The Texas Tribune analyzed 86 overturned convictions, finding that in nearly one quarter of those cases courts ruled that prosecutors made mistakes that often contributed to the wrong outcome. This multi-part series explores the causes and consequences of prosecutorial errors and whether reforms might prevent future wrongful convictions.
It had been 14 years since their last meeting. Father and son sat uncomfortably last fall in the well-appointed home of the Houston lawyer who helped free Eric Olson’s father from prison.
The only clothes Eric remembered seeing his dad wear before were prison whites. Now, he noticed, his dad was dressed just like him: blue jeans, a button-down shirt, even similar shoes.
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How should he feel about meeting the man who he had believed savagely killed his mother and felt no remorse? At age 28, with his pregnant wife at his side, Eric saw his father Michael Morton as an innocent man for the first time. Was this really happening, he wondered. It felt like a movie.
“I don’t know if I should feel tears of joy or laughter. I remember mostly being kind of numb the whole night, mostly sitting there, listening, just waiting for ... I don’t know. Waiting for everything to make sense again,” Eric recalled. “Only months before that, we were still supposed to hate him.”
Eric was 3 years old and had recently recovered from open heart surgery on Aug. 13, 1986, when his mother, Christine Morton, was beaten to death in her bed in their North Austin home. Six weeks after her death, police arrested Morton, pulling his sobbing toddler from his arms as they led him to a police cruiser. Six months after losing his mother, Eric lost his father, too, when a Williamson County jury convicted Morton of murder and sent him to prison for life.
Unbeknownst to Eric, as he and his wife, Maggie, commemorated the 25th anniversary of his mother’s death last year with a visit to her grave in Houston, the truth as he knew it was unraveling. That day, Morton’s lawyers received DNA test results that ultimately proved his innocence and connected another man to Christine Morton’s slaying.
Morton’s lawyers — John Raley of Houston and Nina Morrison of the New York-based Innocence Project — had also discovered secreted in the files of the sheriff’s investigators and prosecutors critical evidence that they argue could have prevented the wrongful conviction.
Morton is one of at least 86 Texas defendants who saw their convictions overturned between 1989 and 2011 after spending years in prison. The Texas Tribune analyzed court rulings, media reports and pardon statements in those cases to determine how many times the courts decided that prosecutorial errors, such as withholding crucial evidence, played a role in the wrongful conviction. (See an interactive presentation with details about all the cases.)
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In nearly a quarter of the cases — 21 in total, including Morton’s — courts found prosecutorial errors that usually contributed to the wrongful convictions.
Since his release in October, Morton has vowed to seek accountability for the prosecutor whose mistakes he said contributed to his wrongful conviction. Morton says his goal is to ensure that what happened to him does not happen to others. And Eric and Maggie Olson say they are determined to help, too.
“He may not be the first person or the last person to do something like this,” Eric said of Williamson County state district Judge Ken Anderson, the former district attorney who prosecuted Morton’s case. “That’s what’s really screwed up about the whole thing.”
In September, Tarrant County state district Judge Louis E. Sturns will lead a court of inquiry that will decide whether Anderson should face criminal charges for his work in the case.
Anderson, who declined to be interviewed for this story, has publicly apologized for the judicial system’s failures in Morton’s case. More than a month after Morton’s release from prison, in a press conference outside the historic courthouse where the 1987 trial took place, Anderson said he felt sick over the wrongful conviction. But he denied any wrongdoing.
Williamson County state district Judge Ken Anderson speaks to the press about the Michael Morton case on Nov. 16, 2011.
"In my heart, I know there was no misconduct whatsoever," he said.
Eric has few memories of the life he shared with his biological parents. He remembers the hospital where he had surgery to correct a congenital heart defect and that the family had a dog. But, he knows now, it may be a blessing that other memories disappeared.
Among the withheld evidence that lawyers found in the prosecutor and sheriff’s files was a haunting transcript of a conversation between Eric’s grandmother and a sheriff’s detective. She recounted details of a disturbing talk she had with the 3-year-old about the murder one week after his mother’s funeral.
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“Mommy’s crying. She’s — stop it. Go away,” his grandmother said he told her. She asked why his mother cried.
“'Cause the monster’s there,” Eric said.
Delicately, she pressed for more details.
“He hit Mommy. He broke the bed,” Eric said.
“Is Mommy still crying?”
“No, Mommy stopped.”
Then, she asked the question she was most dreading: “Was Daddy there?”
“No,” he said. “Mommy and Eric was there.”
Eric said that he has no recollection of those events now, and that after his mother’s death and his father’s conviction, family members did all they could to protect him and give him a normal childhood.
“I look back now, and I should have been really, really messed up,” Eric said during an interview in a hotel room not far from the courthouse where his father was convicted and where documentary filmmakers were working on a movie about the family’s nightmarish ordeal. He glanced across the room adoringly at his cooing, blue-eyed infant daughter. Her name: Christine Marie Olson, after Eric’s mother. “But everything came out pretty good.”
His mother’s sister, Marylee Kirkpatrick, who lived in Houston, won custody of her sister’s son.
The custody agreement required Kirkpatrick to ensure that Eric visited his father twice each year at the Wynne prison unit in Huntsville.
Eric remembers sitting at a picnic table in the prison yard. His dad always brought lemon drops. His aunt would sit at the table, too, quietly reading.
As he grew older, though, Eric said, he realized how weird the situation was. When he was a teenager, he wrote a letter to his father explaining that he wanted to stop the visits.
“I don’t remember it being as emotional to say I didn’t want to go anymore,” he said. “I just did. I didn’t feel connected to it much anymore.”
