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Free After 25 Years: A Tale Of Murder And Injustice

Michael Morton is taken back to jail in February 1987 by Sgt. Don Wood (left) and Sheriff Jim Boutwell (right) after he was convicted of his wife's murder.
Courtesy of The Williamson County Sun
Michael Morton is taken back to jail in February 1987 by Sgt. Don Wood (left) and Sheriff Jim Boutwell (right) after he was convicted of his wife's murder.

The past few years in Texas have seen a parade of DNA exonerations: more than 40 men so far. The first exonerations were big news, but the type has grown smaller as Texans have watched a dismaying march of exonerees, their wasted years haunting the public conscience.

Yet a case in Williamson County, just north of Austin, is raising the ante. Michael Morton had been sentenced to life in prison for murdering his wife. He was released six months ago — 25 years after being convicted — when DNA testing proved he was not the killer.

Instead of merely seeking financial compensation, Morton is working to fix the system. His lawyers, including The Innocence Project, want to hold the man who put him behind bars accountable. They also want new laws to make sure Morton's story is never repeated.

The Day Of The Murder

On the morning of Aug. 13, 1986, Morton was getting ready for work as head of the pharmacy department at a nearby Safeway in Austin. He closed the door to his home, blissfully unaware that the next time he saw his wife of seven years she would be in a coffin. Morton had nine hours of his normal life left. The clock ran out after work, when he arrived to pick up his son from day care.

"First time I figured something was up was when I locked eyes with the baby sitter," he says. "She looked at me real weird, like, 'What are you doing here? Eric's not here, why are you here?' "

Morton was immediately worried and called home. The man who answered was Williamson County Sheriff Jim Boutwell. The sheriff refused to answer Morton's questions and told him to come home immediately. Morton drove there in a panic.

"There were a lot of cars in the street. There was a big yellow crime-scene ribbon around our house," he says. "Neighbors were across the street, clustered on the corner ... talking to each other, and of course, when my truck comes racing up, they all kind of key on me."

Boutwell met Morton outside the front door and, in front of everyone, bluntly told him Christine Morton was dead, murdered in their bedroom. Morton reeled.

"You really don't know how you're going to react until it happens to you, and with me, I remember it was as if I was ... falling inside myself," he says.

Morton was stunned, nearly mute, which fueled the sheriff's suspicions and became a major prosecution touchstone at his trial. The fact that Morton didn't cry out or weep became evidence that he didn't love his wife and had killed her.

Boutwell took Morton into the living room, his wife's body still down the hall. For the next four hours, Morton answered every question the sheriff could think of and never once asked for a lawyer.

"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,' " he says.

The 'Evidence'

Morton was wrong. Boutwell had already decided that Morton was his No. 1 one suspect. The previous day had been Morton's birthday, and the family had gone out for a nice dinner. After getting home and putting Eric to bed, Morton was hoping for a "happy ending" with his wife. That's not what happened, though, and Morton's feelings were hurt. He wrote her something the next morning before he left for work.

"Chris, I know you didn't mean to, but you made me feel really unwanted last night. After a good meal, we came home, you binged on the rest of the cookies, then you farted and fell asleep. I'm not mad. I just wanted you to know how I feel without us getting into a fight about sex. Just think how you'd feel if you were left hanging on your birthday. I love you."

This note, left on the couple's bathroom mirror, turned out to be Morton's doom.

Williamson County District Attorney Ken Anderson used it to weave a sensational tale of unspeakable violence. In Anderson's version of the crime, Morton used a wooden club to viciously bludgeon his wife's head because she wouldn't have sex with him. Then, in triumph over her body, he pleasured himself. The mild-mannered pharmacy manager was transformed into a sexually sick, murderous psychopath.

It was all a prosecutorial fantasy; none of it was true. Yet Anderson pounded his fists into his hands and wept to the jury as he described Morton's perversity. Compared with this vivid picture of the crime, Morton's defense didn't have a lot to offer.

