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Morton Talks About Ordeal, Life After Prison

“Life is really, really good,” said Michael Morton, who was exonerated in the 1986 murder of his wife. He tells the Tribune of his ordeal and his newfound freedom.

Exonerated after spending 25 years in prison for a crime he didn't commit, Michael Morton poses for a photograph in Austin on March 26, 2012.  Morton isn't interested in revenge, only accountability for the prosecutor who wrongly convicted him back in 1987.

During his nearly 25 years in prison, Michael Morton often heard the howling wails of other new inmates realizing their fate when they had arrived. In 1987, soon after entering prison himself, he sobbed silently as he lay in his cell, feeling the warm stream of tears pooling in his ears.

“I lost my wife. When was I going to see my son again?” he recalled. “Life was cratering all around me.”

Morton was convicted of the 1986 beating death of his wife, Christine Morton, at their North Austin home. During the trial, Ken Anderson, then the newly elected district attorney for Williamson County, convinced the jury that Morton, in a sex-crazed rage, had beaten his wife’s head in with a nightstick.

Then last year, DNA evidence revealed what Morton had always known: Someone else had murdered his wife. On a blue bandana found about 100 yards from the murder scene, Christine Morton’s blood was mixed with the hair of another man. The same DNA was identified on a pubic hair at the scene of another murder that occurred in 1988 — while Morton was in prison — not far from where his wife was killed.                          

Morton was released in October, and the charges against him were officially dismissed in a dramatic and emotional court hearing in December. A free man for the first time in two and a half decades, Morton said he is rebuilding a relationship with his son, who was 3 when his mother was murdered. He is fighting to see that the people who ruined his life are held accountable. And he is beginning to enjoy a new life where people treat him with respect and admiration, instead of reviling him as a “murderous perv.”

“Life is really, really good,” Morton said with a smile Monday as he sat in a conference room at an Austin high-rise.

Life had also been good before his wife was murdered. Michael and Christine Morton’s son, Eric, had recovered from open-heart surgery to correct a congenital heart defect. They were talking about having more children. Morton’s days as a manager at Safeway were ending, and he was working to get his own business off the ground. They had plans to buy a house on Lake Austin.

Then, the day after his 32nd birthday, Morton went to work and came home to find that his house had been commandeered by Williamson County sheriff’s deputies and Texas Department of Public Safety investigators. They had found Christine bludgeoned to death in their bed.

“Your life can turn on a dime for good or for ill,” he said. "Losing a spouse is a very big deal, very catastrophic. Your world turns upside down. Everything you thought you knew is, if not suspect, it has to be re-examined in another light."

By the time he pulled into his driveway, he said, Sheriff Jim Boutwell — who has since died — had already decided that Morton was the prime suspect. About six weeks later, police arrested him, pulling Eric out of his arms as he screamed for his father.

At the trial, Morton said, he was appalled and disgusted when he heard Anderson’s theory of the crime. He told jurors that Morton had beaten his wife to death because she didn’t have sex with him on his birthday. Then, he told them, Morton used her hand to masturbate and went to work, leaving their son alone in the house with her corpse.

“On one side of it, it was like, ‘That’s sick!’” he said. “To me, it was almost like, okay, this is so crazy there’s no way they could convince anybody of that.”

But most everyone outside of Morton’s immediate family was convinced he killed his wife.

When the jury found Morton guilty, he wept in the courtroom, collapsing into his seat, with his head in his hands.

Mario Garcia, one of Morton’s former co-workers at Safeway, was among the few who believed in his innocence. He testified that Morton had been normal at work that day, that there was no way he had killed his wife.

“It didn’t add up,” Garcia said recently.

Garcia remained friends with Morton throughout his time in prison, exchanging letters that went on for pages. He said the letters from Morton, who earned a bachelor’s degree in psychology and a master’s degree in English literature while in prison, often required him to hunt through the dictionary. When Garcia’s father died in 2006, he said, Morton wrote a letter that still brings him to tears.

“How can he sit there and comfort me when he’s where he’s at?” Garcia said he wondered in awe of his friend.

When Morton entered prison in 1987, he said he was crushed. But he soon realized that the mourning for his wife, his son and his lost life would have to wait. He had to learn to live in prison. A counselor told him to get all the education he could. And there were words of wisdom from an inmate who had been there 20 years when Morton arrived.

“’Everybody, if they’re going to get through a long sentence has to have something to hang onto. It doesn’t really matter what it is,’” Morton said the inmate told him. “He said, ‘And yours is your kid.’ And I found it to be very true.”

The hope of reuniting with his son kept Morton going. One day, he just knew, he would get out and return to Eric, who was living with Christine’s sister near Houston.

“I didn’t know if it was going to be DNA. I didn’t know if the real killer was going to confess after years of remorse and hiding this lie,” he said. “I just knew somehow, someway I’d get out.”

Then when Eric turned 18 in 2001, Morton learned that his son had changed his name and had been adopted by the family he had grown up with. Morton was shattered.

“That’s what ended it all,” Morton said. For him, that day was rock bottom.

Not long after that, Morton said, he had a spiritual experience that led him to reconnect with his Christian faith. Looking back now, he describes himself as “the prodigal son” who strayed from God but then returned. From that point forward, he said, he was at peace with prison.

“I felt so content. I like to say that I did not enjoy prison, but I was used to it,” he said. “Getting out wasn’t such a priority anymore.”

There were hard times, though, he said. Fighting wasn’t a daily event for him, but it happened all around him. He learned quickly to stand his ground and was involved in an incident in which he was forced to protect himself by slamming another inmate in the throat with a large cardboard and canvas panel. But most days, he said, were much less eventful.

“A normal day is grinding boredom, loud talking, screaming, TVs at full volume, rampant stupidity on both sides of the bars,” he said. “It’s like a bunch of drunken 2-year-olds.”

