The following opinion by Tony Freemantle was published by the Houston Chronicle on February 1, 2013.
If it could happen to Michael Morton, it could happen to anyone.
He was sentenced to life in prison and served nearly 25 years before he managed to prove he didn’t do it. Relative to the millions serving time in U.S. prisons, the number of people exonerated for crimes they did not commit is small. But it continues to grow. Most troubling is that this relatively small number of exonerations points to a potentially huge unseen number of people who have been wrongfully convicted.
False convictions occur for a number of reasons: Victims identify the wrong person; prosecutors withhold exculpatory evidence from the accused; false or misleading forensic evidence points to the wrong person; defendants receive inadequate legal representation; witnesses perjure themselves.
In May, the National Registry of Exonerations, a joint project of the University of Michigan Law School and the Center on Wrongful Convictions at Northwestern University School of Law, released its first report analyzing 873 exonerations between January 1989 and February 2012. (Since then, the number of identified exonerations in the registry has grown to 1,050, and more are added almost daily.)
In the 873 cases that were studied, the registry found the most common reasons for wrongful conviction were perjuryor false accusation (51 percent), mistaken witness identification (43 percent) and official misconduct (42 percent).
Ninety-three percent of those exonerated were men, 50 percent were black, 38 percent were white and 11 percent were Hispanic. DNA evidence helped clear 37 percent of them.
In total they spent more than 10,000 years in prison for crimes they did not commit.
While stark and sobering in and of themselves, the statistics don’t begin to describe the human tragedy of wrongful convictions.
Michael Morton was about as “Average Joe” as you can get. He and his wife Christine owned a house in a suburban subdivision in northwest Austin. He worked as the toiletries and housewares manager at a Safeway; she worked as a manager at Allstate; together they cared for their only son, Eric.
On the morning of Aug. 13, 1986, the day after his 32nd birthday, Morton woke before dawn and left for work. When he returned that afternoon, his house was wrapped in crime scene tape, Eric was with a neighbor, Christine lay dead on their water bed, and the sheriff of Williamson County already was convinced that Morton beat his wife to death in a rage because she would not have sex with him.
A jury found him guilty and sentenced him to life. He was released on Oct. 4, 2011, only after a protracted battle by the Innocence Project and Houston attorney John Raley to have a bloody bandana found near the crime scene tested for DNA.
Christine’s DNA was found on the bandana; Michael’s was not. But there was the DNA of another man, a felon named Mark Alan Norwood. A search of the FBI’s DNA database linked Norwood to another, similar murder in Austin of Debra Baker in January 1988.
Norwood is about to go to trial, and a special court of inquiry is investigating whether Ken Anderson, the Williamson County district attorney who prosecuted Morton and who is now a state district judge, committed a crime by withholding evidence from Morton’s attorneys.
Like many exonerated convicts, Morton displays no bitterness or anger at what happened to him. Instead he has set about repairing the relationship with his son and is working with state lawmakers to make sure that what happened to him does not happen to anyone else.
And then, he says, he’ll buy a place “out West,” and listen to the solitude.
The ripples of tragedy spread in widening, concentric circles from the center of a wrongful conviction.
The stories of each of the 20 men and women in these pages, are, like DNA, uniquely their own. But the one thing they have in common is that their lives and the lives of their families, the jurors who convicted them, the judges who presided over their conviction, and the witnesses or victims who got it wrong, were irrevocably altered.
Michele Mallin was a 24-year-old student at Texas Tech in Lubbock in March 1985 when she was abducted at knifepoint by a black man wearing a yellow shirt and sandals and raped in a field outside of town.
Police showed her six pictures to see if she could identify her attacker — five photos in black and white of men in profile, and one color Polaroid of Timothy Cole, a black, 26-year-old Army veteran and business student. “That’s him,” she said.
She was wrong. Cole was convicted and sentenced to 25 years in prison, where he died in 1999 unaware that another man had confessed to Mallin’s rape and that his confessions had been ignored. Posthumous DNA testing by the Innocence project cleared Cole, and he was granted a full pardon on March 1, 2010.
Mallin now devotes her time to writing and raising awareness about mistaken witness identification.
Cole’s case prompted the state to enact legislation in his name to increase the wrongful imprisonment compensation to $80,000 for each year of confinement. It was a big step; Texas is one of only 27 states that has such a law. To date, Texas has paid 87 exonerees a total of more than $58 million.
But to be eligible for compensation, a person must be officially found innocent.
Some, like George Rodriguez, who was wrongfully convicted of the sexual assault of a child, instead decided to sue the City of Houston over the botched forensic evidence that helped convict him. The city fought back and seven years after his exoneration, during which time he had to borrow money from his attorneys to buy a couch, he finally settled the case for $3.1 million.
Others, like Joyce Ann Brown of Dallas, haven’t received a dime. Brown, wrongfully convicted of the robbery and murder of a fur store owner, served nine years of a life sentence before being freed.
Compensation, however, does little to repair the damage done by sending an innocent person to jail.
James Curtis Giles was sentenced to 30 years for the gang rape of a pregnant 18-year-old woman in Dallas in 1983. He was paroled 10 years later and placed on probation for 20 years, during which he had to register as a sex offender. In 2007, post-conviction DNA testing cleared him.
Giles received nearly $1.2 million in compensation from the state, but it did little to help him heal from the trauma of 10 years in prison and 14 as a pariah on the outside.
“A billion dollars can’t bring those 120 months back that I’ve been in prison,” said Giles after his exoneration. “Every day I got up knowing I had to register as a sex offender once a year, knowing that a sex offender was the scum of the earth. They watch you, look at you, even if you didn’t do it.”