"The defense was that [Morton] didn't do it, and we don't know who did it. But whoever did it snuck in and committed a really vicious, vicious murder," says Bill Anderson, now a criminal law professor at the University of Texas who was Morton's lawyer in 1986. "And that is very frightening. A jury, by convicting [Morton], makes themselves safe. They've solved the case and they can go on about their business."

What the jury and the defense lawyers didn't know about was the evidence that had been concealed by Williamson County law enforcement. Only the sheriff's office and the district attorney knew about it.

Undisclosed Information

For the past eight years, John Raley, of the Houston firm Raley & Bowick, has spent thousands of hours pro bono as Morton's lawyer. "There were fingerprints on the sliding glass door, and there were fingerprints on the luggage that was piled on Christine Morton's body," he says. That's not all: A neighbor told police that she'd seen a man in a green van casing the Morton home. Repeatedly.

"The neighbors report that they had seen a strange van driving around the neighborhood, stopping around the Morton house. The man in the van would drive around back to the wooded area and walk into the wooded area in back," Raley says. "The interesting thing is, it's around that area where the bandanna that contains the DNA was eventually found."

A bloody bandanna had been found by a deputy behind the Morton home. Incredibly, the sheriff's office decided to ignore it and left it lying on the ground.

Leads Not Followed

Raley says the evidence trail got even hotter.

"On Aug. 15, 1986, the Williamson County Sheriff's Office was contacted by San Antonio police regarding an attempted use of Christine's credit card at a place called the Jewel Box in San Antonio, Texas," he says. "It was used under fraudulent circumstances."

This information should have had Williamson County investigators scrambling to San Antonio. After all, Christine Morton's purse was missing. This was possible evidence of capital murder, since murdering in the commission of another crime brings the possibility of the death penalty.

However, the Williamson County Sheriff's Department never even bothered to return the San Antonio Police Department's call. In a note found 25 years later in the sheriff's file, a deputy mocked the notion that Christine's purse really had been stolen, writing, "'Course, we know better."

This determined avoidance of inconvenient evidence was complete the next day, when the Mortons' son, Eric, who was almost 4, privately told Christine Morton's mother what happened the morning of the murder. Eric told his grandmother that a "monster" came into the house, that the monster was big and angry, that he hurt his mother and his mother was crying.

Raley says the boy described the scene in vivid detail, saying the monster was mad and put a blue suitcase on his mom.

"Which, of course, is exactly the way they found her," Raley says.

Shaken, Rita Kirkpatrick asked Eric if his father had been there when this happened.

"No, just Mommy and Eric was there," he said.

Kirkpatrick believed her grandson completely. His details were horrifyingly accurate. She called the sheriff's department about her conversation.

"You need to get off this domestic violence thing. There is a monster out there," she said.

The deputy who took her call told Kirkpatrick not to tell anyone else about her conversation with Eric and to keep Eric quiet too. Morton was the murderer — they were confident. So Kirkpatrick kept quiet, and she kept Eric quiet too.

'Completely Without Hope'

From the tip about the credit card to the man in the green van behind the Morton house to Eric's eyewitness account of his mother's murder — all of this evidence was withheld from both the judge in the case and the defense attorneys.

And so Morton didn't get to see Eric grow up. When Eric was 12, he stopped seeing his father in prison. When he was 18, he changed his last name from Morton. That broke his father's spirit. Fourteen years into his life sentence, Morton hit absolute bottom.

"The things that I was hanging on to in the world, and he was it. When that was gone, I just cratered," he says. "When you are completely without hope, when you are completely without any avenue of escape, when you're not sure of any reason to go on, I cried out to God. I said, 'OK, I'm done. I got nothing.' "

Truth In The DNA

How was Morton finally freed? His wife's brother had found the bloody bandanna the police left later that day, and he turned it in. For years, Williamson County fought Morton's requests to have the evidence in his case tested. Prosecutors ridiculed his efforts and taunted him, saying they'd consider DNA testing the evidence only if Morton would first take responsibility for the crime.

It was when a Texas appeals court finally ordered the bandanna DNA-tested last year that law enforcement's arrogance was blown to pieces. After remaining silent tor months, Anderson, the former Williamson County district attorney and now a state judge, held a press conference.

