The following editorial was published by the (Austin, TX) Statesman on March 30, 2012.
‘My life is great," Michael Morton told the American-Statesman's Chuck Lindell this week. "I have been blessed in a million ways, more than I can count."
It's hard to imagine how someone who spent almost 25 years wrongfully imprisoned can call life great and consider himself blessed, but in a two-part interview published Thursday and Friday by the Statesman, Morton consistently expresses an admirably wise perspective on life.
And it's clear reading Morton's story that his experience must lead to changes that hold prosecutors accountable for wrongful convictions.
Morton believes that prosecutorial misconduct by former Williamson County District Attorney Ken Anderson, who's now a district judge, led to his being convicted of killing his wife, Christine. This summer, a special court will explore whether Anderson hid evidence that could have prevented Morton's conviction. Anderson maintains he did nothing wrong.
No longer seen as "a murderous perv," as he phrased it, Morton is now a man praised for his perseverance through a nightmarish ordeal. From his interview with Lindell, and from video taken by the Statesman's Kelly West, it appears that Morton, 57, is coping very well with life outside prison. He is slowly rebuilding his relationship with his son, Eric, who was only 3 when his mother was murdered and who, until five months ago, thought of his father as his mom's killer.
In his interview with Lindell, Morton talks about the horror of the murder of his wife in August 1986 and the shock of being accused and, in February 1987, convicted of killing her. He discusses the years he spent in prison and how he maintained his innocence while trying to hold on to something positive to get him through the terrible days. He talks about the gradual loss of contact with his son, a religious moment that brought him strength during one of his darkest hours, and the long journey toward freedom and exoneration last fall.
Morton's journey toward freedom began in 2004 when the Innocence Project — a nonprofit group dedicated to using DNA technology to free wrongly convicted inmates — took on his case. John Raley ("Very few people can look to somebody and say that you owe your life to him," Morton says of the tireless Houston attorney) and the Innocence Project's Nina Morrison are the story's legal heroes.
Morton still would be in prison if Raley and the Innocence Project had not finally won, after six years of litigation, DNA testing on a blood-stained bandanna found near Morton's house. It remains incomprehensible that Williamson County District Attorney John Bradley fought DNA testing on the bandanna until ordered to so by an appeals court.
Once tested, Morton's innocence became clear. Christine Morton's DNA was on the bandanna; so, too, police say, was the DNA of Mark Alan Norwood, a man with a criminal history, including a charge of aggravated assault.
Norwood has since been charged with capital murder in Christine Morton's death. He also is a suspect in the 1988 killing of Debra Masters Baker, who, like Morton, was bludgeoned to death while she lay in bed.
Michael Morton's case must motivate the Legislature and State Bar to adopt prosecutorial reforms. One change Morton hopes will occur is simple and should be free of any controversy: Require prosecutors to sign an affidavit saying they've given defense attorneys all possibly exculpatory evidence. Failure to turn over evidence that might benefit a defendant should lead to a fine or, better yet, the loss of a prosecutor's law license.
Rules governing prosecutorial behavior should be expanded and strengthened. Procedures leading to the possible punishment of prosecutors in wrongful conviction cases can be clearly outlined and simplified. Perhaps even citizens outside the closed culture of a courthouse can be given a role in determining misconduct and punishment.
Morton's must be more than a story of justice delayed or derailed, of exoneration, reunion and redemption. It must also be a story of justice reformed.