Travis County authorities are investigating an unsolved 1988 Austin murder that they suspect is related to the 1986 murder of Christine Morton, for which her husband, Michael Morton, has been in prison for 25 years.
The developments could bolster efforts to exonerate Morton — who has steadfastly maintained his innocence — and help solve the mysterious killing of Debra Jan Baker, which has haunted her daughter, Caitlin Baker, nearly her entire life. She was 3 years old when her mother was bludgeoned to death in her bed.
“I’m happier for Michael Morton at this point,” Caitlin Baker told The Texas Tribune. “If it helps him, that would be even better.”
It could also have potentially serious ramifications for Williamson County District Attorney John Bradley, the former head of the Texas Forensic Science Commission. Appointed to the panel by Gov. Rick Perry, Bradley was critical of efforts to examine questions about the arson science used to convict Cameron Todd Willingham in the 1991 deaths of his three daughters. Willingham was executed in 2004.
Michael Morton was convicted in 1987 of killing his wife on Aug. 13, 1986, and was sentenced to life in prison. Like Debra Jan Baker, Christine Morton was found bludgeoned to death in her bed. Last year, a court forced the Williamson County District Attorney’s office to turn over a blue bandana found near the Mortons' home for DNA testing.
This summer, Michael Morton’s lawyers received the results of the genetic analysis that showed the bandana was stained with Christine’s blood and DNA from a man who was not her husband. That DNA, in turn, was matched to the profile of a felon with a criminal history in California.
At a court hearing in the Morton case on Monday, Bexar County Judge Sid Harle revealed that the Travis County District Attorney’s office had contacted him with information about a pending investigation that its investigators believed was connected to Morton’s murder.
The judge would not discuss the case in open court, because the investigation is pending, but Morton’s lawyer, John Raley, of the Raley and Bowick law firm in Houston, said, “This is very powerful evidence, your honor. Wow.” Based on the discovery, Raley said, Morton should be immediately released from prison.
Neither Morton’s attorneys nor the district attorneys in Travis and Williamson counties would confirm a connection between the two cases or discuss the Baker investigation. But Caitlin Baker said a detective in the Austin Police Department cold case unit told her Tuesday that authorities are investigating a potential connection between the two crimes.
Debra Jan Baker's body was discovered on Jan. 13, 1988, in her north Austin home, about 12 miles from where Morton's body was found about a year and a half earlier. Initially, police focused on Baker’s estranged husband, Phillip Baker. But Phillip, who at the time worked at the local jail, said in an interview that the police eliminated him as a suspect.
Caitlin Baker, now 27, has pursued her mother's killer for years, begging Austin police and anyone else who might know what happened to share with her information about the murder. In 2005, she sent a letter to the Austin Chronicle, pleading for help from the public. “There must be someone with information regarding her death. We have not given up hope,” she wrote.
Over the years, the police were in occasional contact — Baker said she met with cold case detectives about four years ago and police took DNA samples from other relatives — but her mother's murder has remained unsolved.
Then, about three weeks ago, she said, the police returned, asking again about her mother’s death. Phillip Baker said police came to his home and showed him photos of two men, neither of whom he said he recognized. Caitlin Baker said police also spoke with her aunts and an uncle in Sugar Land. When Caitlin Baker asked Tuesday if the renewed interest in her mother’s case was related to the Morton murder and recently discovered DNA, an officer told her it was.
“They are definitely looking into that, but they couldn’t share any details,” she said. “I’m happy that there could be something.”
If DNA evidence from Debra Baker’s murderer is linked to the sample taken from the Morton bandana — as was implied at Monday’s court hearing — it could have momentous implications for Michael Morton and for Williamson County DA Bradley.
At Morton's original trial, then-Williamson County prosecutor Ken Anderson, now a Williamson County district judge, told jurors that Michael Morton beat his wife to death because he was upset that she had fallen asleep instead of having sex with him the previous night, after celebrating his birthday. Morton insisted that an intruder must have killed his wife after he left for work early in the morning.
Bradley fought against DNA analysis of the bandana and other evidence in Morton’s case for more than six years until an appeals court granted the testing in 2010. In a 2008 interview with a Williamson County Sun reporter, Bradley derided the claims of Morton's attorneys that DNA on the bandana could be linked to "a mystery killer." In a motion filed in court on Monday, prosecutors said there was no evidence to suggest that the man whose DNA was found on the bandana had done anything more than touch it.
Morton’s lawyers also argue that the district attorney’s office deliberately withheld other evidence at the trial — and in the years since — in violation of discovery laws that could have not only exonerated Morton but allowed police to focus on the real killer.
Among the items withheld from both defense lawyers and the court at the initial trial, they said, was the transcript of a telephone conversation between Michael Morton’s mother-in-law and a sheriff’s deputy soon after her murder. In that conversation, Rita Kirkpatrick explained in great detail that Morton’s 3-year-old son, Eric Morton, watched the murder and had told her that the “monster” he saw hurting his mother was not his father.
Morton’s lawyers discovered in documents the court forced Bradley’s office to release recently that state lawyers had the Kirkpatrick transcript at the time of the trial and did not provide it to defense lawyers or to the court despite specific requests for investigative material.
In its Monday motion in court, Bradley's office said "any claim that this evidence was somehow suppressed seems to be unfounded and has been irresponsibly costly to the trial prosecutors in this case."
In court Monday, Morton’s lawyers said he should be released immediately based on the information connecting his wife’s murder to the pending investigation in Travis County. Raley told the judge that he and his colleagues would cooperate with investigators to find the man identified by the DNA match, who is still at large.
“We are trying our best to seek justice in this matter, and we are very hopeful that law enforcement in some county will try and bring this felon to justice,” Raley said.
Despite the new evidence, Williamson County prosecutors said in court that they wanted a hearing to further develop the information. “I think there are still issues that need to be resolved,” said Lindsey Roberts, first assistant district attorney.
Judge Harle set a hearing for Monday to discuss further investigation of the case.