Updated: 3 p.m.
GEORGETOWN — Michael Morton, who served 25 years in prison for the murder of his wife Christine, will be released after his attorneys reached an agreement with prosecutors, who agreed today in a legal filing that DNA evidence revealed Morton almost certainly was not the killer.
"Because new DNA evidence, previously unavailable at trial or at the time of Applicant’s prior writ applications through no fault of either party, indicates that someone other than Applicant committed the offense in this case, Applicant’s conviction should be set aside under the authority set forth above," Morton's attorneys and Williamson County prosecutors stated in a jointly agreed to "findings of fact and conclusions of law."
Williamson County District Attorney John Bradley said that the new developments — which he said were a "lightning bolt type" of discovery — warranted a reversal of Morton's murder conviction.
"It is my job, as district attorney, to make sure that justice is done," Bradley said after the court action today.
Bexar County Judge Sid Harle said Morton would be released on a personal bond either Tuesday or Wednesday, depending on when he can be transported to Georgetown from the Michael prison unit near Palestine, Texas.
The dramatic development occurred after Travis County prosecutors last week presented Judge Harle with evidence in a long-cold Austin murder case linking it to recently obtained DNA evidence in the murder of Christine Morton. The new DNA evidence revealed that the blood of Christine Morton and DNA from another man who was not her husband was found on a bandana left near the scene of the 1986 crime.
Travis County prosecutors, who have refused to comment publicly, suspect the same man whose DNA was found on the Morton bandana may have been involved in the 1988 murder of Debra Jan Baker. She was killed after Michael Morton was already in custody. A pubic hair found at the scene of Baker's murder was linked to the DNA found on the bandana, lawyers said during the hearing today in a Williamson County courtroom.
Morton and his attorneys have steadfastly insisted he had nothing to do with the murder of his wife, suggesting that an intruder must have killed Christine, who was found dead in their bed after he left the house for work early in the morning.
"It's been a long, hard fight," said John Raley, a lawyer with the Houston firm Raley and Bowick, who worked pro bono for six years on the Morton case, along with the New York-based Innocence Project.
The Morton case could have serious ramifications for John Bradley, the former head of the Texas Forensic Science Commission who 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.)
For more than six years, Bradley resisted turning over the bandana and other evidence for new DNA testing until a Texas appellate court ordered him to do so last year.
On Monday, Bradley said he could not discuss the reasons he opposed DNA testing in the Morton case for more than six years. Doing so, he said, would jeopardize the ongoing investigation of the murders of Christine Morton and Debra Jan Baker.
“As a lawyer, I had what I believe are good-faith reasons for raising concerns about that," he said.
Raley, Morton's defense attorney, said the case proves that prosecutors should never fight against DNA testing. "It can only reveal the truth,” Raley said. “And those that oppose it are being inherently illogical.”
According to the Innocence Project, there have been 43 DNA exonerations in Texas, not including Morton's case, which still must be reviewed and approved by the Texas Court of Criminal Appeals.
Morton's attorneys also say Bradley sat on evidence that should have been turned over to the defense and that could have helped exonerate him. In addition to making claims of innocence on behalf of Morton in legal documents filed today, his lawyers also alleged that Williamson County prosecutors violated his due process rights in several ways.
"This story is by no means over," said Barry Scheck, co-director of the Innocence Project.
Morton's lawyers claimed that the Williamson County district attorney's office withheld a transcript of a conversation between Rita Kirkpatrick, Christine Morton's mother, and an investigator in which she told the officer that Morton's 3-year-old son saw a "monster" who was not his father attack and kill his mother.
The defense attorneys also allege prosecutors withheld information about Christine Morton's credit card being used in San Antonio two days after she was killed and about a check made out to her that was cashed with her forged signature nine days after her death.
"I want to know how a dead woman uses her credit card or cashes a check," Scheck said. "And I want to know how, when your theory of defense is that somebody broke in and killed his wife and stole the purse, that information isn’t made known to the defense lawyers."
Bradley's office did not agree to those claims in the court documents filed today — only to the actual innocence claims regarding the DNA evidence.
Bradley emphasized a number of times today, in and out of the courtroom, that he was not the district attorney when Morton was investigated and prosecuted in 1986 and 1987. Ken Anderson, who is now a Williamson County district judge, was the original prosecutor. Bradley took over the case in recent years. Bradley said he would continue to have a role in the ongoing discussions of alleged violations by Williamson County prosecutors.
Bradley also said he was proud to join in the agreement to release Morton. "It is an amazing day," he said.
Morton was sentenced to life in prison in 1987 after prosecutors told jurors that he had bludgeoned to death his wife when she refused to have sex with him after they came home from celebrating his birthday. There were no witnesses, and Michael Morton had no history of violent crime.
This summer, Morton’s lawyers received the results of the new 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.
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.
The case was cold until several weeks ago, when investigators appeared to make a connection between the Morton and Baker murders.