Michael Morton (criminal justice)
Michael Morton at the LBJ Presidential Library
|Born||August 12, 1954|
|Known for||Miscarriage of justice|
|Criminal charge||Murder; 1987|
|Criminal status||Released October 2011; Exonerated December 2011|
|Spouse(s)||Christine Morton, deceased; Cynthia May Chessman|
Michael Morton (born August 12, 1954) is an American who was wrongfully convicted in 1987 in a Williamson County, Texas court of the 1986 murder of his wife Christine Morton. He spent nearly 25 years in prison before he was exonerated by DNA evidence which supported his claim of innocence and pointed to the crime being committed by another individual. Morton was released from prison on October 4, 2011; the prosecutor was convicted of contempt of court for withholding evidence after the judge had ordered its release to the defense.[permanent dead link]
Conviction, DNA testing and acquittal
Morton was arrested and charged with beating his wife to death in 1986. He was convicted in 1987 and sentenced to life in prison. Pro bono civil attorney John Raley of Houston, Texas, together with Nina Morrison of the New York-based Innocence Project, filed Morton's motion for DNA testing in February 2005. In 2010, Morton was offered parole if he expressed remorse over murdering his wife. Raley told the Texas Tribune about the conversation he had with Morton on the subject:
"...Michael said that he understood that he would be paroled if he only showed remorse for his crime. And I said, 'What are you going to do?' I didn't feel like I could advise him on that because, I mean, you know [it had been] 23 years now. I don't think anybody would have blamed him if he said, 'I'm really sorry, let me go.'
But Michael is a man of great integrity, and he would not lie to get out of prison.
And he said, 'All I have left is my actual innocence, and if I have to be in prison the rest of my life, I'm not giving that up.'...And I said, 'Michael, I promise you, I will never quit.'"
Raley and Morrison relentlessly sought a court order for DNA testing in state and federal courts until the testing was finally achieved in June, 2011. Williamson County District Attorney John Bradley "tenaciously fought" against DNA testing for six years before a judge finally ordered the tests.
Release of Morton, conviction of Mark Alan Norwood
Morton was freed on October 4, 2011 (and formally acquitted by Bexar County District Judge Sid Harle on December 19, 2011) after DNA tests linked another man, Mark Alan Norwood, to Christine Morton's murder. Norwood, a Bastrop dishwasher who lived in Austin in the mid-1980s, was charged and, on March 27, 2013, convicted and sentenced to life imprisonment for the 1986 murder of Christine Morton. In September 2016 he was convicted in a separate case for the 1988 murder of Debra Baker in her Austin home. Both women were beaten to death in their beds.
The Innocence Project subsequently filed a motion to remove Bradley from further court proceedings, but stopped pursuing it after Bradley agreed to dismiss the indictment against Morton, which allowed Morton to collect compensation. Under Texas law, he became eligible to receive a lump sum based on the number of years served in prison, plus a lifetime annuity of $80,000 per year, as well as job training and educational aid.
Arrest and imprisonment of prosecutor Ken Anderson
On November 16, 2011, Morton's original prosecutor, Ken Anderson, told reporters: "I want to formally apologize for the system's failure to Mr. Morton. In hindsight, the verdict was wrong." Baker's daughter said she was unmoved by Anderson's apology and held him partially responsible for her mother's death because he and investigators allowed a killer to escape detection by focusing so intently on Morton. "It's harder for me to hear him not holding himself accountable. He's not taking responsibility," she said.
The same day as Morton's formal acquittal, Morton's attorneys (including Raley, Morrison, Barry Scheck of the Innocence Project, and Gerald Goldstein and Cynthia Orr of San Antonio) asked Harle to order a "court of inquiry" into the actions of Anderson, who was then a district judge in Williamson County. A court of inquiry is a special court that investigates allegations of misconduct by elected officials in Texas. Morton has accused Anderson of failing to provide defense lawyers with exculpatory evidence indicating that another man might have killed Morton's wife, including information that his 3-year-old son witnessed the murder and said his dad was not home at the time. Morton's attorneys discovered this evidence while preparing a final appeal, and were able to get Anderson and others involved in the investigation deposed under oath.
On February 20, 2012, Harle asked the Texas Supreme Court to convene a court of inquiry, finding that there was evidence to support Morton's contention that Anderson had tampered with evidence and should have been held in contempt of court for not complying with the trial judge's order to let him review all possible exculpatory evidence. The court of inquiry began on February 4, 2013. On April 19, 2013, the court of inquiry ordered Anderson to be arrested, saying "This court cannot think of a more intentionally harmful act than a prosecutor's conscious choice to hide mitigating evidence so as to create an uneven playing field for a defendant facing a murder charge and a life sentence." Anderson responded by claiming immunity from any prosecution under the expiry of applicable statutes of limitation. On September 23, 2013, Anderson resigned from his position as district court judge.
On November 8, 2013, Anderson was found to be in contempt of court by 9th Judicial District Judge Kelly Moore. Anderson pled no contest to the charges as part of a plea bargain. He was sentenced to 10 days in county jail, and was ordered to report to jail no later than December 2, 2013. He received credit for one day he spent in jail in April 2013, when he was arrested following the court of inquiry. He was also fined $500, and ordered to perform 500 hours of community service. He agreed to give up his license to practice law in exchange for having the charges of evidence tampering dropped. He will be eligible to apply to have his law license reinstated after five years. On November 15, 2013, Anderson was released from jail after having served five days of his 10-day sentence; he was released early after receiving credit for good behavior.
