April 30 Source : http://www.npr.org
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.
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.
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.
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