Around the time the visits stopped, Kirkpatrick married Paul Olson. To Eric, who changed his last name when he turned 18, they are Mom and Dad.
For his father in prison, news of his son’s name change was shattering. The hope of proving his innocence and reuniting with his son had kept Morton afloat in the grinding boredom and harsh reality of prison.
For Eric, though, changing his name was simply the next logical step in moving on with his life, being part of the family he loved.
And so, life moved on. Eric went to college at Texas State University-San Marcos. He graduated, moved back to Houston and began working at the Catholic preparatory high school he had attended. There, he met Maggie Mahoney in 2009, and they were married last year.
Not long after the wedding, Eric received an email from Raley, Morton’s pro bono lawyer in Houston. Raley, who Eric had never met, wanted to talk to him about developments in his father’s case.
“I thought it was just some whacko,” Eric said. “I just responded quickly: ‘I don’t know who you are. I don’t know what this means. Don’t ever contact me.’”
His outreach rebuffed, Raley contacted his own pastor, who knew the president of Eric’s school. The president called Eric into his office and explained that Morton was going to be released from prison. They did not want him to learn the news from the television.
For the first time, Eric said, he independently researched his father’s case.
“The story I was told my whole life was, ‘He killed her, and he’s in prison, and we don’t have to talk about it if you don’t want to.’ I didn’t want to, because I was a kid,” he said. “I rarely thought about it.”
It finally made sense, he said, why his father had been denied parole. When victims’ services workers had explained to Eric that his father was up for parole a few years earlier but had been rejected, the family figured Morton had done something wrong.
Michael Morton in the courtroom on Oct. 4, 2011, when he was released from prison.
The parole board, Eric learned, had told Morton that if he simply accepted responsibility for killing his wife, he could be released. Morton refused.
“It turns out he had said, ‘All I have left is my innocence,’” Eric said. “That’s pretty bold. I don’t think I would have done it. I would have gotten out. Get me out of here.”
With Morton, 57, now out of prison, the father and son are building the relationship they started to forge that night at Raley’s house. They see each other about once a month. Morton fawns over his granddaughter and marvels that his son is now a father.
“Fortunately or unfortunately, now I have to get to know him, because I never did. I never knew who he was, or what his favorite food was,” Eric said. “Being introduced to him was like remembering a movie I saw when I was a kid, like meeting a movie star.”
There are still challenges ahead, though, and many questions to be resolved.
For the family who raised him — Christine Morton’s sister, brother and mother — Eric said the discovery of Morton’s innocence was difficult. It brought a flood of terrible, long-buried memories along with new guilt and questions about how things could have gone so wrong.
The Kirkpatricks, Eric said, had a close relationship with Anderson, the prosecutor.
“He convinced everybody that’s what the truth was, and that’s what they thought forever,” Eric said. “They didn’t have any other source of truth.”
Their truth eviscerated, they must now endure another trial. The DNA that exonerated Morton was connected to Mark Norwood, a 58-year-old dishwasher from Bastrop. Norwood has said he is innocent, but his DNA has also been connected with another similar Austin murder from 1988. He is expected to face trial next year in the Morton case.
Mark Norwood being led into court on Jan. 18, 2012. He is charged with the 1986 murder of Christine Morton.
Eric plans to be present for that trial and for the inquisition into Anderson’s role in Morton’s prosecution. For Eric, one of the biggest unanswered questions is how such profound mistakes could have been made.
It goes beyond the transcript of the conversation about what 3-year-old Eric saw the morning his mother died that Morton’s lawyers did not see. When they dug through the old files, his lawyers discovered other clues that pointed to the very scenario that Morton had described from the start; he said that an intruder killed his wife after he had left for work early that morning. Neighbors told police they saw a man in a green van casing the Mortons’ home and running into the woods behind it. And there was a report that Christine Morton’s credit card had been used fraudulently after she died.
“Part of my life was taken away, first of all, because my mother was killed. Then I don’t understand why somebody would want to continue that chain of events by taking away someone’s father,” Eric said.
Eric Nichols, a former prosecutor for the Texas attorney general’s office and a former assistant U.S. district attorney, is representing Anderson in the court of inquiry. Morton’s lawyers allege that Anderson committed criminal prosecutorial misconduct by withholding evidence despite the trial judge’s order to provide it.
What has been lost in the debate over Anderson’s role in the case, Nichols said, was that the district attorney was following the lead of Sheriff Jim Boutwell, who had been the top lawman in Williamson County since 1978 and before that was a Texas Ranger. He famously flew an airplane above the University of Texas tower in 1966, exchanging fire with gunman Charles Whitman, and in 1983, Boutwell arrested Henry Lee Lucas, once thought to be the most prolific serial killer in U.S. history.
Boutwell died of cancer in 1993.
In a nine-hour deposition, Anderson said he could not remember details of the prosecution. If he had known of information that pointed to Morton’s innocence, he insisted, he would have told defense lawyers.
“He has apologized not only to Mr. Morton but to all persons who have been affected by this, which clearly includes Mr. Morton’s son, Eric,” Nichols said.
Eric said it would be nice to see Anderson held accountable for his role in Morton’s wrongful conviction, but he refuses to dwell on the negative. His priority, he said, is reuniting his family — the one he grew up with and the father he never got to know.
“If there’s a better time to have this all come full circle, I can’t think of it. This is like a movie,” Eric said. “But it’s good now. It’s not like a scary movie anymore.”
Eric Olson with his daughter, Christine Marie, named after his mother, who was killed Aug. 13, 1986.
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