After the plea agreement was announced, it was publicly revealed that Williamson County District Attorney Jana Duty agreed to authorize an independent review of every case that Anderson ever prosecuted, along with every case in which Bradley successfully opposed DNA testing.
The Michael Morton Act: Texas Senate Bill 1611
On May 16, 2013, Governor of Texas Rick Perry signed Texas Senate Bill 1611, also called the Michael Morton Act, into law. The Act is designed to ensure a more open discovery process. The bill's open file policy removes barriers for accessing evidence. Morton was present for the signing of the bill, which became law on September 1, 2013.
In popular media
A novel based on the case, entitled Depraved Prosecution, was published in July 2012 by Kurt Johnson, a writer living in Williamson County; in the novel the fictional location of "Wiyamsun County" is the setting.[permanent dead link]
The Morton case is also depicted in a 2013 documentary film, An Unreal Dream: The Michael Morton Story, directed by Al Reinert. The film was featured on CNN Films December 8, 2013 and re-aired throughout the month. It is currently available for viewing on Amazon Prime.
Mr. Morton's memoir, Getting Life: An Innocent Man's 25-Year Journey from Prison to Peace, was released nationwide on July 8, 2014.
- List of miscarriage of justice cases
- List of wrongful convictions in the United States
- Overturned convictions in the United States
- Cameron Todd Willingham
- Clarence Elkins
- David Camm
- Ryan Ferguson
- "Michael Morton". Houston Chronicle. Retrieved 2018-02-27.
- Lindell, Chuck (2013-11-08). "Ken Anderson to Serve 10 Days in Jail".
- "The Honorable Kelly G. Moore". Texas State Directory Online. 2016-12-21.
- Colloff, Pamela (December 2012). "The Innocent Man, Part Two". Texas Monthly. Retrieved November 16, 2012.
- Grissom, Brandi (12 January 2012). "John Raley: The TT Interview". The Texas Tribune. The Texas Tribune. Retrieved 25 November 2017.
- "A Tough Prosecutor Finds His Certitude Shaken by a Prisoner's Exoneration". Texas Tribune. 2011-11-18.
- Inquiry sought for Texas prosecutor over wrongful conviction (Los Angeles Times, December 20, 2011)
- Mark Norwood found guilty of 2nd murder, sentenced to life, KXAN, 23 September 2016
- Tab for wrongful convictions in Texas: $65 million and counting
- Michael Morton Goes Free After Nearly 25 Years in Prison, Exonerated for Wife's Murder - ABC News
- Former prosecutor apologizes to wrongfully convicted man - Austin American-Statesman
- 60 Minutes to spotlight Morton case Sunday - Houston Chronicle
- Exonerated Williamson County man to appear on "60 Minutes" - Austin American-Statesman
- Michael Morton's lawyers aim to prove misconduct - Austin American-Statesman
- "60 Minutes" to Feature Michael Morton on Sunday - Texas Tribune
- Austin American-Statesman, 2013-02-03.
- Lindell, Chuck (2013-04-19). "Ken Anderson Court of Inquiry Resumes". Austin American-Statesman.
- Chamma, Maurice. Anderson Appeals, Citing Statute of Limitations. Texas Tribune, 2013-04-23.
- Stutzman, Brad (2013-11-08). "Anderson gets 10 days in jail, disbarment pending".
- How Ken Anderson was released after only five days in jail
- Jail Time May Be the Least of Ken Anderson's Problems - Texas Monthly
- "Gov. Perry Signs Senate Bill 1611, The Michael Morton Act". Vote Smart. Retrieved 23 April 2017.
- Freedom after nearly 25 years of wrongful imprisonment - CBS News
- "Exonerated After 25 Years: A Murder Conviction Overturned". Archived from the original on 2013-02-08. Retrieved 2013-04-12.
- Buchholz, Brad. Michael Morton documentary is a reflection of grace. Austin American-Statesman, 2013-03-07.
- CNN Films: An Unreal Dream - CNN
- Michael Morton's home page
- Michael Morton's Quora page
- Texas Man Freed After Serving Nearly 25 Years for Murdering His Wife That New DNA Evidence Shows He Didn't Commit at the Innocence Project at the Library of Congress Web Archives (archived 2013-09-05)
- Freedom after nearly 25 years of wrongful imprisonment at 60 Minutes
- Michael Morton Case (Williamson County Sun) at the Wayback Machine (archived 2012-03-30)
- Free After 25 Years: A Tale Of Murder And Injustice (NPR WEE-Sat 28APR2012)
- Long-form exposé, with extensive, detailed background information: The Innocent Man (Texas Monthly, November 2012)
- Truth finally sets Texas inmate free (Houston Chronicle, 09 October 2011)
- Morton free; now State Bar must act (Austin American-Statesman Editorial Board, Oct. 8, 2011)
- Editorial: In murder exoneration, a revived debate (Dallas Morning News, 09 October 2011)
- Michael Morton documentary is a reflection of grace (Austin American-Statesman, 07 March 2013)