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The Innocence Project - When the Legal System Breaks Down

Updated on October 10, 2014
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He was 32 years old on August 13, 1986, when he picked up his three-year-old son from day care on his way home from work. He knew something was strange when the babysitter said the child wasn't there and asked him what he was doing there. Concerned, he called home to speak to his wife. The phone was answered by the county sheriff, who told him to come home immediately.

Michael Morton's wife had been brutally murdered, bludgeoned to death with a blunt instrument. When a person is found murdered at home, basic police work requires a focus on the spouse. According to Morton, "In my mind, I knew that, OK, he's doing his job. You have to eliminate the suspects, so he's got to tick off these certain questions and get rid of me as a suspect and get on with this thing." Morton never thought to ask for a lawyer. He wanted to be helpful to find the killer.

Williamson, Texas County Sheriff Jim Boutwell was convinced he had found his man.

Michael Morton was tried and convicted of murder the following year and sentenced to life in prison. He would spend the next 25 years in prison for the crime.

But there was a problem. Morton was innocent.

The Evidence Ignored - The Evidence Concealed

Sheriff Boutwell had made up his mind, and he wasn't about to let minor things like exculpatory evidence ruin his case. Neither did the prosecutor, District Attorney Ken Anderson. Let's take a look at some of the evidence that the police and prosecutors ignored or covered up.

  • There was a blood soaked bandana lying in the backyard of the residence. A deputy looked at it and ignored it. Fortunately it was retrieved by Morton's brother in law that afternoon and turned it in, only to have it still ignored.
  • Little Eric, almost four-years-old told his grandmother that "a monster" beat his mother and threw a suitcase on top of her, a truth that the cops ignored. When questioned, Eric said that only he, his mother and the monster were present. The prosecution refused to allow this testimony.
  • There were fingerprints, later proven to be those of the killer, on the door as well as on the suitcase on top of Christine.
  • A neighbor reported that a green van had driven around the neighborhood and its driver appeared to be casing the Morton home.
  • Two days after the murder Christine's credit card was used in San Antonio. When the San Antonio police contacted the Williamson County Sheriff's office to report this fact, their phone calls were not even returned. So a woman is murdered and her credit card is used two days later and the lead was not pursued.

Not only was all of this evidence ignored, it was withheld from the defense lawyers and the judge. Over the years repeated efforts to have a DNA test were ignored. Finally, in 2011 a Texas appellate court ordered that the bloody bandana go through DNA testing. It did, and the prosecution's lies exploded. The blood on the bandana was that of Christine Morton - and the real killer Mark Alan Norwood. Norwood was a dishwasher from Austin. He had a long criminal rap sheet. It gets worse.

Another Murder

About a year after Christine Morton's murder another woman, Debra Baker, was found bludgeoned to death in her bed. Spurred by Michael Morton's lawyers, a DNA comparison was made from the scene of that murder to the scene of the Morton murder. It matched. The DNA was from Mark Alan Norwood. Thanks to the Williamson County sheriff and prosecutors another woman lost her life. Norwood was found guilty of the Morton slaying and is now serving a life term in prison. Michael Morton and Debra Baker's widower Phillip Baker became friends.

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The Innocence Project

It's often said that it's the system's job to find justice, while it is the lawyer's job to represent his or her client. But the lawyers who work with the Innocence Project are motivated by one thing: justice. The Innocence Project was founded in 1992 by New York attorney Barry Scheck and a professor at the Benjamin N. Cardozo School of Law. Their aim was to help prisoners who may be innocent to prove it through DNA testing. Since they began, 300 prisoners have been proven innocent, including 18 who served time on death row. They served an average time of 13 years in prison before they were exonerated.

The Innocence Project is a nonprofit organization, still closely associated with the Benjamin N. Cardozo School of Law. 45% of its funding is from individuals, 30% from foundations, 15% from an annual benefit dinner, 7% from the Cardozo School of Law and most of the rest from various corporations. You can donate on the Innocence Project website.

The Prosecutor May Go to Jail

Ken Anderson, the man who prosecuted Michael Morton went on to become a judge in 2002. At the urging of the lawyers from The Innocence Project as well as other pro bono attorneys who helped on the case, a court of inquiry was formed to investigate Anderson's conduct. On April 19, 2013 he was ordered arrested for tampering with physical evidence, a felony punishable by up to 10 years in prison, for concealing documents to make them unavailable as evidence; and for tampering with a government record, a misdemeanor that carries up to a year in jail, and for concealing official reports. According to Judge Louis Sturns, who presided over the court of inquiry: “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.”

