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Thirty years ago, a Williamson County murder set in motion a shoddy prosecution – one in which ignored witness accounts and withheld evidence led to the conviction of an innocent man.
Michael Morton spent 25 years in prison for his wife’s bludgeoning death before DNA analysis finally freed him, a miscarriage in justice that still reverberates through the state’s criminal cases.
Christine Morton was beaten to death in their family home on August 13, 1986. Michael Morton should never have been a key suspect: he had left for work early that morning. The couple’s three-year-old son Eric, who witnessed the murder, described a man who looked nothing like his father. Neighbors had reported a man lurking in the neighborhood. A canceled check made out to Christine Morton was cashed with a forged signature after her death, and her credit card was used fraudulently in San Antonio.
But police pointed to Michael Morton anyway, and Williamson County District Attorney Ken Anderson was adamant he had his guy – a jilted man he believed had punished his wife for not agreeing to have sex the night before …
It took 20 years of waiting and fighting for Morton to clear his name. In 2008, signs of a botched case emerged, when Morton and his lawyers first learned of Eric’s description of his mother’s killer, the check and the credit card use.
In 2011, DNA testing of a bloody bandana found near the crime scene revealed Christine Morton’s blood and the DNA of another man – not Morton. That same year, the DNA was matched to Mark Alan Norwood, who had a criminal past including drug possession, assault and burglary charges in California and Texas.
From there, the case against Morton unraveled. After getting a file unsealed that contained an investigator’s reports on the murder, Morton and his legal team discovered that many of the notes – including information about the lurking man and the details about credit card and check fraud – were missing.
The district attorney’s office had withheld it. Morton was released from prison. The Texas Tribune online article 13 August 2016, ‘How Michael Morton’s Wrongful Conviction Has Brought Others to Justice’
Imagine being out to dinner with the love of your life and your beautiful, smiling, 3-year-old child. It’s a double celebration: your birthday and the end of your young boy’s difficult recovery from surgery for a heart defect.
As you cross the street afterward, holding hands and swinging the little one up in the air, you think, ‘This is what it’s about.’
You know it’s one of the best days of your life.
For Michael Morton, that day was August 12, 1986. He had just turned 32.
The next day, it was all taken away. The dream became a nightmare.
Christine, his wife, was attacked and killed at their home in Williamson County, Texas, just outside Austin. Michael Morton was at work at the time. Still, authorities suspected him.
‘Innocent people think that if you just tell the truth then you’ve got nothing to fear from the police,’ Morton says now. ‘If you just stick to it that the system will work, it’ll all come to light, everything will be fine.’
Instead, Morton was charged, ripped away from his boy, and put on trial.
The prosecutor, speaking to the jury in emotional terms with tears streaming down his face, laid out a graphic, depraved sexual scenario, accusing Morton of bludgeoning his wife for refusing to have sex on his birthday.
‘There was no scientific evidence, there was no eyewitness, there was no murder weapon, there was no believable motive,’ Morton says. ‘I didn't see how any rational, thinking person would say that's enough for a guilty verdict.’
But with no other suspects, the jury convicted him. ‘We all felt so strongly that this was justice for Christine and that we were doing the right thing,’ says Mark Landrum, who was the jury foreman.
Morton spent nearly 25 years in prison …
A few years ago, a group of attorneys, working pro bono on Morton’s behalf, managed to bring the truth to light. Not only was Morton innocent, but the prosecutor, Ken Anderson, was accused of withholding crucial evidence.
The little boy, Eric, had seen the attack and told relatives that daddy was not home at the time. He described the man who did it. Neighbors had described a man parking a green van behind the Mortons’ house and walking off into a wooded area. A blood-stained bandana was found nearby. None of that evidence made it into the trial.
It took years of fighting, but Morton’s attorneys finally got the bandana tested for DNA. It contained Christine Morton’s blood and hair and the DNA of another man – a convicted felon named Mark Norwood.
Norwood had killed Christine Morton. And since no one figured that out after her death, he remained free. He killed another woman in the Austin area, Debra Baker, in similar circumstances less than two years later, authorities say.
Norwood has now been convicted in Morton’s killing, and indicted in Baker’s killing.
Morton was freed in October 2011. He was 57 years old. ‘I thank God this wasn’t a capital case,’ he said. CNN online article 4th December 2013, ‘Innocent man: How Inmate Michael Morton lost 25 years of his life’