Thirty years ago, a Williamson County murder set in motion a shoddy prosecution — one in which ignored witness accounts and withheld evidence led to the conviction of an innocent man.
Michael Morton spent 25 years in prison for his wife's bludgeoning death before DNA analysis finally freed him, a miscarriage in justice that still reverberates through the state's criminal cases.
Christine Morton was beaten to death in their family home on Aug. 13, 1986. Michael Morton should never have been a key suspect: He had left for work early that morning. The couple's three-year-old son Eric, who witnessed the murder, described a man who looked nothing like his father. Neighbors had reported a man lurking in the neighborhood. A canceled check made out to Christine Morton was cashed with a forged signature after her death, and her credit card was used fraudulently in San Antonio.
But police pointed to Michael Morton anyway, and Williamson County District Attorney Ken Anderson was adamant he had his guy — a jilted man he believed had punished his wife for not agreeing to have sex the night before.
Morton insisted he did not kill his wife, but a jury sentenced him to life in prison.
Throughout his decades in lock-up, Morton lost the confidence of his in-laws and watched his relationship with his son disintegrate; the boy was raised believing his father had killed his mother. Morton was particularly dismayed by how the ordeal affected his parents, who never questioned his innocence.
"I could see how helpless they were to help me. They felt horrible. They were just, they were adrift," Morton said in an interview with The Texas Tribune this summer. "We spent all of our money. We were asking for help from any quarter, and they just watched me as the years go by."
Being a father himself put his parents' grief in perspective.
"I try to imagine watching my son turn gray in the penitentiary," he said. "It deepened our relationship, and it made it more nuanced and more — it made the bond more powerful, stronger. Their joy was indescribable when I got out. I think they were happier than I was."
Clearing his name
It took 20 years of waiting and fighting for Morton to clear his name. In 2008, signs of a botched case emerged, when Morton and his lawyers first learned of Eric's description of his mother's killer, the check and the credit card use.
In 2011, DNA testing of a bloody bandana found near the crime scene revealed Christine Morton's blood and the DNA of another man — not Morton. That same year, the DNA was matched to Mark Alan Norwood, who had a criminal past including drug possession, assault and burglary charges in California and Texas.
From there, the case against Morton unraveled. After getting a file unsealed that contained an investigator's reports on the murder, Morton and his legal team discovered that many of the notes – including information about the lurking man and the details about credit card and check fraud – were missing.
The district attorney's office had withheld it. Morton was released from prison.
Shortly after Morton's release, the tables turned on his prosecutor. An investigation into Anderson — who was then a Williamson County state district judge — began. In 2013, Anderson resigned his post, lost his license to practice law and was sentenced to 10 days in jail. That same year, Gov. Rick Perry signed into law what's known as the Michael Morton Act, which requires prosecutors to share their case files and all relevant documents and evidence with defendants.
State Sen. Rodney Ellis, D-Houston, was a co-author of that legislation.
"Michael's willingness to use the tragedy he endured to advance change was key to bringing about needed reform to our justice system," Ellis said in a statement. "The Legislature had tried and failed to bring more fairness and transparency to the discovery process for years, and Michael's work and dedication to fixing our broken system helped move us forward.”
Morton quickly became the public face of prosecutorial reform, speaking shortly after his bill's signing to the Texas District and County Attorneys Association. Morton's address followed "a very significant moment for our profession," said Rob Kepple, the association's executive director.
"It was a tremendously gracious and moving and compelling talk," Kepple said. "And I think prosecutors really took his message to heart about needing to be good prosecutors, because it is an important job, but also needing to make sure that we were doing it the right way and we were being fair."
Morton harbors no animosity toward law enforcement — they're the good guys, he says — but warns anyone who will listen to get legal representation the moment they're fingered.
"The vast majority of us have never had, probably will never have, a serious interaction with the police," he said.
And while Morton wants to see more Michael Morton Acts throughout the country, his first priority is ensuring every state has a fair compensation package for people imprisoned for crimes they did not commit.
Texas’ compensation program — generally a lump sum payment of $80,000 for each year spent behind bars, plus monthly annuity payments — is among the most generous in the nation. The Texas policy is based on the Tim Cole Act, legislation enacted in 2009 and named after a former Texas Tech University student wrongfully convicted of aggravated sexual assault in 1985.
When he lobbies for fair compensation nationally, "I love reminding people that Texas has the most generous and comprehensive compensation package for its exonerees than any state in the country," Morton said. "Nobody comes close. And I love the looks on the faces, especially the looks from the Northeast, when I tell them surely they can do as good as Texas."
A relatable case
Morton's case resonated deeply with Texans, and that, he says, is because it seemed relatable.
"They just see it as a nightmare," he said. "... I was just some guy living in the suburbs. Just like them. Married with a kid. Had a job. Had a mortgage."
Barry Scheck, co-founder of the Innocence Project, which worked on Morton's case, said Morton's faith and resilience were inspiring — but that everyone who worked on the case also came to care deeply for Christine Morton.
"Everybody looks at these cases, and people understandably feel terrible for crime victims, but Michael was both an innocent person wrongly convicted and a crime victim as well," Scheck said. "He lost his wife, who he loved dearly, and then lost his child for many, many years. And that is unspeakably cruel."
Since being freed, Morton has found love again, marrying his wife Cynthia in 2013. He also mended his relationship with his son.
"He had spent much of his life believing that I was this monster that killed his mother ... He completely had to reinterpret who he thought I was and what he knew," Morton said. "And I was quite amazed at the speed at which he did it."
Though the past 30 years have been a rollercoaster, to say the least, Morton says adversity is what lets you know you're alive.
"Everybody goes through some sort of trial sooner or later," he said. "Our trials are what form us. In a way, you can look at it and say these trials are necessary."
Check out a timeline of events in the Michael Morton case, and read more of the Tribune's coverage of wrongful convictions:
- Texas has paid 101 men and women who were wrongfully sent to prison $93.6 million over the past 25 years, state data shows. The tab stands to grow as those wrongfully imprisoned individuals age and more people join the list.
- Freed after a decade on Texas death row for a murder he says he didn't commit, Alfred Dewayne Brown thinks he's entitled to compensation from the state, but Comptroller Glenn Hegar is saying no.
- Although a Dallas County district judge decided he was innocent eight years ago, Ben Spencer remains behind bars for a 1987 aggravated robbery he insists he did not commit.
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