Evidence of Innocence: The case of Michael Morton
“I did not do this,” Michael Morton said as he was led away in handcuffs, convicted of murdering his wife in 1987. Hardly anyone believed him. Now, after twenty five years in prison, Morton has been proven right and freed based on DNA tests. Morton and his lawyers say they recently discovered something astonishing: sitting in his prosecutor‘s file all those years was evidence that could have established Morton’s innocence during his trial.
The following script is from “Evidence of Innocence” which aired on March 25, 2012. Lara Logan is the correspondent. Andy Court and Anya Bourg, producers.
It’s not every day that a convicted murderer clears his name and then returns to court to argue that his prosecutor should be prosecuted. But that’s what happened recently in a high-profile case in Texas that raises broader questions about the power prosecutors have and what happens when they’re accused of misusing it. At the center of this story is a man named Michael Morton. He was once an ordinary citizen with a wife, a child, a job, and no criminal record whatsoever. But then he was sent to prison for life.
In 1987 in a very public trial, Michael Morton was convicted of brutally murdering his wife. As he was led away to prison, he insisted he was innocent.
[Michael Morton: I did not do this.
Reporter: I’m sorry what?
Michael Morton: I did not do this.]
Hardly anyone believed him until last year when he was exonerated by DNA testing. By then, he had spent nearly 25 years of his life behind bars.
Lara Logan: What was it like for you to walk from the court a free man?
Michael Morton: It was so alien at first. It wasn’t quite real. We stepped out of the courtroom and it was a beautiful sunny day. The sun felt so good on my face, on my skin. I can just feel like I was just drinking in the sunshine.
Lara Logan: Had you felt it in 25 years?
Michael Morton: I’d felt the sun, but I hadn’t felt free sun.
Lara Logan: And free sun feels different?
Michael Morton: It does. It sounds stupid, but it feels different.
His nightmare began on a summer afternoon in 1986 when he came home from work in Austin, Texas and found the sheriff at his house. A neighbor had discovered his 3-year-old son Eric alone in the yard, and his wife Christine bludgeoned to death in the bedroom.
Michael Morton: I didn’t really have the opportunity to grieve for her, because it– everything changed so rapidly away from her to me.
Lara Logan: So were you a suspect from the very first moment?
Michael Morton: Yeah, if– all the questions were adversarial, accusatory. It became clear to me that the sheriff showed up, looked around, and “Okay, husband did this.”
Lara Logan: And not long after that, you were arrested.
Michael Morton: About six weeks, yeah. They literally pulled my son out of my arms ’cause he was screaming for me. And, you know, the little hand is out. And they’re be– he’s being pulled away. That was one of the worst parts.
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The Innocence Project defended Morton in appealing his life sentence conviction. While testing a bloody bandanna found near the crime scene, the organization was able to match DNA evidence to a man with a criminal record in several states. Authorities have not identified the suspected perpetrator.
Paul Cates, a spokesman for the Innocence Project, told The Los Angeles Times that the organization is now working with the Williamson County district attorney’s office to investigate allegations that prosecutors suppressed evidence that could have cleared Morton years ago. For instance, Cates said there is evidence that someone cashed one of his wife’s checks and user her credit card while Morton was already incarcerated.
In addition, the Innocence Project reports the prosecution kept statements made by Christine Morton’s mother away from the defense. She had said Morton’s her grandson told her he watched his mother get killed and that it was not his father who did it.
Wrongful Accusation: Enormous Damage to One’s Life
Williamson County District Attorney John Bradley told the Austin-American Statesman that he will not file new charges against Morton.
Morton was released on Oct. 4 but was not formally cleared of all charges until Wednesday’s ruling.
Nina Morrison, another lawyer with the Innocence Project, told the Times that Morton is committed to discovering how he could have been wrongfully imprisoned for so long.
“He’s thrilled and relieved and looking forward to the next chapter in his life, but also still determined to get to the bottom of how and why he was wrongfully convicted in the first place and make sure it doesn’t happen to anyone else,” Morrison said. “There’s still a lot of unanswered questions and he very much wants answers.”
Morton on prison life: “It eats at you kind of like a rust.”
In 1987, Morton was convicted of beating his wife, Christine, to death. Twenty-five painful years later, he finally cleared his name through DNA evidence, walked out of prison, and began to pick up the pieces of his life.
For the 60 Minutes team who came to know Morton, one of the most emotional parts of this tragic tale was Morton’s estrangement from his son, who was just three at the time of the murder.
“The relationship between Michael Morton and his son, I think, transfixed all of us,” Court told Overtime. “The fact that this little boy saw his mother murdered…and then at the very point when the father needed the son and the son needed the father, they were ripped apart. The son was raised by relatives, no doubt thinking that his father had killed his mother. You can only imagine what it was like for the son to find out, “Oh my God, what people told me was wrong. Dad didn’t kill mom. Dad was an innocent man.”
In this week’s Overtime feature, Court, his co-producer Anya Bourg, and correspondent Lara Logan, tell us more about Morton, his relationship with his son, and his newborn grand-daughter, Christine.
What a shame. I seriously don’t know how some people sleep at night knowing they are playing with others lives. Friends, we have some innocent people sitting in our prisons right here in Montana.