"As district attorney at the time, and as woefully inadequate as I realize it is, I want to apologize for the system's failure to Mr. Morton and to every other person who was adversely affected by this verdict," Anderson said.

Christine Morton's blood was found on the bandanna, as was the blood of another man, Mark Alan Norwood. Norwood has a long criminal record, including assault, and is now in jail awaiting trial.

Michael Morton's DNA, however, was nowhere to be found.

The Prosecutor's Defense

The other bombshell occurred when the appeals court ordered the defense attorney and sheriff's files opened completely. The exculpatory evidence found there stunned Texas legal circles. Anderson says he's not to blame.

"There have been a number of allegations made about professional conduct by the prosecutors, including me, in this case," he says. "In my heart, I know there was no misconduct whatsoever."

For one thing, Anderson's lawyer, Eric Nichols, disputes that the newly discovered evidence would have made any difference to the jury if it had known. He also says there was no duty for Anderson to disclose the evidence to either the judge or defense attorneys.

"The plain fact of the matter is, though, that the law in 1986, '87, did not require that the reports be disclosed," Nichols says, "and Judge Anderson has testified that these are the types of things that he would routinely discuss with defense counsel, even though there was no legal requirement to turn over those reports."

Anderson is not claiming that he did reveal this evidence; his official position is that he can't remember. His lawyers assert that Anderson should be left alone. They say to go after the former DA only compounds the tragedy.

A Second, Preventable Death

While the DNA testing set Morton free, it also wrote a new chapter of grief. After Norwood's DNA was identified on the bandanna, Innocence Project staff began looking for other murders like Christine Morton's in Austin.

They found one. A little more than a year after Christine Morton died, in a nearby neighborhood, another young Austin mother, Debra Baker, was savagely bludgeoned in the head in her home with a wooden club. Spurred on by the Innocence Project, Austin police then compared the DNA found at her murder scene with Norwood's — and it matched.

In 1988, Debra Baker left behind a grieving husband and two little children. Twenty-three years later, Phillip Baker and their grown children are trying to come to grips with the new and unhappy thought that their wife and mother didn't have to die after all.

"We all got pretty angry when we began to discover that they probably could have found this guy in '86, had they looked," Phillip Baker says. "But instead, Ken Anderson simply focused on Mike Morton. We're all extremely angry at him."

Bound together by their wives' murders, the alleged killer and the disastrous fallout from the Williamson County investigation, Phillip Baker and Morton have become colleagues. In the strange way these things sometimes go, it is Morton who has consoled Baker as they sat together in the courtroom.

A Push For New Legislation

While the vast majority of DNA exonerees in Texas have been black, it is not a requirement for getting caught up in a Texas law enforcement nightmare. For the past 24 years, Baker considered himself terribly unlucky: His wife was murdered, and the murderer got away. Now, he knows better.

"I stand next to [Morton] up in that courtroom; I told him, 'You know, your exoneration was the first time it ever dawned on me that I could have been the one they arrested,' " he says.

Baker's faith in authority is shaken; the idea that his wife didn't have to die makes him feel betrayed. Morton, on the other hand, is further down the road. He's had almost 25 years in prison to get perspective on Anderson.

"I don't want his head on a stick. I don't want him to go to prison for forever and a day," he says. "What I want to do is do what I can to make sure this doesn't happen to anybody else."

At Morton's request, the Texas Supreme Court has appointed a court of inquiry to investigate whether the former district attorney broke the law when he withheld exculpatory evidence.

Beyond Anderson's fate, Morton wants new Texas legislation: If a Texas district attorney is found to have withheld exculpatory evidence in a case, that prosecutor would be subject to a stiff fine and loss of law license.

Morton believes that simple step would solve the problem — that no prosecutor would suppress evidence to put a suspect in prison, if it meant not only risking his job but his livelihood if he were caught.

Meanwhile, Morton has renewed his relationship with his son, Eric. Despite decades of estrangement, friends and family say, it's remarkable how father and son look, dress and even walk alike.

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Wade Goodwyn is an NPR National Desk Correspondent covering Texas and the surrounding states.