashed after her death. Last week, Morton's lawyers said in court that recent investigation showed that the check had been deposited by Morton with others after his wife's death.

In other words, the facts in the Anderson court of inquiry are basically the same as the facts in last week's episode of "The Good Wife": a judge being subjected to a court of inquiry based upon allegedly failing to disclose evidence while he was prosecuting a man for the murder of his wife, with the man being convicted but eventually exonerated based upon DNA evidence.

-CM

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