Editor's Note: This story has been updated throughout with additional details from Monday's court proceedings.
GEORGETOWN — A beaming Michael Morton kissed the piece of paper he had been waiting nearly 25 years for on Monday after Judge Sid Harle stepped down from the bench, shook his hand and gave him the order that officially cleared him of his wife’s 1986 murder.
"This is a happy day, obviously," Morton said after the court proceeding, his voice quaking. "But let's not forget this was a horrible crime. My wife's brains were splattered all over the bedroom, the ceiling."
Murder charges against the former grocery store manager were formally dismissed on Monday. Morton spent a quarter century behind bars for a crime that DNA evidence revealed this year he did not commit, and he was released from prison in October.
For Morton, though, the day full of hugs and happiness was not just about freedom. It was also about holding accountable the prosecutor who he alleges withheld evidence that could have led to his acquittal back in 1987. Morton and his lawyers asked Harle, a Bexar County state district judge, to launch an unprecedented court of inquiry to determine whether Ken Anderson broke state laws and violated professional ethics codes by withholding evidence when he prosecuted Morton.
"A lot of people think I want a pound of flesh," Morton said. "Revenge is a natural instinct, but it's not what I'm asking for here. It's just accountability."
Anderson has strenuously denied wrongdoing in Morton’s case. And Eric Nichols, an attorney for Anderson, said outside of the courtroom that the laws were different when Morton was prosecuted 25 years ago than they are today. Anderson is confident that he did not violate Texas laws or ethics, he said.
Morton had contended during his 1987 trial that his wife’s killer must have entered their home after he left for work early in the morning. But Anderson convinced the jury that Morton, who had no criminal history, beat his wife to death in a perverted rage because she denied him sex. All the while, Morton’s lawyers allege, Anderson was concealing evidence that pointed to just the scenario Morton described.
Morton was sentenced to life in prison. He pleaded with the court, beginning in 2005, to test DNA on a collection of evidence, including a blue bandanna found near his home shortly after the murder.
Williamson County District Attorney John Bradley fought the request for DNA testing, based on advice from Anderson. In 2010, though, a Texas court ordered the DNA testing. The results showed Christine Morton’s blood on the bandanna mixed with the DNA of Mark A. Norwood, a felon with a long criminal history who lived near the Mortons at the time of the murder.
“The district attorney’s office acted on the post-conviction DNA testing request by relying on the best information that was available at that time," Bradley said in a statement. “Nonetheless, I deeply regret the delays that occurred in reaching this point today."
Norwood was arrested in November and charged in Christine Morton’s death, and he is also a suspect in the January 1988 murder of Debra Masters Baker. Norwood plans to plead not guilty, according to published reports.
The Baker family was in the courtroom today, sharing hugs with Morton and his family. Like Christine Morton, Debra Masters Baker was beaten to death in her bed. Initially, police focused on Phillip Baker, her husband, as a suspect. After he was eliminated, though, the case went cold. In court Monday, Phillip Baker said he had realized that he could easily have been in the same situation as Morton. "It hit me, I could be Michael Morton," he said.
Jesse and Caitlin Baker, who were 7 and 3 when their mother was murdered, were also in the courtroom Monday, along with Debra Masters Baker's sister, Lisa Conn, and their mother Ann Masters. For more than two decades, the family has been searching for answers about Debra's mysterious death. The first leads came this year when Morton's lawyers found the cold case information and realized she lived only blocks from Norwood at the time. Later, police connected the DNA on the blue bandanna found near the Morton's home with Norwood's DNA on a pubic hair found at the scene of Debra's murder.
The DNA link between the two murders was the key factor that convinced Bradley that Morton was innocent and prompted him to agree to his release from prison.
The report filed Monday by Morton’s lawyer, John Raley of Houston-based Raley & Bowick, and attorneys from the New York-based Innocence Project, is asking for a “court of inquiry.” The Baker family has also joined in the request for the inquiry.
They are asking the court to find that there is probable cause to believe that Anderson should be charged with contempt of court and tampering with official documents. They argue that Anderson concealed police reports that Judge William S. Lott ordered him to disclose during the 1987 trial so that he could determine whether they might help Morton’s case. Lott found nothing exculpatory in the few pages he was provided by Anderson and ordered the record sealed.
When a different judge ordered the record unsealed in August, Morton’s lawyers discovered that Anderson had provided very few of the available police reports. Crucial 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 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. Gone from the file, too, were reports that Christine Morton’s credit card had been used and a check with her forged signature cashed after her death.
When Harle freed Morton based on the DNA evidence in October, he also authorized an unusual process that allowed his defense lawyers to investigate Anderson's conduct. The lawyers deposed the lead sheriff’s investigator, an assistant district attorney who worked with Anderson and the former prosecutor himself.
The investigator and assistant district attorney pointed at Anderson, who they said strictly controlled details of the prosecution. In his own nine-hour deposition, Anderson said he recalled few details of the case and contended that he did nothing wrong. He said that he had interpreted the judge’s order to disclose police reports as a narrow request for one report. He said he felt “sick” over Morton’s wrongful imprisonment.
In the report filed with the court, Morton's lawyers argued that despite the fact that the case was tried nearly a quarter-century ago, the statute of limitations should not bar legal action against Anderson. Harle said he would take the report under advisement.
In the court filing, Morton's lawyers also called on legislators to reform state laws to require more disclosure from prosecutors in criminal cases and to prevent tragedies like the one the Morton family has endured. They also urge an independent audit of other cases that Anderson prosecuted.
Morton and his lawyers said they hope his case, like many of the exonerations that have come before it in Texas, will be a catalyst for change.
"We knew from the beginning this was a matter of great importance and this would be a very important case not just for this county… but frankly for the nation as a whole," said Barry Scheck, co-founder of the Innocence Project.
Harle offered an extended apology to Morton for the years he lost in prison. Morton not only lost his wife, he lost his relationship with his son, who is now 28. "Mr. Morton, you and your family are frankly an inspiration to me," Harle said. "You never gave up on your innocence, you never lost sight of your goal."
As he handed the dismissal order to him, Harle told Morton that enough judges had looked down on him through the years, so he walked to the front of the bench.
"We talk about the criminal justice system and the emphasis in that phrase ought to be on justice," Harle said. "Your case illustrates the best and the worst of what can happen."
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