One year ago, Michael Morton took off his scratchy, cotton, inmate-made prison whites and slipped on soft, khaki free-world slacks and a smooth button-down, pinstripe shirt for the first time in nearly 25 years.
After a brief but emotional hearing, he stepped out of the Williamson County Courthouse a free man, relieved after a quarter-century of the label that sent him to prison: murderer.
Morton was freed Oct. 4, 2011, after DNA evidence showed that he did not kill his wife, Christine Morton, in 1986. A year later, he said he is still enjoying the small joys of his new free life: the warm, sweet scent of laundry fresh from the dryer; the savory aroma of beef stewing in the Crock-Pot — and the major improvement in the quality of the company he keeps. “I didn’t foresee how nice and generous and kind people were going to be,” Morton said.
As nice as those things are, though, Morton said what gets him out of bed every morning now is his work to ensure that the tragedy that ruined his life does not befall others. On Thursday, he is taking two steps that he hopes will help change the criminal justice system. He is launching a new website, michael-morton.com, where people can reach out to lawmakers and urge them to support laws that make prosecutors more accountable for their mistakes. And he is meeting with lawmakers at the state Capitol about proposals for new laws before giving a public speech about his ordeal.
“I’m really blessed that I can do what I want to do now,” Morton said. “I’ve been plopped into a situation where I can actually contribute to seeing to it that what happened to me doesn’t happen to someone else.”
In 1986, when his wife was murdered, the couple and their 3-year-old son, Eric, lived in a one-story brick home in North Austin. At his 1987 trial, prosecutors said Morton beat his wife to death, enraged that she rebuffed his romantic overtures the night of his birthday. He was sentenced to life in prison, and Eric went to live with Morton’s sister-in-law in the Houston area.
John Raley, Morton’s pro-bono lawyer with the Houston firm Raley & Bowick, along with lawyers from the New York-based Innocence Project, fought for years to obtain DNA testing that ultimately proved his innocence. As they investigated the case, they said they learned that the Williamson County sheriff and district attorney who secured Morton’s conviction had withheld critical evidence that might have prevented his conviction and helped to identify the real killer. What was more, they discovered that the man's DNA found near the scene of Christine Morton’s murder was also identified at the scene of another murder that happened a year and a half later.
State District Judge Ken Anderson, the former Williamson County prosecutor who led Morton's prosecution, has apologized for the justice system's error in Morton's case, but he strenuously denies any wrongdoing.
Mark Norwood, whose DNA was identified at both murder scenes, is awaiting trial in January in Christine Morton’s murder. He is also considered a suspect in the 1988 murder of Debra Masters Baker, a young wife and mother who lived about 10 miles from the Morton family. Norwood's lawyer, Russell Hunt Jr., has said that his client is innocent of both killings.
Nina Morrison, a senior staff lawyer at the Innocence Project, said Morton’s exoneration last year rocked the Texas criminal justice world, not only because of the unimaginable tragedy of an innocent, grieving husband being convicted of murdering the love of his life and losing his son. The horror was compounded, she said, with the possibility that law enforcement withheld evidence that could have prevented another family from losing a wife and mother.
“There’s the potential that this could have been prevented if the sheriff’s office and the district attorney’s office had prosecuted the right person,” Morrison said.
In the wake of Morton’s exoneration, the prosecutors who oversaw his case have faced intense scrutiny.
Anderson will be the subject of an unprecedented court of inquiry in December. With help from special prosecutor Rusty Hardin, Tarrant County State District Judge Louis Sturns will decide whether Anderson should face criminal charges for his role in Morton’s wrongful conviction.
And this spring, current Williamson County District Attorney John Bradley, who for six years fought the DNA testing Morton requested, lost his bid for re-election. His GOP primary election opponent, Jana Duty, hammered Bradley for his role in delaying Morton’s exoneration and the capture of the alleged killer. Bradley has said that he regrets that he resisted the DNA testing.
“Everybody in the public has grasped those aspects of the case,” Morrison said.
As he waits to see how the courts deal with Anderson and Norwood, Morton said he is focused on urging lawmakers to implement laws that could prevent prosecutors from hiding evidence and punish them if they do. That’s the goal of the website and of the meetings Thursday with “muckety mucks” at the Capitol. The website provides a summary of Morton's ordeal, lets people sign up to show their support and allows users to find out who represents them in Austin so that they can contact their legislator about the issue. At the meeting Thursday at the Capitol, Morton will talk with stakeholders including the governor's office, prosecutors, defense lawyers and legislators.
“A lot of people agree this is a good idea,” Morton said. “A little bit of reform can have a real big impact.”
He is also rebuilding his relationship with his son, Eric Olson, who is now 29, married and the father of a toddler — named Chrissy, after his mother. For most of his life, Olson believed that his father was a killer. In the last year, his reality has been completely altered, too.
“Talk about every single thing in your life being upended,” Morton said.
Morton long dreamed of the day his life in prison would be upended. He had even written to his parents in letters from prison about what he might say to the press when everyone else finally discovered that he was innocent. In a letter from his cell at the Michael prison unit in Tennessee Colony, Morton wrote to his parents about six months before his release from prison. He told them he thought he would move away from Texas if he were exonerated.
“I mention this not to upset you, but to remind you that if it’s God’s will that I be exonerated, it will be almost as unsettling as being convicted and sent to prison,” he wrote. “I want it and pray for it, even though it will radically transform my life.”
His life is certainly transformed, Morton said, but it is better than he expected: blessed and busy. Sure, some things in his first year haven’t moved as quickly as he had hoped. He lived for a few months in the back bedroom of his parents' home in Gladewater before finding a place of his own to rent. He thought home ownership would come quicker, he said.
And some of the effects of his life in prison linger.
“Sometimes it’s just verbal sparring with somebody else, but sometimes the penitentiary will rear up in me,” Morton said.
He is also more aware of potentially dangerous people because of the years he spent among criminals.
“The wolves in sheep’s clothing are wandering through the flock,” he said. “I guess living with those guys kind of opened my eyes to them, and I can spot them a little earlier.”
But that time behind bars, he said, has made him appreciate the small sensory pleasures of freedom, like the cool autumn breeze wafting by as he fills his pickup with gas.
“I don’t want to forget it,” he said. “I want to remember that deprivation because that’s what makes the other things so good.”