The Innocence Project - When the Legal System Breaks Down
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.
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.
Do You Think DNA Testing should be allowed even after a person is found guilty?
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