Though he was at peace with his life in prison, Morton continued fighting to prove his innocence. He had filed his own motions seeking biological testing on crime scene evidence even before Texas in 2001 adopted its post-conviction DNA testing law.

Then, in 2004, John Raley of the Houston law firm Raley & Bowick, along with the New York-based Innocence Project, began working on Morton’s case. Raley asked John Bradley, the new district attorney in Williamson County, to agree to testing, but the new prosecutor declined.

Finally, last year, the DNA on the bandana found near the crime scene was tested, and Morton got the best possible birthday gift.

On Aug. 12, 2011 — Morton’s birthday — Nina Morrison of the Innocence Project and Raley walked into the visitation area at the Michael Unit in East Texas with big smiles. They told Morton that the DNA results exonerated him and that they had identified the man whose DNA was on the bandana.

Morton tried to keep his emotions in check, he said, not wanting to rub his joy in the faces of the other inmates he would leave behind. Weeks later, when he was led out of his cell to prepare for his transfer to freedom, Morton said guys in the unit came out to cheer him. They applauded and banged on tables as he walked away. Some were moved to tears. “The upper tier was lined with faces, and they were all yelling and screaming,” he said. “When there’s somebody in there unjustly, man they’re really pulling for them. It’s really weird, wonderfully weird.”

In the months since he has been out of prison, Morton said, he has been inundated with kindness and gifts, hugs from strangers who wish him well and pleas for forgiveness from some who believed in his guilt. For him, those expressions, after decades of being treated like a villain, have been the most welcome surprise.

“Everybody, no matter what the setting, they want love and affirmation,” he said. “It’s one thing to want it, it’s another to get it.”

He has also restarted a relationship with Eric, who is married and has a daughter named Christine Marie, after his mother. The reunification has been a slow process for Eric, now 28. But Morton said he understands and respects his son’s concern for his adoptive family, who must also now learn to deal with the realization that he is innocent.

Morton said he is grateful that his sister-in-law raised Eric to be a loving, responsible and smart father, husband and son. When he met Eric at a recent family gathering, Morton said, during a few moments they had alone, his son asked about his mother. They both cried.

“There was no one I would rather spend my life with than his mother,” he said. “And that kind of got both of us.”

As he rebuilds his relationship with Eric, Morton is also working on another important objective: finding accountability for the men whose actions led to his wrongful conviction and imprisonment.

At a February hearing, Bexar County state district Judge Sid Harle recommended that the state initiate a rare court of inquiry to investigate allegations that Anderson, the former Williamson County DA,  committed criminal prosecutorial conduct, including contempt of court and tampering with official documents. That process is expected to begin this year.

Morton’s lawyers argue that Anderson deliberately withheld evidence that pointed to another killer. Those documents that would have acquitted Morton from the beginning, they say, were kept secret even when Judge William Lott, who oversaw the trial, requested them.

Only last year did Morton’s lawyers discover that when Lott asked Anderson to turn over to him police reports in the case, the district attorney gave the judge only a handful of pages. Missing was the transcript of a conversation in which Morton’s mother-in-law told a sheriff’s investigator that the Mortons’ son Eric said he had seen a “monster” — who was not his father — attack his mother. Also missing were reports from neighbors who saw a man in a green van parking near the Mortons’ home and walking into the woods behind it. Gone, too, was a report that someone tried to use Christine Morton’s credit card fraudulently after she died.

Texas Supreme Court Chief Justice Wallace Jefferson has appointed Tarrant County state district Judge Louis Sturns to preside over the court of inquiry that will examine Anderson’s conduct. Sturns has also appointed Houston defense lawyer Rusty Hardin to act as prosecutor in the case.

Anderson, who is now a state district judge — Gov. Rick Perry appointed him to the post in 2002— has said he regrets that the justice system failed Morton. But he argues in court documents that the allegations of wrongful conduct on his part are "unjustified and insupportable."

Morton said he doesn’t want revenge and he doesn’t want to see Anderson in prison. By now, he said, Anderson has had plenty of public shaming. What Morton hopes is that as a result of his case, lawmakers will implement policies that hold prosecutors responsible for withholding critical evidence.

Morton would also like some answers.

“I’d like to be alone in a room and ask him, ‘Why did you do this to me?’” Morton said.

As for Bradley, the district attorney who opposed DNA testing for seven years, Morton said he expects voters will hold him accountable at the ballot box. Bradley has said he was following the advice of Anderson and that the Morton case has reformed the way he thinks about DNA testing.

Morton is also watching carefully to see what happens to Mark Norwood, the man whose DNA was found on the bandana and who has been indicted in Christine Morton’s murder. Norwood, 57, of Bastrop, is in the Williamson County Jail, awaiting trial, which could be months away. Norwood is also a suspect in the 1988 murder of Debra Masters Baker after his DNA was identified at the scene of that crime. And Travis County investigators are searching for DNA to compare with Norwood's in a third similar murder in 1985.

Norwood’s lawyer, Russell Hunt Jr., has said that his client denies he murdered anyone.

Morton is unconvinced.

“I know I’m supposed to forgive him, but just as with Anderson, I’ve seen that I’m not there yet,” he said.

As developments in the courtrooms continue, Morton’s new life is taking shape. He has received $2 million in compensation from the state for the time he spent wrongfully imprisoned. (He put much of it into a college savings account for his granddaughter.) He’s found a house to rent not far from his parents in East Texas, and he’s traveling the country to speak about his experience. He’s got a truck with a great sound system and air conditioning. And there are those simple things that just come with freedom, like hugs from his family, holding his granddaughter, feeling his sister rest her head on his shoulder and the warm touch of a friend holding his hand. 

“Normal makes me happy,” he said.

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