Michael Morton's New Life of Freedom

Morton spent almost half his life in prison. His son stopped visiting him in prison when Eric turned 12. At the age of 18 he changed his last name. Now 29, Eric and his dad have reunited. He was released from prison on October 4, 2011. Michael married Cynthia Chessman in March 2013. He volunteers time with The Innocence Project.

On May 16, 2013 Texas Governor Rick Perry signed into law The Michael Morton Act. The new law opens up the discovery process in Texas, making it more transparent and avoids the injustice that fell upon Michael Morton.

Copyright © 2014 by Russell F. Moran

The writer of the article is also the author of the book Justice in America: How it Works - How it Fails

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    • billybuc profile image

      Bill Holland 4 years ago from Olympia, WA

      I've read quite a bit about the Innocence Project over the years. Great work those people are doing and very necessary work. Well done, Russ; thanks for shedding light on this agency.

    • rfmoran profile image
      Author

      Russ Moran 4 years ago from Long Island, New York

      Thanks Bill. Check out the 60 minutes segment - It will bring tears to you eyes.

    • Conservative Lady profile image

      Sheila 4 years ago from Surprise Arizona - formerly resided in Washington State

      Very interesting story - I am so glad that the truth finally came out in this case. It is a blessing to have groups like the Innocence Project out there to help innocent people regain their freedom.

    • rfmoran profile image
      Author

      Russ Moran 4 years ago from Long Island, New York

      Thanks Lady. They are indeed a great group of people.

    • Kenja profile image

      Ken Taub 4 years ago from Long Island, NY

      They need at least 3 Innocence Projects operating in Texas; it was just announced yesterday that they executed their 500th person over the last 31 years. Of all capital punishment executions in the entire country, Texas happily engages in 40% of them!

      So one has to ask: of the 500 people put to death, how many were actually innocent? 5? 25? More?

      What was Jack Nicholson's character, detective Jake Gettes, told at the end of one his classic roles -- "Forget it Jake, it's Chinatown." One might want to say a similar thing about Texas. Too many yahoos who forget this is the 21st century, and that the Wild West was half myth, not to mention 135 years ago.

      Good article Russ, but then most of your pieces as as solid as granite.

    • forbcrin profile image

      Crin Forbes 4 years ago from Michigan

      A few years back, police crime lab in Detroit was shut down because it was discovered they fabricated evidence and falsified the records. Because of that, all cases than went through the lab and were decided based on their found evidence are up for review. There still are people in jail convicted basically by the work of the lab, and a lot of money is spent to review them. A few cases were solved and a few innocent people were released.

      The problem was mostly because those people did not have money for hot-shot lawyers, while the DA office had unlimited resources to prosecute. Right now legislation is introduced in Michigan to enable the Public Defender's office more financial resources to by up to par with the D's office.

      Besides the prosecutor's job in America today is not to protect the public, but to convict as many people as possible to secure a place on the bench or in the legislator.

      I my case we found out exculpatory evidence, but because the lawyer missed it the DA got her case. The judge refused to admit it, and the appellate court did not want to bother. The Supreme Court of Wisconsin refused to hear the case. It was a typical 4th Amendment case, caused mainly by the events on the 9/11 and the fact that I am a naturalized citizen. I had the wrong accent at the wrong time.

      The system is broken and it will take a long time to fix it. The innocence project is a dream come true for innocent people, however they can't do too much until most of the times is too late. Besides, most of those doing the work are students, who are not resigned yet to the corrupt system.

      The DA in my case is a judge right now, and only God knows how many innocent people she sent to jail.

      The judge by now is probably retired enjoying a retirement mad from fifteen years as a prosecutor and only God knows how many years as a judge.

      But we deserve our judicial system, because we don't do anything to change it!!!

      America has less than one fifth of China's population. I am speaking about Communist China were there still is political oppression and people are in prison for ideological reasons. Yet China has about four hundred thousands inmates, while America has 1.2 million... out of which 25 % according to some statistics are innocent. They are in jail because of the corrupt judges, district attorney and incompetent lawyers that the poor people can afford.

    • Dennis AuBuchon profile image

      Dennis AuBuchon 3 years ago

      Thanks for writing this hub and talking about the Innocent project. It is a great thing that this organization exist and is a credit to getting so many released from prison for doing a crime they did not commit. I voted up, awesome and interesting along with pinning and tweeting.

    • rfmoran profile image
      Author

      Russ Moran 3 years ago from Long Island, New York

      Thanks for your visit and your comments, Dennis. This is a great outfit.

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